Safer Schooling Through Handball at Costa Mesa High School
A Costa Mesa High School security guard offers a lesson in safer schooling through handball
David Rodriguez isn’t used to losing. One of the best young handball players in Orange County, he’s an expert at manipulating that impossibly small, impossibly fast ball. But on Nov. 14, he’s up against Charlie Vasquez of Richland High, one of the other top players in OC, for the first-place trophy in the highest division of an inter-district handball tournament.
Rodriguez, a Costa Mesa High School senior, taps the ball a couple of times on the side wall before his serve. He smacks the ball to hit the front wall low, then quickly positions himself for the rebound. Vasquez runs to the other side of the court and stretches his body to smash his return. The tall, thin, high school student is dressed in a T-shirt and plaid, baggy, cotton shorts—he has taken his narrow, dark sunglasses off for the game.
The sun hides mercifully behind the clouds on this Saturday afternoon, but the young men are still sweating through their clothes as they compete. There are no parents watching, no spectators other than the other competitors waiting their turn on the court. About 60 mostly Latino young men from cities around OC and LA have gathered in the small fenced-in area connected to the courts, surrounded by construction from the new pool being built at the school, to compete on a cracked cement surface covered with old gum—the best place around for them to play.
Quietly running things in the background is Richard Gomez. The 49-year-old Santa Ana resident with neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper hair barely gets a moment’s breath as he stands behind a folding table and updates the brackets, receives the scores from completed games and responds to a constant barrage of “Richard, Richard” from teenagers.
The table overflows with papers, trophies and balls. One boy picks up a Quaker Oats bar and asks, “What’s this?” Gomez grabs it and rips it open.
“Oh, thanks,” he says, smiling. “That’s my lunch.” (Fifteen minutes later, the scene repeats, word-for-word, smile-for-smile.)
The teenagers showed up at 8:30 a.m. to sign in. Most wear plain white T-shirts, but today, the boys from Canoga Park sport matching black T-shirts provided by the Boys and Girls Clubs. The Santa Ana contingent wears new, long-sleeved white shirts that read “Dynasty Suarez” on the back and “Morales Custom Painting” on the front.
As the games began, there was a hush to hear who would be playing whom, quickly followed by sounds of the ball thwocking into one of the three walls, worn-out Vans skidding as a player reached too far and often the sound of bodies hitting the unforgiving ground. All this is intertwined with the consistent shout of “bala, bala!” as the players call for a replacement after hitting a ball over a fence or out of the court.
The tournament isn’t part of the extra-curricular program at the school, and it isn’t funded by the district or the city. It’s Gomez’s baby—but he’s not a coach, teacher or an administrator. He’s a security guard at Costa Mesa High, one who decided he wasn’t going to wait for city politics or funding to help students now.
Unlike other sports programs around the country designed to give low-income youths something to do after school (Midnight Basketball, for example), the tournaments organized nearly every month at Costa Mesa High School (funded out of Gomez’s pocket, with a few donations) are part of a larger program implemented by Gomez and others to positively affect the entire campus.
It might seem like an odd choice of sport. Handball has recently built a reputation for attracting young men heading into the gang life—and some courts have become places where kids gather and leave their trash and graffiti behind.
School-board president Dana Black says the handball courts were torn down at other schools such as Estancia High School because it would have cost $20,000 to retrofit them.
Costa Mesa High School resource officer John Gates sees another possible motivation. “Everyone else tears down the handball courts because they’re concerned about those who want to use them,” he says—a move he considers shortsighted.
Gomez figured offering tournaments would give the kids something to focus on and would encourage them to keep the courts clean and problem-free. It gives kids not only a workout, but also an incentive to not cause problems and to focus on grades. Gomez requires good attendance from participants, and if you get three Fs, you can’t play.
On Saturday, grades and graffiti seem far from these teenagers’ minds. Jeffrey Reyes—who is 17, but whose muscles and mustache make him seem older than the other boys—is busy trying to beat Jose Melendez from Canoga Park. As the game rages on, neither’s face offers many hints about which young man is winning.
Only when asked does Reyes reveal, “He won,” pointing casually over his shoulder at Melendez. None of the young men at the tournament today shows any anger at losing or any arrogance at winning—often, they leave the court smiling.
Gomez says there hasn’t been a fight since the tournaments began; on this day, there isn’t a cross word or even an unsportsmanlike scowl.
“They know it’s a game and they’re not supposed to get mad,” he says. “They do get frustrated, but they don’t put it on other people.”
This peaceful history of the tournament is essential to its survival. “I told the principal that there are fights after football games and parents get into it, but if we had a fight after one of our games, that would be it. It would be over,” Gomez says.
The tournaments are part of several changes Gomez and fellow guard Albert Marron made to make the Costa Mesa High School and Middle School campuses safer since they came aboard about a decade ago. With the support of then-principal Fred Navarro, they used computers, Palm Pilots and video cameras to help prevent crime, recover stolen property and keep outsiders out. And they used handball.
Ten years ago, Gomez says, the 1,800-student school had more than 200 “habitually disruptive” students on campus. Today, he says, the number is about 20.
Navarro, now the assistant superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District, is such a fan of the end result that he wants the entire security program implemented there, but they don’t have the money right now. Plus, he’d need to find the right people to run it. “Richard and Albert are few and far between,” he says.
Principal Ed Wong, who started at Costa Mesa High in 2007, wasn’t sure about the effectiveness of the tournaments and the security program at first. Now, he’s all for them.
As recently as two years ago, Newport-Mesa Unified School District trustee Judy Franco said the program was still too new to consider implementing it at other schools with significant numbers of at-risk students. Now, Franco says, the level of safety at the school is outstanding. But, Black says, right now, the district simply doesn’t have the funds to replicate the program elsewhere.
On Saturday, at the end of four hours of tournament play, neither David Rodriguez nor Charlie Vasquez is willing to give up first place without a battle. They chase the ball around the court, sliding and stretching to get it back to the wall. With a final slam, Vasquez outmaneuvers his opponent for his 21st point. Without a celebratory shout or even a fist to the air, he quietly walks to Gomez to tell him the results.
With a group of players gathered around, Gomez raises his voice to announce the winners of the A-division trophies. Vasquez and Rodriguez, both grinning, receive their hardware. The young men walk away with apparent nonchalance—but, as with all the boys who earned a trophy today, they walk around for the rest of the event holding their prizes in their hands.
To view a slideshow of the Nov. 14 tournament, click here.
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