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La Crosse, Wis.

The twilight hours of July 6 mark a turning point in Kia Moua's perception of her adoptive hometown, this calm, provincial, farm-belt city that claims to lay in the heart of God's Country.

"They drove past my house and yelled out, 'Hey, bitch!' I knew something was going to happen," Moua, 18, says of two groups of rowdy teenagers in cars.

Across the street in Hood Park half a city block comprising a truncated softball field, a sand-filled volleyball court, a new jungle gym, and an enclosed shelterMoua saw more than a dozen children enjoying the waning daylight.

After the teenagers passed Moua's house, they sprang from their vehicles, poured into the park, and confronted another pack of youths who had already rendezvoused there. Soon, one young man pulled out a gun and fired five shots, hitting one boy, a 15-year-old member of a rival gang, in the arm. None of the younger children was hurt. A 16-year-old was later arrested and charged with attempted murder.

"I was so afraid," Moua says. "Stuff like this doesn't happen here."

Here is La Crosse, Wis., population 51,003. With its two distinguished hospitals, three postsecondary education institutions, and principal industries of beer-making and the manufacture of home heating and cooling products, La Crosse is metropolitan compared with the rest of west-central Wisconsin.

Yet, dairy farms dominate the region, and La Crosse's countenance is purely pastoral. Advertisers use Holsteins as product mascots. Drivers buy American and obey the speed limit. The sour, musty aroma from the brewing of beer wafts through the South Side each afternoon, signaling the near completion of another workday.

It is where I was born and where my folks still live. Hood Park, 30 paces from my doorstep, defined my first neighborhood. The park is where I formed my first best friendship and became engulfed in my first crush, where I first learned to play ball with a team and to ice skate in isolation, where I earned my first award and first weathered feelings of guilt and shame.

Hood is where I admired a 25-year-old American Indian who pushed us on swings and didn't mind that we called him "Chief." It is where a handful of unsavory teenage delinquents, whose names I still remember, appropriated the name of the park for their own behavior. They lurked around suspiciously, smoking and swearing and looking for outlets for their restlessness. And when we tired of the park or of riding our bikes, we visited old men and women in nearby taverns who drank whiskey shots or the hometown Old Style beer (or both) as we guzzled 10-cent Mr. Freeze bars that cooled away the summer sun.

My house in the Hood Park neighborhood was a two-story, three-bedroom rental with white aluminum siding and green trim. With the Stars and Stripes in the flag holder, it was the all-American home. It is where I spent my first 10 years, and when I visit it now, it seems so small, its back yard so cramped. A 13-year-old alleged gang member and his family live there now. A few days after the boy identified for police the alleged assailant in the Hood Park shooting, rivals pumped five bullets into his home. Into my home.

Although she's only lived in La Crosse the past eight years, Kia Moua's reaction to the shooting--"Stuff like this doesn't happen here"--squares with mine. A dozen years ago, when I was a senior at Aquinas High School, the only shooting among young people took place outside city limits at deer, pheasant, and squirrel.

The pretty, gregarious Moua, a senior at Aquinas herself and one of some 2,500 Laotian Hmong immigrants living here, also captures the sentiments of both third- and fourth-generation residents, who would never think of leaving, and middle-aged transplants, who were drawn here by safe and quiet streets, abundant natural resources, and a family-friendly atmosphere.

La Crosse boasts 1,620 acres of parkland and another 22,000 acres of parks and accessible woodland in the surrounding area, a church for every 1,000 residents, some of the state's best schools, and a love of high school athletics. There is also a small zoo, adult and youth symphony orchestras, a nature preserve, and a convention center that has drawn Bob Dylan, the Judds, and the current national stage revival of "Jesus Christ Superstar."

For two weeks each summer, thousands of boys from across the country, with their coaches and their parents, descend on the city to compete in the largest unaffiliated little league baseball tournament in the United States. In the fall, a weeklong Oktoberfest underscores the region's German heritage. A summer party, Riverfest, is less traditional and features everything from acrobatic airplane stunts to musical entertainment to, perhaps most appreciated of all, several performances each day by Jim Wand, Master Hypnotist.

La Crosse has been christened "God's Country" for a reason. To the west, the Mississippi River borders the city; the pull of its current is matched by the psychological hold it has on people here. A range of mini-mountains we call "the bluffs" borders on the east. While much of the upper Midwest was flattened by massive roaming glaciers during the Ice Age some 2 million years ago, 8,000 square miles of Wisconsin countryside, including the La Crosse area, serendipitously escaped.

