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School hopes suicide doesn't put it in spotlight

SAN DIEGO — Luckily, final period at Hoover High School was over and the courtyard where nearly 2,000 students had been milling about after lunch just a few hours earlier nearly empty.

So relatively few, only those in after-school programs like ROTC, actually saw it when a former student, a 2000 graduate, stood under a budding magnolia tree, took a pistol from his pocket, pointed it at his head and pulled the trigger.

This happened on the afternoon of March 2, the Friday before the Monday morning when a 15-year-old student at Santana High School in Santee, not 15 miles away, shot two classmates to death and wounded 13 people. But not much attention was given to the suicide — a brief mention on the local television news, a short item in the local paper — and for at least a week, despite the nature and scope of the shooting at Santana High, the grieving students here at Hoover High brooded about why their tragedy got short shrift.

"People were mad because they thought, 'Oh, the suburban white middle-class school gets all the attention, and the poor minority school gets nothing,' " said Janine Nelson, a 15-year-old sophomore and editor of the Hoover newspaper.

But over the last week, Nelson and a dozen of her classmates interviewed here the other day said, students decided it was best that Hoover High School not become known for a shooting, even if it was the isolated suicide of a graduate whose girlfriend had broken up with him. The students concluded, they said, that Hoover, where everyone qualifies for free lunch, where only 40 percent of the graduates go on to higher education and where the standardized test scores are among the lowest in the state, did not need another stigma.

After all, a school shooting in a white, middle-class suburb like Santee — or at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colo. — where crime is nearly nonexistent, and students' worries are centered on who is or is not popular and which colleges will or will not accept them, may still provoke shock and disbelief. But if the same thing had happened at Hoover — which, like many inner-city high schools all over the country, is saddled with a reputation for being troubled and potentially dangerous — would it generate the same stunned reaction?

"I heard on the news that violence is more likely to happen in a school like ours," Nelson said. "I don't agree with that. What happened in Santee or Columbine won't happen here. We don't want to sabotage ourselves. And we've got enough to worry about in our lives already."

Doug Williams, the school principal, agreed. "Someone on a talk radio show mentioned that the Santee shooting wouldn't have been so shocking if it had happened in a place like this," he said. "I find that disappointing, to say the least. Are they really saying they expect something like that to happen here? We sure don't."

Of course, no school or workplace or city street is immune from a disturbed soul bent on destruction. But at Hoover High School, where the student body is 54 percent Latino, 20 percent black, 18 percent Asian and 5 percent white, the consensus is strong that the type of mass school shootings that have happened in suburbia in the past several years could not happen in a school where students grow up knowing the horrors of crime and violence.

The school is located on a major thoroughfare of City Heights, a working-class neighborhood undergoing revitalization but still struggling with its reputation as the place where San Diego's drug dealers, prostitutes and gangs roam the streets. Students here describe dodging gangs, bullets, drug dealers, junkies and police officers who stop them for no reason.

City Heights is also one of the most diverse neighborhoods in San Diego. Forty-seven languages and 87 dialects are spoken, and there is a section called Little Mogadishu for the capital of Somalia, the origin of many of its residents. Hoover High School, where 32 languages are spoken and students wearing Somali cloth mingle with those in T-shirts and baggy jeans, is a microcosm of the neighborhood. Students call it a haven where everyone acts like family.

Until the suicide earlier this month, the school had never had a shooting.

"Gangs are out of style," said Alex Romo, a freshman whose passion is wrestling. "Sports are the new thing. When I first came here, people I knew were like, 'Why are you going to Hoover? That's a bad school.' I was a little intimidated."

Marissa Ramirez, a 17-year-old senior, said, "We might not have the best scores, but we're not always fighting all the time."

In some ways, Hoover is not so different from a suburban high school like Santana. Football is the most popular varsity sport (the Hoover Cardinals were 8-4 this year); at lunch, when the student body has 35 minutes to eat and relax, the cliques that teen-agers have formed since time immemorial — the jock clique, the arty-crowd clique, the smart-looking clique — are seen everywhere. At Hoover, there are racial and ethnic cliques as well.

Because the students come from poor families, their dreams for the future usually involve state university or the armed forces.

Jessica Hogue, the school valedictorian, plans to attend the University of California at Berkeley. Francis Gadiane, the school's Junior Olympian in tae kwon do, plans to join the ROTC. Marissa Ramirez plans to go to state college and become a teacher. Darryl Bonner, an honor student and president of the African American Students Union, plans to go to San Diego City College. Troy Garland, one of 14 white students in this year's graduating class of 355, said he just wanted to play the bass.

Most of the students interviewed had after-school and weekend jobs at Taco Bell and McDonald's and the like. They said it did not bother them to have to work to buy things teen-agers with money are given, like yearbooks and class rings. "It teaches us survival," Bonner said.

Hogue added: "The kids in schools like Santana only know one way of life. We're exposed to things. It teaches us a better understanding of the world."

The students admitted that all is not always good in their Hoover High family, and evidence of that came one day at lunch when a fight broke out between two girls in the courtyard. But the school's dean and two security guards stopped it before students on the opposite end of the quad even knew what had happened.