And what did you do on your summer vacation?

I wish I had known what I know now about juvenile gang members back when I was in high school. The Norteno/Sureno rivalry had already divided my middle and high schools in the Central Valley, and that was in the mid-1990’s. But I cannot say that my high school experience was “shaped” by gang violence in any way; by the end of high school, I had not interacted personally with any of the “gang bangers” for about five years. The academic tracking and income disparities in my high school meant that the “gang problem” at my high school really only touched the 30% or so of the school who were 1) Latino, 2) poor, and 3) not on the “AP” track.

I hesitate to throw the phrase “academic apartheid” around, but I’m at a loss for another description.

To make it even more unlikely that I would ever actually interact with one of Small Central Valley Town High’s “gang bangers,” they would often disappear for months at a time. Now I think I know where all of their time went.

Juvenile court makes huge demands on a kid’s time: random urine tests, court-ordered therapy, drug counseling across town, alternative schools. To make these appointments, kids take two, three, or four buses from one amorphous city to another. And if the bus route goes through rival gang territory? If you had to choose between being yelled at by a judge for skipping a pee-test and being stabbed, what choice would you make? These kids aren’t equipped to handle this level of responsibility. Don’t underestimate the amount of social capital necessary to reliably be at a certain place by a certain time when expected to do so. Sometimes the kids give up and decide that it’s easier to run away. Find a girlfriend who’ll open her window at night for a place to sleep. Maybe go steal a car and sleep in that. Believe it or not, this is easier for some kids than making an appointment twice a week in a city fifteen miles away.

And when they fail to “comply” with treatment, and when they get caught, they’re whisked away to a 6-8 month “enhanced ranch program.” Not that this program is THAT onerous, and not that they don’t need to screw up quite a few times on probation before they face this consequence, but just count how many days of one’s youth goes into such a project.

The Ranch is part high school, part kiddie jail, part camp. It’s located on the outskirts of the outskirts of town surrounded by a really tall fence. With the push on keeping kids out of Juvenile Hall, the Ranch is the most severe punishment the system can give to children. Well-behaved clients can even earn weekend privileges to visit their family at home.

And just so you know, the title to today’s post is more for effect than for accuracy; probation doesn’t care where a kid is in the school year to send him to the Ranch. For my clients who were actually doing well in their traditional high school (more than you might expect), the best-case disruption scenario is that it only ruins their summer vacation.

When I finally visited the Ranch last week for the first time, I saw six of my most frequent clients there. This was the surreal alternate universe where “gang bangers” go after getting in trouble too many times. I saw one client learning how to weld. There was another client learning how to use Photoshop. And there was another client being tackled by two big probation counselors.

And every single one of my clients was happy to see me. Clients who cussed me out the last time I saw them came up to me, shook hands with me, and showed me what they were doing or making. I think they were just happy to see someone from the outside, from the “real” world. Maybe it reminded them that the Ranch was just temporary if they played by the rules for long enough?

And as I left, I thought to myself, “This is where the gang kids at my high school disappeared to.”

Respectfully submitted,

Norm DeGuerre

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