Nearly 500 Gather in Glendale to Tackle Ethnic, Gang Tensions

Sunday, September 24, 2000
Home Edition
Section: Metro
Page: B-1

Violence: Spurred by youth's slaying, students, parents and officials express determination to plant 'Seeds of Peace.'


It's a familiar pattern. A community devastated by a tragedy--a hate crime or a murder--pulls together, determined to prevent a repeat. But busy schedules and short memories intervene. Often within a few weeks, life-as-usual resumes.

Glendale's story may prove to be different.

Four months after a local teenager was killed in an incident laced with ethnic tension, community leaders held a meeting to address gang issues, family conflict and ethnic bias. They hoped a few hundred students, parents, teachers and others would attend.

Saturday, nearly 500 showed up.

Some took it as a sign that the city is experiencing a new, sustained wave of involvement focused on unifying its ethnically diverse communities.

"This is the first time in a long time I've seen students so energized by something more than an athletic event," said James Shaw, author of "Jack and Jill, Why They Kill" who spoke at the meeting at Glendale Community College.

"This group is serious, and it's ready to take action. Too few school districts do this."

The goal of the gathering: to brainstorm for ways to address Glendale's problems, and form a permanent group of citizens to carry them out. The group will meet again Oct. 19.

Glendale is about 30% Armenian, 25% Latino, 25% non-Middle Eastern white and 16% Asian, according to census and city data.

Early planning for the meeting, called Planting the Seeds of Peace, began in May, hours after Raul Aguirre, a 17-year-old student at Herbert Hoover High School, was killed in a fight near campus. Three Armenian youths were charged in his murder and await trial.

Late that night, students--many of whom had seen the incident--gathered in sadness and anger. Many were frustrated with the persistent friction between the city's Latinos and Armenians that occasionally bubbles over into violence.

Glendale is one of the safest communities of its size in the nation but, of its 29 murders in the last five years, more than half have involved teenage victims and killers, said Police Sgt. Rick Young.

At Aguirre's vigil, Young, Linda Maxwell and Jose Quintanar, longtime community activists with We Care for Youth, vowed to channel the youths' emotion. The idea for the meeting was born.

"This is what we wanted," Young said Saturday, watching as participants headed for group workshops. "This is much more than we had hoped for."

Said Glendale Mayor Dave Weaver, "This is the start of what I hope will be something totally different. To the students--we want to hear you. We may not like what you're going to tell us, but we've got to start listening to you."

Indeed, about a third of participants were students from local middle and high schools, many from Hoover High.

At the school so far this year, the legacy of Aguirre's killing has been strongly felt, said Principal Kevin Walsh, who attended Saturday's meeting. Conflicts are minimal, and membership in a student group that promotes ethnic understanding has more than tripled, he said.

In their discussions Saturday, teenagers focused on the factors they felt were behind Aguirre's death: ethnic pride taken to extremes, too little communication between groups and too little input from parents.

"Parents, let's say you come home after a hard day's work and you have only five minutes left," said Vahe Grigoryan, a junior at Hoover High, his voice choking with emotion. "Spend it with your children. They deserve it."

Grigoryan's eyes filled with tears and he put his head down on the table in front of him.

Shaw, during his speech, emphasized the same point. For his book, he had interviewed 103 California teenagers who had killed other youths. "These kids felt alienated, isolated and--this is key--betrayed by an adult central to their lives."

Teenagers at the meeting also questioned the messages they receive from society.

"What I don't understand is how we can talk about nonviolence . . . and then we have the Army recruiters coming on campus and promoting violence for the country," said Angel Ovikian, a student at Glendale Community College. "How can that be?"

For their part, parents expressed frustration and confusion about what to do.

"I was told for a long time that there are no gangs in Glendale, we do not have gangs in Glendale, we do not, we do not," said Nancy Riehl, whose children have attended Crescenta Valley High School. "The denial issue has to stop."

In an interview, she said, "People say that because there are 400-some people here, it's a tremendous success, but do you know how many people there are in Glendale?"

About 203,000 people live in the city, Young said. The school district has about 30,000 students.

At the close of Saturday's meeting, participants made it clear they want to see their involvement lead to concrete action, he said.

"They said don't let this sit there on the shelf," he said. "We spent a day here. Don't let us down."