These characteristics and others led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1975 to declare that the quality of life here was tops among America's small cities. Subsequent reviews by others have been less generous but still favorable.

Bucolic and self-contained, La Crosse is not cosmopolitan. It is not sophisticated. And it pretends to be neither. In many ways, it has been sheltered.

Its German, Norwegian, and Bohemian sons and daughters have been born here. Its Catholic, Lutheran, and Baptist brothers and sisters have been baptized here. Its Heidersheit, Bagniefski, and Helgerson mothers and fathers have been buried here.

These residents are proud and civic-minded. They cherish the parochial nature of their city and regard it as a strength. But, as the teenage-gang shooting in Hood Park--the first in the city--and other events make clear, the modern world is finding La Crosse, and its strength is being put to the test.

What the world is bringing to La Crosse is what it has brought to other larger cities over the past several years: higher rates of poverty, divorce, and single parenthood; increasingly explicit and common images of sexuality and violence in the mass media; and a fast-paced, information-based, consumption-oriented economy and society in which the gap between the wealthy and the middle class becomes ever wider.

The poverty here is evident in the selected homes, duplexes, and apartment buildings that have deteriorated in my old neighborhood. The Hood Park area was always among the most modest in the city. We lived there because the rent was about what an electrician and a part-time nurse with three children could afford. It's still a charming place with plenty of nice houses and good neighbors. But some residents now talk about drug dealers, thieves who break into cars, and out-of-town slum lords. Women are afraid to walk at night; parents keep a more watchful eye on their children.

When I was a teenager, sexual imagery on television was obvious, of course, but the language was usually subtle. Using sex to sell products was confined to national corporations hawking clothing and beer. Now, even here, sexuality is being used on locally produced television commercials to sell such basic goods and services as sandwiches and bank accounts. And the evolution of MTV has had its impact. The writhing Madonna of the early 1980s is now considered tame and passe, and the in-your-face sexuality of some of today's rap and rock videos is standard fare. The level of violence in television programs, movies, and video games has increased as well.

Meanwhile, CNN, the Internet, and other social and cultural influences touch down in La Crosse with as much force as they do in New York, Los Angeles, or Miami. And those influences are as accessible to children as they are to adults.

Child psychologist David Elkind has examined these converging forces in our society. He says in the September 1995 issue of Phi Delta Kappan that ours is a "world where children are exposed to anything and everything, [and] the information barriers between children and parents are much more porous."

But while the widely reported effects of these broader social and economic trends have already taken hold in certain parts of the country, they have been emerging in La Crosse--and other smaller communities--only recently.

The city's "gang problem" was nonexistent five years ago. About three years ago, police began noticing graffiti and discussing the possibility of gangs. When my brother and sister, who were in high school at the time, told me about it, I laughed along with them. When I was in school, authorities were mostly concerned with potheads and teenage drinkers and maybe some truants and petty thieves. When police learned of a high school drinking party and decided to drop by, we were jolted. Now, in some parts of the city, residents awaken to find gang graffiti on their garages, convenience stores allow in only three kids at a time for fear of theft, and teenagers pack pistols.

"I've had a lot of calls lately," says Carl Taylor, a criminologist and professor in the department of family and child ecology at Michigan State University. "A lot of small communities are concerned."

In La Crosse, juvenile crime shot up 45 percent in the past 30 months. Juvenile-delinquency referrals to the La Crosse County Department of Human Services ballooned from 681 in 1983 to 1,150 in 1989 to a record 1,955 in 1994. Ten kids between the ages of 13 and 17 have been arrested in connection with the Hood Park and other area shootings this summer. Some have been sent to a local juvenile-detention center for a year or more; the alleged shooter in the Hood Park incident faces as many as 60 years in prison.

Meanwhile, Jenny Schroeder, who teaches public school students who are parents, mentored about 75 such students last year. Thirty-five children were born to district students last year alone; 16 girls are pregnant so far this year.

Compared with other parts of the country, that may not sound like much, given that nearly 3,000 district students are of childbearing age. And, Schroeder admits, the figures don't represent an increase in teenage pregnancy in the seven years she's had the job. But what those statistics don't reveal is that the girls are getting pregnant at younger and younger ages.

