Dropping out: Did Fresno schools neglect Junior?

Teen's stabbing death during school hours exposes epidemic of truancy in Fresno Unified high schools.

Special to The BeeNovember 19, 2011 

Four years ago, Junior Villarreal walked through the gates of Sunnyside High School, an earnest freshman with a passion for history and baseball who seemed poised to overcome the challenges facing so many Hispanic students.

He was a bright, engaged kid, the class comedian who had run for president in the seventh grade and barely lost, his family and friends said. At 15, he passed the state test needed to graduate from high school and went on to score "basic" in algebra and "proficient" in U.S. history.

"I'd come home from work and start cooking and want to watch one of those Spanish-language novellas on TV, to wind down," his mother, Lidia Ruiz, recalled. "But Junior wouldn't let me. He was watching the History Channel or the Discovery Channel, and he'd start quizzing me. 'Mom, did you know this? Mom, did you know that?' "

What she knew is that no matter how bright or curious her son was, it might not be enough in a part of town where, teachers say, six out of 10 Hispanic students never graduate from high school.

Hard as she tried, she said, she could not erase the reality of their lives.

She and Junior's father, Alfonso Villarreal, were born in Mexico to poor parents with little education. Moving to southeast Fresno, scratching out a living amid some of the most concentrated poverty in the U.S., only meant trading one country's deprivations for another. Alfonso had divorced Lidia and left Junior and a younger son, Anthony, and she was forced to work two jobs, day and night, to keep them from sinking.

Ruiz said she did not have enough hours in the day to make sure her sons always stayed out of trouble. Trouble found Junior first.

(Related story: Droput rate far higher than Fresno Unified reports, critics say)

He began smoking weed and walking with a strut that made her question whether he had joined a gang. She dropped him off every morning at school only to learn later that he often never made it inside. Over a three-year period, she said, he missed hundreds of classes at Sunnyside High and Cambridge High.

School records show that he failed a total of 21 courses -- algebra, biology and English among them. But he kept trying, enrolling in summer school three times to pick up lost credits.

"One night, he was so depressed," Ruiz recalled. "He said, 'Mom, I have nothing to live for. I'm not going to graduate. I'm not going to get a job.'

"I told him, 'Mijo, you have me and your brother. You don't understand how much I worry. I'm so afraid someone's going to call me and tell me you're dead, Mijo. If I don't have you, I don't have anything.' "

On March 25, the phone call came.

Junior had been stabbed on the sidewalk in front of the Walmart on Kings Canyon Road a few blocks from Sunnyside High. It was 2:30 p.m., school still in session, when the fight broke out between Junior and at least one other high school student. His name was Ramiro Santana, a kid from the same neighborhood, a kid also on the verge of dropping out.

Junior died a few minutes later in the emergency room at Community Regional Medical Center, his heart severed by the knife. He was 17 years old. On his death certificate, his "occupation" was listed as "high school student." The "business" he was engaged in: "education."

"Junior was my hope," Ruiz said, tears in her eyes. "He was going to do something."

She cannot help but blame herself for not being more vigilant. Had she done a better job of tracking his classroom absences and missed homework assignments, she might have kept him from falling so far behind that he could never catch up.

But she also questions the neglect of the school system. As Junior ditched classes and bounced from high school to continuation school -- one more Hispanic dropout in the making -- Fresno Unified failed for nearly two years to notify Ruiz that her son was a habitual truant or intervene with any dropout prevention programs, district records show.

Even though Junior continued to miss school for no valid reason, the district did not refer him to the School Attendance Review Board, records show. That would have required Junior and his mother to meet with representatives from the school, the superintendent's office, law enforcement, probation, and health and welfare to come up with a plan to avert his dropping out.

Such a referral is considered standard in cases of habitual truancy like Junior's, state education officials say.

At the time of his death, records show, Junior had earned only half the credits he needed to graduate, and his cumulative GPA fell to 1.54. And yet he was passed from the ninth grade to the 10th grade to the 11th grade and placed on the same college-bound track as the district's top performers.

He and his mother met with a counselor only twice at Sunnyside High, records show. Both meetings were mandated by state law to discuss Junior's progress toward college. As he fell further behind, his student behavior report makes no mention of the school taking any steps, beyond the basic minimum, to assist him. At no time, Ruiz said, did a counselor offer vocational or career technical education as an alternative path.

It was as if Fresno Unified saw him only as a number, she said, a number that generated money from the state as long as her son was officially enrolled. It did not matter to the school district that Junior was home all day and actually wired to his PlayStation.

"It was like Junior wasn't real to them," she said.

Fresno Unified, citing student privacy laws, declined to answer questions about the educational struggles of Junior Villarreal. The district did agree to release his school records after his mother, on behalf of The Bee, made three formal in-person requests. Even so, his records were not complete, missing an entire year of absences.

