Juan Trujillo listened for a dog’s bark, the scurrying of a four-legged beast through the woods or any other sign that the police officer’s threat was real. With his body pressed against the concrete wall under a bridge, the teenager could hear the officer above shouting down into the darkness, commanding him to emerge from his hideout or the K-9 in the back of the patrol car would be turned loose.
Trujillo, then a sophmore in high school, knew he should not have entered the house that night when the smell of marijuana wafted over him even before he had come within 50 feet of the front door. Inside was a sea of underage drinkers and smokers casually enjoying an impromptu party that eventually drew the attention of police.
In an instant the party goers dispersed and Trujillo found himself scaling a fence, sprinting down a south Oklahoma City street and leaping under a bridge where he found himself trapped by a pursuing police officer.
No dog was released to find Trujillo, either because another call pulled the officer away or the threat was a bluff.
Trujillo slowly stretched his head above the bridge’s edge, confirmed the coast was clear and vowed to change his life.
“That was really when I decided I needed to be different,” Trujillo said.
Born in Mexico, Trujillo was brought to America by his parents at age three and raised in southwest Oklahoma City, a slice of the city with high rates of violence, crime and opportunities for an adolescent to end his life before it’s had much of a chance to begin.
The 73119 ZIP code is home to an apartment complex with the highest number of police calls for a residential site in Oklahoma City and includes neighborhoods where gang activity is on the rise, police said.
It is also the ZIP code that produces the highest number of referrals to the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs, the state agency tasked with securing and rehabilitating youth offenders.
“When you pull the data on where our kids are coming from it helps us start a broader conversation about what we need to be doing,” said Tierney Tinnin, deputy director of communications, policy and performance management for OJA.
Tinnin said her agency is reaching out to law enforcement, schools and community leaders in the ZIP code to determine what preventive measures might be needed in order to see fewer teenagers end up in state custody.
“We know we can’t do this on our own,” Tinnin said.
Police said support services become vital for youth in the southwest community.
“The key thing is the support system,” said Paco Balderrama, a captain with the Oklahoma City Police Department. “You show me a kid who has a strong support system, whether it’s a family, teacher, coach or other adult speaking life, positivity and success into this kid’s life, and I’m going to show you a kid who is going to stay away from gangs, stay away from drugs and probably going to go on to college and be successful.”
Balderrama pointed to the Police Athletic League as an example of connecting under-served youth with positive adult relationships and mentoring opportunities. He also said it’s an example of going beyond reactionary policing and looking for ways to reach youth before they end up on the wrong side of the law.
“I am a product of south Oklahoma City and I went to Grant High School,” said Balderrama, referring to the high school in 73119. “But I had that positive interaction with a support system around me.
“A little adversity can teach a lot to our kids. But too much adversity can crush a kid.”
A way out
Despite the pitfalls that await youth growing up in southwest Oklahoma City, Trujillo appears destined to become his family’s first college graduate. With his sights set on the University of Oklahoma, the senior at U.S. Grant High School is on the homestretch of a high school career with a strong academic record.
Like many of his peers, Trujillo is undocumented, a status he said can either be a burden or an inspiration.
“Sometimes I feel like if I don’t make something of myself it would be a waste,” Trujillo said. “It would ruin the purpose of why my parents brought me here.”
Tannia Vilchez, a senior at nearby Southeast High School, said her parents were a reason she strives for success.
“There is a lot of pressure,” Vilchez said. “You feel like it’s on you to help the family.”
A growing immigrant community is changing the face of the 73119 ZIP code, where 55 percent of residents in 2015 were from Mexico, an increase from 46 percent in 2010, according to the US Census.
It’s also a neighborhood becoming younger — 38 percent of residents are under the age of 19, compared to 33 percent in 2010.
The ZIP code is also home to around 2,000 single-parent households, according to the 2010 Census. That’s almost the same number of single-parent homes in the entire suburb of Edmond, which has a population nearly three times larger than the 73118 ZIP code.
“You can see the difference right away when you travel to other schools,” said Fernando Gonzalez, a U.S. Grant High School student who is involved in athletics.
“Compare textbooks, restrooms, it’s all different.”
Gonzalez said he struggled to attend ACT prep sessions that were offered after school and was surprised to find out it was a regular class during the day at many of the suburban schools he competed against.
“That’s an advantage we don’t have,” Gonzalez said.
The difference between neighborhoods like southwest Oklahoma City and more affluent communities across the region is sometimes referred to as the “achievement gap.” But to some who work with students on the southside, there is another term for it.
“There’s not an achievement gap, there’s an opportunity gap,” said Felix Linden, a teacher at Roosevelt Middle School in south Oklahoma City. “We need more opportunities that can provide kids and their families more knowledge and awareness (about) how to navigate systems.”
The academic results of an affluent school system might be different from Roosevelt or U.S. Grant, but Linden said the opportunities, such as clubs, advanced courses and mentorships are also in greater supply.
Linden also said it’s tough for the students he serves to have confidence in their own abilities without seeing others who came from similar backgrounds.
“I think it will also take kids who are in the same situation coming and sharing the process of how to succeed despite their status,” Linden said. “Kids need hope. Families need hope. You only provide hope when they see someone doing the exact thing that they aspire to do or become. That’s when it becomes something more real.”
Trujillo credited the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) for exposing him to other students and adults like him who were finding success in life. He recalled a LULAC conference in Utah where he heard a talk from a successful Hispanic CEO who was raised in a challenging urban environment.
“It helps to see others who have made it,” Trujillo said. “If I don’t work hard now I will just end up staying in the same place in Oklahoma City.”
Article via newsok.com