Among the Gunshots and Palm Trees


April 15, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

Santa Monica, California. -- To someone who grew up in Jersey City in the 1950s, playing football among the rocks and dust next to Lincoln High School, it is not hard to romanticize Santa Monica High School sitting on a hill six blocks from the Pacific Ocean. The palm trees make that clack-clacking sound in the wind, mixing in the sounds of crying babies and gunshots.

This isn't the '50s anymore, Toto. Men -- dirty, most of them, and dangerous, some of them -- are living in the streets and parks from the school to the sea, pushing their grocery carts without groceries across the greensward and asphalt. Walk in the other direction, and you come to the offices of Jerry Brown for President, the national headquarters of a candidate arguing that the democratic experiment called the United States has deteriorated into an oligarchy at best.

Santa Monica High, with 2,700 students, is better than most pretty good American public schools. But the cries and the shots are enough to persuade most anyone that it is a symbol of the deterioration of the quality of American life.

If you are a religious or cultural conservative, you might lament the fact that the school now has a day-care center for the children of what we used to call unwed mothers. Is this rewarding sin? Is this and sex education and parent-training encouraging sin?

If you are a liberal who thinks European-style day care could help solve many American problems, you might rage against the fact that the little kids in Santa Monica High's day care cannot go to the playground any more because of the danger of drive-by shootings. The powers that be, however, are trying to find a place for the kids to go outdoors but be behind concrete walls to protect them against gunfire from the street.

This is going on in Santa Monica, one of the very best places to live in the United States.

I am a liberal and a father who has looked at day care in many parts of the world, from the best neighborhoods in Paris to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. You cannot find or buy better than what they are giving teen-age parents at Santa Monica High. Eighteen children are brought there each day and dropped off by a parent on the way to class. They are taken care of by a teacher named Marilyn McGrath and a dozen or so students, both girls and boys, who prefer playing with children to study hall.

It's a wonderful scene of cribs and playpens and hugging, funded by a state program called School Age Parenting and Infant Development, to deal with a problem that begins here in junior high school, in the seventh grade. It's obvious watching the mothers and the occasional father come and go that the few children who find this place -- the babies and the parents both are still children -- have a real and unusual chance to make it as productive citizens.

Some people, I'm sure, consider this throwing away their money, taxpayers' money. But it's not much. There are only three such stations in Los Angeles County and 60 in the entire state, a state with 30 million people. Whatever the numbers, it is certainly cheaper to help them now than wait until they break down or turn to crime.

People like Mrs. McGrath, who has five children of her own, from 5 to 26, and was once a VISTA volunteer working with teen-agers in Bridgeport, Connecticut, do their best to try to discourage pregnancy -- ''You become a parent and you're grounded for life,'' she tells them. But it happens, and then she tells teen-age mothers and fathers that the baby is a gift that just came too soon. Students who become pregnant have to take parenting classes to stay in school; most of them later become part of Pregnancy Prevention Teams that speak at junior high schools, telling younger kids that being a parent is more than fun and games.

Fun and games on the playground have been curtailed since Santa Monica High's first drive-by shooting. Four shots were fired into the campus from a passing car last month. ''Gang-related'' is the term of art used by police here. That means the police don't know who did it or why.

That is the way it is in this part of America right now. That is why so many people are voting for Jerry Brown, or cheering for Pat Buchanan, or praying for H. Ross Perot. In a country where children are having children and there are gunfights and random killings in the streets, many people are going to conclude that the men in charge have failed totally. It is perfectly reasonable and then some to conclude that they do not know what they're doing in Washington or Sacramento and the other places where our representatives have the power to make and enforce our laws.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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