In an attempt to learn why Fresno Unified failed for nearly two years to classify Junior as a habitual truant, notify his mother, refer them to the attendance review board -- SARB -- and provide more intensive intervention, several emails were sent to Superintendent Michael Hanson detailing questions and requesting an interview. Hanson declined to comment both about the Villarreal case in particular and the overall problem of high truancy and dropout rates in the district.

But interviews with dozens of current and former teachers, principals, guidance counselors, security staff, education experts, community activists, parents and students -- and public documents kept private by Fresno Unified for months but finally obtained through individual school sources -- mark a disquieting truth:

Junior Villarreal was hardly alone.

Teachers, administrators and security staff at high schools and middle schools across Fresno Unified describe an educational system hobbled by major breakdowns in student attendance, grades and discipline. Each year, they say, thousands of high school students with high absences and low credits are falling through the considerable cracks of a school district overwhelmed by the depths of poverty and pathology it meets every day.

The problems, they say, are most acute among Hispanic and African-American students and Hmong boys.

At Fresno High School, for instance, two-thirds of the students accumulated so many unexcused absences last year that they should have been deemed "habitual truants," attendance records show. Nearly 1,500 Fresno High students chalked up unexcused absences that ranged from 25 to 150 and more. The school's written guidelines dictate that these students should have been classified as habitual truants and referred to SARB for intervention. But fewer than one out of four were, records show.

At the same time, statistics show, about 60% of the freshmen enrolled throughout Fresno Unified last year -- both true freshmen and those retained as freshmen from the previous year -- had flunked one or more classes and were already behind in their credits, a predictor of future dropouts.

"There's a crisis in this city, and no one is talking about it," said Mary Van Vleet, a veteran educator who teaches advanced-placement psychology and history at McLane High School. "If 900 freshmen are entering McLane each year, four years later, when it's all said and done, only 300 to 350 of them are graduating. That's not even 40%. It's stunning."

She works long days trying to reach students who have been let down at every level -- family, school, society. By the 10th grade, many of them are so disaffected, she said, that they've thrown in the towel.

"I'm teaching sophomores right now with nothing but glazed looks in their eyes. 'What are you talking about, lady? I'm just putting in my time.' They've got poor attendance and no interest in schoolwork. And there is absolutely no intervention for them that's being done by the school district.

"I'd love it if there was a vocational tech program I could send them to. They'd have some hope. Right now, the biggest demographic we're losing are the Latino males. They're like the walking wounded. Survivors of poverty, divorce, gangs, drugs, jail. I'm talking in class about freedoms and democracy and war and realities, and it means absolutely nothing to them. Just blank faces."

Hispanic community leaders say the life and death of Junior Villarreal, and the murder trial that now awaits 18-year-old Ramiro Santana in adult court, are part of a much larger and complex tragedy for the city. More than 66% of the students enrolled in Fresno Unified are Hispanic. Fresno's future, Hispanic leaders say, is tied to the success or failure of these children.

When more than half the Hispanic students entering middle school fail to graduate six years later -- upward of 2,000 Hispanic dropouts every year -- the dimensions of the social problems facing Fresno are too big to ignore, they say.

"When the majority or close to the majority of Latino students aren't graduating from high school, you're talking about a problem with tremendous implications for the present and the future," said Hugo Morales, a Harvard Law School graduate and executive director of Radio Bilingüe.

Sometimes, the societal costs play out in public tragedy: the death of Junior Villarreal or the killings in the past two years of 15-year-old Nico Quiroz, 18-year-old Antonio Lopez and 18-year-old Wesley Sardin -- each one a dropout or struggling student.

More often, though, the consequences of a failed education are so commonplace that they've become an accepted part of the landscape. A kind of civic inertia has settled over Fresno when it comes to high dropout rates, community activists say. The problem is so attached to one side of town that the rest of the city hardly sees the fallout -- thousands of lives diminished every day by crime, drugs, teen births, joblessness, incarceration and generation-to-generation poverty.

"There is a culture here of not wanting to admit to problems such as poverty and the consequences of poverty," Morales said. "This is a town that doesn't look kindly upon people who speak out. But until we admit the challenge of what confronts us, we will never solve a crisis like dropping out."

It was a late afternoon in April, a few weeks after Junior's death, and Lidia Ruiz, 42, sat in the front room of her house on the southeastern edge of town. All around her was poverty's bleakness. On the outside, her house appeared to have fared no better than the rest of the block. It had the look of a 1940s farmhouse, the wood worn thin and the red paint all but vanished. But inside, she kept everything clean and neat and freshly painted. Poverty would not come past the doorstep, she vowed to her children.

She had put in a 50-hour week managing a Section 8 apartment complex on the west side of town, a job that could hardly be considered a break from dealing with poverty and its hard outcomes. And now it was Saturday, and she was gathering photos and planning to convert a back bedroom into a shrine for her dead son.

