A Window Into 90s M-A

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On Thursday, May 10th, 1990, around 50 police officers from six different law enforcement agencies swarmed M-A’s campus and arrested 20 students. A fight had broken out between two long-feuding girls and quickly blew up into a riot, exacerbated by recent racial incidents on M-A’s campus. According to the Sacramento Bee, “Police units from Atherton, Menlo Park, EPA, Palo Alto, California Highway Patrol, and San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department responded. Police were called to campus at about 8:30 am with reports of students all over campus striking each other and yelling.” The scene was chaotic. “Students were forced into classrooms and tried to peer out doorways as the screaming intensified… officers had to physically subdue many students to break up the fights. In a commons area, scuffling girls screamed as police pulled them away from trees where they tried to cling.” 

It was the breaking point of an unusually tense week. Earlier that week, administration found hate flyers circulating with racist slogans targeting Black, Hispanic, and Jewish students. The previous Friday, police arrested a senior on a charge of attempted murder for trying to cut the throat of another student. The previous Tuesday, a group of Black students beat up a white freshman. 

Rumors about the riot circulated. Some chalked it up to the hateful flyers. An anonymous junior said, “It was couples fighting,” while a separate unnamed source reported, “A parent had come to school Thursday and slapped a teacher, touching off the fighting.”  

However the riot started, it ended as an example of M-A’s tension in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. 

In 1992, East Palo Alto (EPA) was the murder capital of the US with 42 murders—a homicide rate of 175 murders for every 100,000 people. In comparison, the national average was 9.3 murders every 100,000 people.

For students, staff, and the community, it was an era of racial tension and gang violence.

While M-A appeared to be a typical high school, all students and teachers interviewed agreed that there was conflict and fear beneath the surface. Cynthia Donaldson, who began teaching at M-A in 1992, remembered, “You would hear in the news all the time about murders and the drugs and the gangs in EPA. Did the kids feel unsafe? Definitely.” 

Jenn Hultgren, who attended M-A in the late 1980s and has worked as a public defender for Santa Clara County for over 20 years, recalled, “It was just so devastating what was going on. I think it was scary for everybody.” 

Everyone interviewed knew someone who had dropped out, gotten swept up in a gang, or passed away. Ben Williams, class of 1995, said, “Unfortunately, there were a lot of guys I went to school with and played sports with that died pretty quickly after high school because they started getting more into the gang lifestyle.” 

“Students were often talking about, ‘Oh, they found a body here,’ or, ‘Don’t go over there,’” Donaldson said. 

At M-A, there were more loose student affiliations than organized gangs. Williams remembered, “In terms of organized gangs at M-A there was really only one, which was the Norteños, a Hispanic gang.” The Norteños exist all across Northern California, and hail from a larger street gang in Mexico called Nuestra Familia. 

“A lot of Polynesian guys were kind of gang-affiliated. In retrospect, I know they were Crips,” explained Williams. Gangs from EPA were more neighborhood-based than anything else. As Williams put it, “EPA has kind of an interesting backstory because they don’t have gangs the way that New York or Los Angeles have gangs. They have neighborhoods—guys were from neighborhoods and you knew what neighborhood everyone was from.” 

A number of factors made gang life appealing. The book Be the Change: Reinventing School for Student Success used EPA as a case study. It explained, “As they became teenagers, many young men adopted a recklessness borne of the conviction they would not grow to adulthood… the drug trade was almost the only option many young people perceived.” 

As a public defender, Hultgren represented many alleged gang members. In juvenile cases, Hultgren noted, “A lot of the gangs look to recruit kids that are either developmentally disabled or in some way traumatized.” Williams, who is a judge on Santa Clara County’s Superior Court, added, “A lot of people who end up in the gang life are either from broken homes or an unstable home environment.” 

He explained that family ties also encouraged gang involvement. “Some of them are generational: their dad, their uncle, everyone was in a gang. So that’s what they think they should do. These guys in the gangs, they have money, they have power, they have respect. If you get in good with them, then they’re there for you whenever you need it. It’s a sense of belonging and family that drives most of them.” 

Donaldson remembered a specific student who had to turn to a gang for help. “I had one student in particular who was from EPA, went to private elementary school, but then his scholarship was pulled so he came to M-A. He was a great young man—he wore a collared shirt every day, and was super disciplined and smart. As the year went on, he started looking a little bit more tired and less put together. I finally sat down with him and was like, ‘What’s going on?’ It turned out his mother had died and they didn’t want to tell social services. He and his little brother were living with his aunt and trying to make ends meet. He was trying to make money for the family, but couldn’t make enough money working at McDonald’s and so he had to join a gang. He was dealing drugs. It was terrible.” 

To help support M-A teachers dealing with potential gang activity, the EPA Police Department led teacher trainings in 1992 and 1993 on how to spot gang members and handle gang violence at M-A. Donaldson explained, “We had a lot of training about graffiti, colors, and hand signals that we were to look for to make sure there weren’t gang members in our classes.” M-A teacher John Giambruno, who started a bit later in 2002, noted, “There was so much graffiti. Each bathroom was its own territory.” Throughout the school, people scrawled “XIV” for the 14th letter of the alphabet: N for Norteños. 

In a 1989 article from the Peninsula Times Tribune, M-A Vice Principal Gerald Guess said, “We’ve gotten on top of gang jackets and the kids now understand they can’t do that. The hard thing now is the Raiders or the Niners jackets — they try to color out (identify with colors) that way.” Furthermore, school officer Dave Gilbert said other signs of gang affiliation could include “nicknames identifying groups of friends,” and “students standing in the same place every day.” Students balked at this. In a letter to the Tribune responding to this article, students wrote, “Does this mean that if I and my friends decided to wear Raiders jackets and fluorescent shoestrings we are subject to questioning? Mr. Gilbert, get serious!” Even today, M-A’s dress code dictates, “No dominant colors are allowed if determined to be gang-related.”

