A graduation under guard

June 09, 2006|By DAVID ZUCCHINO | DAVID ZUCCHINO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LEVITTOWN, Pa. -- Tyrone Lewis is the embodiment of scholastic achievement: senior class president, honor roll student, basketball and football team captain, record-breaking basketball guard and winner of an athletic scholarship to Niagara University. For the past month, he has been working on his speech for today's graduation ceremony at Harry S. Truman High School.

But Lewis, 18, will address his classmates by remote video. Police and school officials have banned him from the ceremony -- not for anything he did, but because of possible death threats from a street gang angry over testimony Lewis' sister gave in a murder case.

The situation has brought an unwelcome focus on gangs, violence and drugs in predominantly white Levittown -- which in the early 1950s was promoted as "the most perfect planned community in America."

The 4,000 people expected to attend the graduation will have to pass through metal detectors and will listen to Lewis deliver his speech live from a secure location. Undercover police will circulate through the crowd.

In a letter to parents, school officials cited "the potential for violence against a few graduating seniors." Yesterday, the school district's lawyer described "credible threats" against Lewis. "The last two were site-specific, meaning the graduation," said Police Chief James McAndrew of Bristol Township, one of four municipalities that make up Levittown.

Also banned from the ceremony is Lewis' friend Ahman Fralin, a senior shot in April while riding in a car with Lewis. He was paralyzed from the neck down.

Some members of the Lewis and Fralin families have said that Ahman's shooting was not gang-related, but a result of road rage after Lewis accidentally bumped another vehicle with his car. But police are investigating the possibility that the shooting might have been retaliation for testimony by Rachel Lewis against members of the Bloods gang of nearby Trenton, N.J.

Tyrone's older sister is in prison on second-degree murder charges. She testified against a gang member charged with killing a man in August, police said. Rachel, family friends said, was dating another member of the Bloods.

Tyrone and his mother, Marlene Lewis -- who both declined to be interviewed for this story -- objected to the decision to ban him from the graduation, said John W. Jordan, president of the Bucks County NAACP branch.

"She thinks it's all just rumors," Jordan said. "And Tyrone may even mention in his speech that he feels there's no truth to these rumors."

The video feed arrangement was negotiated with police and school officials by a lawyer for Lewis' family. "In a perfect world," said attorney Edward H. Wiley, "you wouldn't have to do this. But unfortunately we don't live in a perfect world."

Levittown sprung up as a community of small but affordable houses built on former asparagus and cantaloupe farms, intended to attract World War II veterans and local U.S. Steel workers.

The first homeowners arrived in 1952, paying $9,990 -- with as little as $100 down -- for the "Levittowner," a ranch-style house that was the most popular of six models. The structures were ridiculed by some as symbols of bland, cookie-cutter suburban conformity. But for thousands of blue-collar and middle-class families, the instant suburb provided an opportunity to own their first homes.

Developers initially would not sell to African-Americans, saying they would drive away white buyers. The first black homeowners arrived in 1957, to white protests. Levittown, population 54,000, now is 94% white and 2.5% black. Bristol Township, where Truman High is located, is 8% black.

Gang- and drug-related violence has increased over the past decade in Levittown and the surrounding communities in southern Bucks County -- wedged between Trenton and Philadelphia -- said Chad Kimmel, a sociology professor at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Pa., who wrote a dissertation on Levittown.

"Levittown is really just a symbol of the American community, and we're a violent society," said Kimmel, who graduated from Truman in 1962 and whose grandmother bought one of the first Levittown houses.

Jordan, the NCAAP president, said parts of Levittown have given way to gangs.

"What saddens me is, we've allowed gang violence, street violence, to dictate a situation," Jordan said. "We can no longer take the stand that it's not in my back yard. It's in all our backyards now. We have to take every threat seriously."

Fralin's father, Tony Fralin, said his son remains hospitalized in Philadelphia but will get his diploma in a private ceremony. He said he wanted justice for Ahman; no arrests have been made in connection with the shooting.

"This gun violence has to stop," Tony Fralin said. "People ought to quit thugging and try hugging. That's what Ahman is saying There's been too much tragedy already."

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