There was Junior in crisp blue jeans and a white T-shirt, big lopsided smile, a fist reaching skyward with a cell phone. No tattoos, she says proudly. No pierced ears.

"When my husband left, it was me and Junior all the time," she said.

His childhood nickname was "Chango," monkey in Spanish, because his ears stuck out and he yanked on them to get laughs, she said. She was so worried about the perils of an urban life that she made sure that both her boys spent ample time in Parlier, where her parents still resided. Most of Junior's early friends lived in the small farm town, and that's where she drove six times a week so he could play organized sports with them.

As single moms sometimes do, she leaned on her older son. He was her "Mijo," yes, but with no father in the picture, he also fast became the man of the house. The lines between these roles sometimes got blurred. She'd feel sorry for him, baby him, and he'd use it as leverage to get away with stuff.

Being tough, she said, did not come naturally to her. She has a soft, almost child's voice, and a gentle manner. He knew how to play her. He'd tell her not to worry -- "Everything's all right, Mom" -- even when both of them knew it wasn't. A deeply religious woman, she prayed for God's guidance when the troubles became too much, she said.

She walked to the back of the house and retrieved a box of Junior's school mementoes. Inside was a note from one of his elementary school teachers. "Junior has been doing real well lately. He's a bright kid with a lot of potential."

"School didn't come easy to him," Ruiz said. "But he liked school a lot and when he worked at it, he improved."

Also inside the box was a certificate from the University of California at Davis for attending the school's 2008 summer leadership camp. "He did a comedy show for the whole camp. It was after that that he kept talking about becoming a comedian. His hero was George Lopez."

She closed the box. What had happened to steal his promise, blot out his dreams? It was a question she kept asking herself -- a question she found impossible to answer. "I don't know. I don't know," she said, breaking down. "As he got older, something happened."

She saw the turn come early in high school. In the ninth grade at Sunnyside High, he began disrupting his classes, yelling across the room and constantly breaking his pencil and getting up to sharpen it, school records show. Despite his defiance, the staff at Sunnyside did not suspend him.

Then he began leaving class and ditching entire school days. It didn't help that one semester he got sick with bronchitis and tonsillitis and had to have his tonsils removed, missing finals. District records show that he missed 60 days of school during the ninth and 10 grades -- 16 of the days unexcused. His mother recalls even more absences.

She said she was so busy just managing day-to-day life as a single mother -- running the federal housing project on the far west side of town, taking Junior back and forth to doctors, watching over younger son Anthony, teaching catechism at church -- that she did not contact the school to retrieve his homework assignments.

"I should have called the school, but I was having a lot of pressure at work, and Junior kept telling me that he would do better," she said. "I messed up. Junior messed up."

For nearly two years, neither Sunnyside High nor the school district sent home a notice advising her that Junior was a habitual truant, records show. Recently, Fresno Unified, after searching its files for a week, produced one "truancy notification" letter supposedly sent to Junior's home during the latter part of his sophomore year.

But the date of the letter -- April 21, 2009 -- does not match any official notations on his student behavior report issued by the district. And the letter deals with several unexcused absences that were five months old at the time. "I don't remember getting a truancy notice," Ruiz said.

Junior failed so many classes his first two years -- he finished one semester with a .17 GPA -- that he was no longer eligible to play baseball at Sunnyside. "This was the sport he loved. It just broke his heart," Ruiz said. "He lost hope after that. He lost his connection to school and his sports friends."

He had signed up for summer school as a ninth- and 10th-grader but flunked two of the four classes. Now he was sinking, and she felt helpless. She had once been a struggling high school student herself, she said, and didn't have the educational skills to assist him with his more challenging homework. She didn't have the money to hire him a private tutor.

Ruiz had always counted on school and sports to keep Junior occupied while she was at work. Now his movements from the hours of 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. were a mystery to her. She could only guess which streets took up his time.

In the claws of the recession, the neighborhoods of southeast Fresno have become a wasteland of meth, police and residents say. Block after block, a whole piece of town rots from the same decay. Parents out of work. Fathers in prison. Teenage daughters pregnant. Teenage sons signed up with tagger crews that prowl the broken streets, spray-painting the initials of their fraternities -- ESM, CYA, DOH -- on everything. The taggers and street gangs, police say, are becoming one and the same -- both deadly.

Junior started hanging out with different friends involved in tagger crews, including one known as ASW (Always Smoking Weed), Ruiz said. All the taggers carried knives.

Because Junior continued to have so many unexcused absences, the school district was required by law to hold truancy meetings with him and his mother and consider sending him to SARB, the attendance review board. A referral is routine in such cases, said David Kopperud, the California Department of Education's chairman for the state SARB. But the family never met with representatives of the school, the superintendent's office, law enforcement or county mental health and probation workers, records show. No corrective plan was ever done.