Williams explained that the administration’s crackdown on clothing colors was largely ineffective. He said, “The Norteños were wearing red Converse. The Polynesian Crips were wearing blue Converse. It was pretty obvious who you are claiming.” A more effective control came when administration banned pagers, because, as Williams explained, “there really wasn’t a good reason to have a pager as a teenager unless you were selling drugs.”

M-A was rife with racial tension and social segregation. Hultgren remembered, “There were areas that were very segregated at M-A—the Black kids were in the main hall. None of my white friends would walk through it. It was weird, super tense.” According to Hultgren, “It was like a really bad John Hughes film. Everyone was definitely in their categories. Rich white girls, goth girls, Hispanic and Latino groups, Polynesian kids.”

Giambruno also remembered the tension. “Today there’s way fewer fights than 20 years ago,” he said. “There used to be a fight every day at lunch.” According to the Peninsula Times Tribune article, there were 23 reported fights and 13 instances of disturbing the peace from January to December 1988, “all on school grounds.” Hultgren also remembered many school fights, specifically “a big fight my freshman year, in the parking lot between white kids and Polynesian kids. It was fairly large and it was ridiculous. It was these dickhead rich white guys, who got into a fight with these other guys.” The parking lot was a popular place to fight—Williams described it as “a little bit of gladiator days.” 

At the time, M-A had an open campus, so many fights took place off-campus. The parking lot of what is now J&J’s Hawaiian Barbecue “was pretty busy at lunch,” Williams said. The guys who really wanted to get into it did it there.” Tension and fights between gangs were largely determined by neighborhood lines. Williams noted, “there wasn’t trouble between East Palo Alto gangs on campus. There was trouble between Redwood City gangs and Palo Alto gangs.”

Along with fights, Williams remembered,“There was a lot of marijuana on campus. Weed was the drug that people could afford. There were a lot of kids buying [hard drugs] from the guys that I knew, but they were Menlo and Sacred Heart kids.” Along with weed came guns. According to Williams, “there were guns on campus because guys had a lot of marijuana on them. I remember when we went to an away game and this guy carried a gun in his basketball bag.” Just because guns were there didn’t mean they were out in the open. “None of my students ever brought anything to school that scared me,” said Donaldson. Williams agreed, saying, “I never saw anyone brandish a weapon, but everyone knew the guys who carried.” 

The ‘90s were also a period of low attendance and graduation rates. In 1989, parents of the Sequoia Union High School District’s (SUHSD) students from Menlo Park and EPA sued the district for an attendance policy that cracked down unfairly on minorities. They won. According to a 1990 Peninsula Times Tribune article, the result was a “disaster non-policy,” where “teachers lost students who might have been persuaded to attend class under the old policy.” In 1989, attendance declined to almost 70%—a record low. For comparison, in the 2021-22 school year, SUHSD’s attendance rate was 92%. 

Along with a low attendance rate, in 1992, there was a 60% dropout rate for black students at M-A, many of whom lived in EPA. Teenage pregnancy was a big factor. Williams said, “It was a lot of the girls. They would get pregnant, and back then if you got pregnant in high school they sent you away to Redwood.” In other cases, Hultgren said, “People would just have to go and get jobs and they would stop going to school. A lot of people just kind of disappeared.” This put the onus on teachers to motivate students to stay in school. Donaldson proudly remembered, “Most of my students graduated. Most of my students made it.”  

Towards the end of the ‘90s, M-A implemented student diversity workshops to help social integration. A 1997 SFGate article reported, “The diversity project has drawn students together with dances, fashion shows, games like ‘The Human Pretzel’ and team-building workshops like a harrowing ropes obstacle course in the Saratoga woods.” In the article, Polynesian senior Sam Finau said, “I thought the white kids would just go home and eat fat-free rice cakes and do French homework by watching the foreign language channel on TV.” After diversity workshops, he made new friends and began leading freshman orientation and other diversity trainings. Georgia Myvette, a Black senior, said, “Students are just starting to open up to meeting new people, and you find a lot of things in common.”

Still, many students at the time felt they had “no clear message from admin,” said Hultgren. Much of the integration work was done by students themselves, like the Mediation Club and the reinstatement of United M-A, which had been defunct since the ‘70s. “It was a totally different time,” said Hultgren. “There were no seatbelts. Kids did it all themselves.”

Over the last 30 years, M-A has taken a turn for the better. More effective administrative tactics and funding, as well as a decrease in violence in EPA (see part one) have decreased violence at M-A. Donaldson explained, “The school has made more opportunities for inclusion that are not just academics. The clubs, Challenge Day, and having less tracking have all helped decrease violence.”

“I have far fewer students dealing with violence at home than 20 years ago,” noted Giambruno. “There’s less gang violence and graffiti than 20 years ago.” Certainly, M-A still deals with issues of academic and social segregation, and many students still encounter violence in their homes and communities. But importantly, there is less gang violence, fewer fights, and a better graduation rate. As Donaldson explained, “The school atmosphere itself doesn’t feel that different. The communities are much better.” 

This is part two of a two-part story. You can read part one, about community work in EPA, here.

Isabel Norman is a senior and in her first year of journalism. She is particularly interested in writing about systemic issues at M-A and the Bears community. In her free time, you can find her at the beach, on a hike, or otherwise in nature.

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