"My youngest grandmother is 29, and she was 16 when she had her baby," Schroeder says. "But now, I have a girl who's 13. So, who knows? Maybe in 13 years, when she's 26, she'll be my youngest grandmother."

During the first week of school this autumn, the 13-year-old daughter of a police officer grabbed her father's personal handgun and took it to her public school, Longfellow Middle. The girl and two other 13-year-olds kept the gun for eight days before one student overheard another talking about it and informed the principal.

Teachers here say that the girl serves as an illustration that, while most young people are thought-ful and levelheaded, even kids who have never shown signs of dissidence are susceptible to exhibiting social pathologies that once were considered unthinkable here--even among most adults.

"The percentage of troublemakers hasn't grown that much, but the ones in between are in danger," says Jerry Halstead, a veteran teacher at Longfellow. "We've always had our good kids, but the ones in the middle are looking toward the bottom. Last year, there was a student involved in a drive-by, and when he came back to school, he was a celebrity. There was a crowd around his locker. And he was one involved in the gun incident last week. At the same time, the good kids seem to get meeker and milder, and they don't speak up. They're intimidated."

Shannon Smith, 16, a junior at Logan High School, puts it this way: "No one wants to be average anymore. You want to be the star, the really big person. Or, you think it's better to go the other way than to be average. ... The bad doesn't seem bad anymore when everyone's doing it."

Most teachers and principals I interviewed, while acknowledging that the youths they work with seem different than those of the past, maintained that most are good, strong youngsters with a sense of direction and of honor. In response to the publicity surrounding the gun brought to Longfellow school, a group of school leaders decided to hold a free car wash for the neighbors. There are three different youth-advisory councils in town, working on everything from multiculturalism to developing youngsters' leadership skills. And teachers say young people today are more creative and talented than they were in my day.

"No matter what you say about kids these days," Bonnie Pickett, my high school journalism teacher, reports, "one on one, they're really neat people."

Nevertheless, officials here see the gang shooting and the presence of as many as 33 gangs and more than 200 gang members, while a serious problem, as symptomatic of a larger phenomenon among adolescents and young adults here: a change in attitudes, beliefs, and behavior.

Of the dozen public middle and high school teachers I spoke with, almost all reported that youths today, even the studious, dutiful ones, are quicker to anger and to express that anger, verbally or physically. They say that boundaries of acceptable teenage behavior have expanded; that the typical teenage thirst for independence, the long journey to discover self that includes questioning parents and other authority, often turns into overt hostility; and that accountability and responsibility have almost become foreign concepts.

Many students seem to agree.

"Kids hate their parents," Josh Moore, a 14-year-old 8th grader at Lincoln Middle School, says matter-of-factly.


"Because they're kids. They think they're better than their parents."

In school, he says, the same students disregard even the simplest tasks. "When I was in elementary school, we handed everything in on time," he says. "When I got to middle school, if you didn't hand in an assignment, big deal."

These attitudes reflect an increasing cynicism rooted in the nation's youth, according to family historian Stephanie Coontz, who wrote in the March 1995 Phi Delta Kappan that American politics and culture have prompted "youngsters [to] wonder what is the point of playing by the old rules."

"The result of ... socioeconomic and political trends has been the collapse of an older belief (or perhaps merely a calming illusion) that most of us--whatever our differences in income or status--share long-term interests and solidarities. The loss of this belief breeds a 'me first' mentality that is as prevalent on Wall Street and Main Street as it is on the streets of the inner city," Coontz writes.

"Materialism, selfishness, and an almost pathological disregard for the consequences of self-aggrandizement have become fundamental features of our economy and our polity."

Locally, one veteran teacher says teachers and parents set the standard for avoiding accountability. Too many teachers "have a heart attack" at the thought of being observed and judged on their performance, she says, while too many parents are too eager to defend the disruptive, violent, or illegal actions of children.

At a school board hearing to consider the fate of the three Longfellow Middle School students found to have handled the gun on school property this fall, their parents pleaded for the board not to expel their children. Two students were accompanied by their lawyers. The board didn't listen; the two boys were expelled for a year, the girl--a quiet, unassuming type who had not been in serious trouble before--for a semester.

My family has been frightened by this whole episode.