After earning a 1.33 GPA to end his 10th-grade year, he was sent from Sunnyside High to Cambridge High, the district's continuation school. Ruiz met with counselors at Cambridge and was told that good things were happening at the school.

Records show that the staff at Cambridge High did a much better job of tracking Junior's truancy, incomplete schoolwork and defiant behavior. On numerous occasions, school personnel alerted Ruiz about her son's troubles, calling and sending letters home and holding parent-teacher conferences.

But by this point, Ruiz said, Junior was more interested in training for a job than cracking open any textbook -- and Cambridge did not offer that option. It held to the same basic track as Sunnyside High: turning out college-ready students.

For her son and so many others, she said, it was "a race to nowhere."

"Junior was too far behind. He couldn't stay still. He's not going to sit there and read," she said. "He wanted to work. He knew everything about pools, how to fix and clean them. That's what he wanted to do."

Junior began to verbally assault his teachers: "F--- this class," he shouted and walked out of the room, records show. Despite his behavior, the staff at Cambridge High didn't suspend him from school. Junior complained to his mother that the teachers at Cambridge spent too much time trying to be friends with the kids. They didn't need another friend; they needed a teacher. The school's lack of discipline, Ruiz said, only seemed to encourage more disruptive behavior from Junior.

In September 2009, he struck a student in the face during class and was suspended for three days. After stealing a bottle of tequila from a store, he was sent to Fresno County Juvenile Hall and stayed for a month. Back at Cambridge, he was nothing but lost.

Then a year ago, while attending the Big Fresno Fair, he found himself in the middle of two rival groups of young Hispanics. "Everybody on everybody" was the way he described the melee. Junior injured his finger fighting and needed surgery.

One of the young men in the rival group, a 16-year-old tagger, vowed to get even with Junior. Last January, as Junior was walking home from Cambridge High, he was jumped by four young men who beat him with baseball bats right there on Chestnut Avenue.

"He wasn't badly hurt, thank goodness," Ruiz said. "I asked him, 'Junior, who are these people?' He said, 'Mom, it's just some kids, a group of taggers. They have their own crew. They see you walking by yourself and they jump on you.' "

She confronted him with her suspicion that he was involved in a gang.

No way, Mom, he said.

"I believed him," she said.

Ruiz met with the vice principal at Cambridge. The school had decided to place Junior on "independent home study." She and Junior signed a contract with the school stating that he would complete his coursework at home and meet every week with a counselor at Cambridge.

In the weeks that followed, Ruiz said, Junior didn't finish a single homework assignment or attend a single meeting with his counselor. The school never followed up as required by the home-study contract, she said. And whenever Ruiz tried to police the situation, Junior resisted.

She said it was all she could do to keep up with a job that was demanding more and more of her hours and a house so worn that winter rains were pouring through the roof and flooding everything. They were forced to move in with other family members until the rains stopped.

For nearly two months, Junior rarely left the house for fear of getting jumped. Ruiz felt so sorry for him that she took the last of her tax refund and bought a PlayStation for him and 13-year-old Anthony.

"All day, all night, that's what they did. The PlayStation."

In late March, Cambridge High decided that Junior -- 17 years old and two years behind in high school credits --would be allowed to return to school to pursue a college-ready curriculum. He could begin classes on Monday, March 28.

That Friday afternoon, March 25, Ruiz talked to Junior on the phone. He told her he was going to leave the house to hang out with friends at the Walmart on Kings Canyon Road. Knowing how long he had been cooped up, she gave her OK.

An hour or two later, her phone rang again. This time, it was one of Junior's friends. Junior was involved in a fight at Walmart; he was stabbed and taken by ambulance to the hospital. She drove frantically to reach him but arrived too late. The police wouldn't let her see the body, she said. Anthony took that as hope.

"It's probably not him, Mom," he insisted. "We're still going to see him. He's still going to come home."

The students who witnessed the killing were refusing to talk to police. The best Ruiz could piece together was that Junior and another teenager, quite possibly the rival tagger from the fair, were fighting on the sidewalk. Junior was getting the best of him when Ramiro Santana allegedly came from behind with a knife and stabbed Junior in the heart.

Santana's parents came from the poor side of Mexico and spoke little English. His father worked long hours as a gardener. His older brother, Jose, had a job at FoodMaxx. Ruiz couldn't stop thinking about the young defendant she saw in court.

"He's skinny. He doesn't look mean. He wears glasses. He looks like a schoolboy," she said, shaking her head. "Two families, two tragedies. I pray for his mother. I feel her pain. How can this be happening, and nothing is being done?"

It was a question not only for the city and the school district. It was a question she was asking of herself. Before her eyes, she said, the whole tragedy seemed to be in replay. This time, it was little Anthony in trouble.

The Fresno Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service