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Hundreds of Utah kids would likely swap for the days of "separate but equal schools," according to a local sociologist.

"Things are harder for many young students today," said Theresa Martinez, a University of Utah professor and speaker Thursday at the Salt Lake Area Gang Project's 1995 gang conference. "In 1995, we're dealing with separate AND unequal facilities. There are savage inequalities being funded by our local tax base . . . our children don't all start on equal footing."Classroom injustices, she added, stretch far beyond economics. Boys still enjoy a long-held position "as heads of their class" while ethnic minorities often do battle with stereotypes of educational failure and deviancy, she said.

Martinez said teachers need to assume the ability of each student before assigning labels like "punks," "juvenile delinquent" and "hood."

"The way we talk to kids is so important because labels stick," she said. "(Educators) circumscribe a student's destiny, then we say, `let's do what we can do with the diminished product.' "

The likely consequence of placing a struggling student on the outside to look in? Gangs, youth crime and drug abuse.

"Kids join a group, or gang, to find a place where they measure up, where they will find respect and support," said Martinez.

The Albuquerque native warned of teens with little hope in their future, saying many American kids from all backgrounds are "completely disillusioned, and they have a reason to be angry."

Martinez said, "Locking kids up is not the answer. We need to create the answer."