My cousin, who is 14 and in the 8th grade, is a close friend of the student who first told Longfellow Principal Glen Jenkins about the gun. A few days before the hearing, one of the boys called her at home and bellowed this warning: "If [your friend] sees us, he'd better turn around and run because we're going to come after him." The intimidation frightened my cousin, but she testified before the school board. The telephone harassment continued after the suspensions until my aunt threatened to go to the police.

The concern over youth behavior and activity here comes at a time when La Crosse is experiencing its first noticeable increase in the number of nonwhite families.

So there is a danger here, in a white town rapidly assimilating substantial numbers of minorities, that the majority will equate youth trouble with racial minorities. White, Hmong, and African-American youths say they see a difference in the day-to-day treatment of whites and minorities by police, the judicial system, and other institutions here. The minority community is particularly upset over the fact that no white alleged gang members were arrested in connection with the Hood Park shooting, even though whites could be considered accomplices. All those arrested are Asian.

"The whole racism issue is layered into this," says David Johnston, the school district's assistant superintendent. "And it's going to get layered into it even further because most of the high-profile gang activity is being perpetrated by Asians."

At the time of the 1980 census, La Crosse was 99.5 percent white, making it one of the five whitest communities in the country. Today, it is estimated that about 5 percent of the population is Asian, most of whom are Hmong refugees who fled Laos after its communist government assumed power in the mid-1970s. It is unclear how many African-Americans live in the city. Some say the population has doubled, perhaps tripled, since the 1990 census reported there were 368 blacks living here. In increasing numbers, residents of Chicago and Milwaukee have been leaving their inner-city environments for the relative tranquility of La Crosse.

In fact, the school board in 1992 adopted a busing plan, believed to be the first in the country, to balance the city's schools according to socioeconomic status. While the decision cost several board members their jobs, the plan is still in place today. Given changes in the student population since 1992, the current board is considering taking up the issue again.

Walk through any public school here, and you'll see more minority students in the hallways than any time since 1851, when the first classes were held in a three-month term in the county courthouse. By contrast, just two Hmong families sent their children to the parochial schools I attended in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One boy was in my class. There were no black kids. My upbringing was hardly multicultural. It took a computer to produce the circumstances that would allow me to form friendships with black people my age--at the University of Wisconsin, a couple of black guys were randomly assigned to my dormitory.

There is no question that some young blacks and Hmong are engaging in disruptive behavior here. The gangs involved in the Hood Park shooting are dominated by Asians. Some black youths are exhibiting the kind of rowdy, streetwise, mostly harmless behavior that may be common in Chicago or Milwaukee but is completely foreign here. Others are actually causing trouble in neighborhoods and in schools.

But police say youngsters of all races are involved in gangs, and kids at every income level are showing signs of behavior normally associated with juvenile delinquency. "The aggressiveness doesn't look at skin color. It doesn't look at family income," says Nikki Gyllander, the director of La Crosse County's Department of Human Services. "We've had young women from white, upper-middle-class families get involved in violent activity."

Nevertheless, minority youths say La Crosse has been less than hospitable, especially since the shooting.

"We get stereotyped more," says Nyia Yang, 18. "If you're with friends and are walking outside, they automatically assume you're in gangs. If you're in a store, you're going to steal something."

Roy Heath, a 15-year-old black sophomore at Logan High School who moved here with his family from Chicago six years ago, has lived with the violence of the inner city. Now, he has learned to live with the racism of an all-white community. "When you walk down the street in Chicago, you have to deal with obvious dangers. When you walk down the street here, you have to deal with nonobvious dangers," he says.

Hmong leaders take pains to point out that most Hmong are trying to fit in. Adults and children alike are learning English and going to school. Adults take classes and use their education to find jobs. They save their money and buy houses.

But the threat of gang violence and influence, particularly for Hmong families, is acute. Some Hmong families are being torn apart as parents, who try to hold on to the traditional patriarchal family structure in which youths are obedient and serve the family, clash with their children, who have grown up in the West and long for the relative freedom of their peers.

"It's a legitimate threat," says Thai Vue, the associate executive director of the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association and a member of the school board here. "Seven years ago, we didn't see gangs. We heard about gangs in California, about kids moving away from home. We thought, maybe it's a California problem, maybe it's a big-city problem, maybe the parents don't know what to do. But now, we have the same problems here, and the question is what are we going to do about it? Parents have to take some responsibility, and the community has to take some responsibility."

According to police, adult gang leaders from larger Midwestern cities have recruited young Hmong, whites, and blacks to populate gangs here and in other medium-sized towns in Wisconsin. Young people say the two gangs involved in the Hood Park shooting are locked in a struggle over turf. Youths and adults expect another flare up.

Lee Thor talks about her peers with a mix of curiosity and wide-eyed disbelief. The 14-year-old, who belongs to a citywide teenage-advisory council, is a little sleepy. She's not used to 7 a.m. Saturday meetings. So she quietly listens to her six council colleagues discuss adolescent attitudes about school, parents, and adults. Head down, eating a doughnut.

But, urged on by her adviser, and with a captive audience in the Logan High School cafeteria, she talks and, once she begins, finds it hard to stop. Lee is confused and astonished that her peers would act this way--getting hotel rooms to drink and smoke; girls settling arguments with fistfights; girls losing their virginity at age 12, 11, 10. "Some kids I know say, 'I want to be a juvenile. It's so boring here,"' she says.

She becomes most animated when talking about her brother, age 11, who has recently expressed interest in joining the local gang that their cousin belongs to.

"All the kids around him are a bad influence. If one ditches school, he'll ditch with that one," Lee says. "If another ditches, he'll ditch with that one. He told me he wants to join [a gang] because he was getting sick of us and our mom."

In Laos or Thailand, she says, there were no gangs. Young people obeyed their parents. Here, young Hmong try to set themselves apart from their parents.

Lee has been energized by the discussion and, by the end of the 90-minute meeting, wants to share more. Not only is she concerned about her 11-year-old brother. She tells the group that her 7-year-old brother has been dressing and talking like a gangster, a "G."

"My youngest brother, he's 7, and he's wearing his pants low and saying words like 'bitch,"' Lee says breathlessly. "He talks like a gangster. He says, 'Hey, bitch' to me. The other day, I heard he was out with my other brother, and I heard they were smoking."

It all seems too much for Lee Thor to comprehend.

I have lived in the metropolitan Washington area since March 1989, when I loaded all of my possessions into a dying 1980 Dodge Omni and drove from Madison, Wis., to the Northern Virginia suburbs to begin my career in journalism. When I passed Chicago, I was as far east as I had ever been.

In my five years as an Education Week writer, I have had a range of experiences that would have been impossible had I remained in La Crosse, where a glass ceiling restrains ambition and moderates opportunity.

Nevertheless, my heart remains with my hometown. I know how it has shaped me as a writer and as a countryman, as a son and as a friend. As much as the shooting in Hood Park pierced Kia Moua, it pierced me.

During my recent visit back home, city and county officials recounted their efforts to create a new "youth strategy" by assessing, then generating, communitywide support for young people: Do enough youngsters have healthy, honest relationships with their parents and other adults? Do parents set behavioral boundaries and discipline their children when those boundaries are violated? Are youths involved in extracurricular activities at school, in the community, and at church? Are they motivated to do well in school and to look toward postsecondary education? Do they value helping people or others' feelings? Do they have the interpersonal skills to express their desires, beliefs, and concerns in a constructive way?

The heavy hitters--the school superintendent, the police chief, the head of the county social-services department--are leading the effort, which began last spring. These leaders recognized the vulnerability of La Crosse's youth--and of La Crosse--long before the shooting at Hood Park.

But perhaps making sure kids are going to church or are active in sports or have learned to say no to premature sex is not enough. Perhaps the city is losing something it cannot recapture. Perhaps, as Stephanie Coontz suggests, the malaise among today's young people is deeply rooted in economic, social, and political forces that only adults can change.

Johnson, the assistant superintendent agrees that adults must bear much of the responsibility. "You can try and change kids' behavior," he says, "but kids don't create slum communities, and gangs are sometimes the safest place for kids to be unless we give them something different.

"We're at the stage where if we punish teenagers enough, we think we'll fix them. And we're moving into the psychology of their behavior; if we psychologize them enough, then we'll figure it out. And we're going to move out of that phase too. But it's going to take some time before we move on to what really needs to be addressed."

"You won't see one committee in La Crosse right now looking at adult behavior, because that's a lot of work," Johnston says. "It's nasty and political, and it's where the hard part is. There's a lot at stake for La Crosse as a community that I'm not sure everybody's fully aware of yet. If you've got a community where the population is going the other way, you've got a dying community."

Vol. 15, Issue 09

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