Self-expression vs. school rules: Hip-hop kids challenge "gang" label
The way Rong Soung sometimes dresses might make some adults cringe: His pants are too droopy, his shirts too big, the gold chains thick...
Seattle Times staff reporter
The way Rong Soung sometimes dresses might make some adults cringe: His pants are too droopy, his shirts too big, the gold chains thick around his neck.
The 18-year-old Cambodian-American senior at Highline High School in Burien says his choice of clothes and preference for rap music are part of the hip-hop culture he embraces — his way of expressing himself.
School officials, though, see something else: gang trouble.
This clash over hip-hop culture, playing out to one extent or another in many homes and schools across the country, reached a head this year on one of the region's most-diverse campuses.
It's a clash that raises questions about the rights of students to express themselves and the lengths to which schools may legally go to regulate how students dress and behave.
And it tests the bounds of generational tolerance for a fast-growing brand of pop culture, prompting the question: Where does hip-hop end and gang culture begin?
It's a question administrators, teachers and students are still grappling with in the Highline School District, where several dozen students who dress or behave in ways officials consider ganglike are on what the district calls "gang contract" — a status that presumes they were in a gang or headed in that direction when they were told to sign a contract with school authorities.
The document serves as a warning, administrators say, and in signing it, students promise to comply with certain behavior and dress codes, right down to the color of their clothes.
District officials say the intent is to "nip any gang activity in the bud" and keep students safe. Critics of the contract, however, call it arbitrary and unclear, with the potential of being discriminatory.
"I'm labeled as a gangbanger, but I'm not," said Soung, who served as vice president of his junior class last year and will graduate today. "I'm just a homeboy."
Hip-hop vs. gang culture
Hip-hop is a movement of artistic self-expression that dates back to the 1980s, blending dance, dress and style with urban sounds, including rap. It developed as a voice for black street kids in communities in the United States before spreading worldwide.
Most pop-culture experts draw a clear distinction between it and gang culture, which has a closer association with drugs, crime and violence.
Assistant Principal Frank Redmon said the school is not trying to derail hip-hop. "Self-expression is exactly what coming of age is all about," he said. "We understand that."
Yet, Highline High put Soung on contract after a photograph of him flashing the peace sign appeared in the January issue of the school newspaper.
Saying it was truly a peace gesture and not a gang symbol, Soung challenged them, and along with three friends, launched a schoolwide campaign to try to educate officials and fellow students about the difference between hip-hop and gang culture.
Soung's gang contract was subsequently removed, but the policy requiring it remains intact.
"Part of the problem we see is cultural," said Pramila Jayapal, executive director of Hate Free Zone, an advocacy group that was asked to get involved.
"Part of it is this old, outdated sense of what are good kids and what are bad kids."
Highline's "gang contract"
Many schools and districts, including Highline, have policies permitted by state law that prohibit violence and ganglike activity. But Highline appears to be the only public-school district in the Puget Sound area that requires students to sign gang-related contracts based on their dress or behavior.
In a district where 70 different languages are spoken, 44 students were on contract as of Friday — six of those at Highline High. First introduced in 1991, the contract is not a form of discipline so much as a cautionary tool, meant to put students on notice that they have attracted official attention, Highline High officials say.
It spells out how a student violated policy and prohibits him or her from affiliating with known gang members or wearing more than one article of clothing in a suspected gang color.
Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington said that while school or district policies may dictate dress and behavior, standards must be clearly set and equally applied.
A concern of the Highline contract is that it's vague and open to interpretation, said Doug Honig, ACLU spokesman.
"Gangs pose a real problem for administrators in some schools," he said. "But we believe the problem has to be addressed in terms of actual conduct that poses safety problems, and not vague situations that can easily be misinterpreted in terms of an individual student."
Highline officials say the policy is, indeed, all about safety.
They believe there's a rise in gang activity in and around the school, one they attribute in part to former gang members getting out of prison and bringing their influence back into the old neighborhood.
By dressing in certain colors or wearing certain symbols, a student may unwittingly be putting himself and other students in danger, Redmon said.
"If someone comes to school dressed in all blue, with SUR 13 [the name of a Southern California Latino gang] across the front, we believe that student is affiliated with a gang," Redmon said.
"We're trying to keep kids safe here — not just their personal safety but the feeling of being safe."
Officials from the King County Sheriff's Office, which serves Burien, say criminal gang activity has actually been declining there in the past five to seven years. Seattle police, however, echo the concerns of Highline school administrators.
Gang presence and activity in Seattle have risen in the past year, said Sgt. Roger Rusness of the department's gang unit, noting that gang members newly released from prison are influencing kids as young as 11 or 12 to join their ranks.
Students like Soung believe the school's criteria for putting students on gang contract are too subjective.
In a letter to Principal Patricia Dunn pleading for the revocation of his contract, he wrote that he felt he was being singled out "because of the way I look."
"... If you were to ask any of my friends or anyone that knows they would say that I'm not a gangster," he wrote.
"My school record is clean ... ."
He and other Asian-American students said Highline's policy is unfairly applied to minority students when some white students dress and act the same way.
But Highline officials say they don't treat kids differently in applying the policy.
"We want to maintain a safe learning environment ... they interpret that as, 'They don't like hip-hop or they don't like me or my ethnicity,' " Redmon said. "We work hard at being fair and consistent."
William Oliver, a criminal-justice professor at Indiana University who has studied both hip-hop and gang culture, said those critical of hip-hop need to be careful not to associate an entire artistic genre with bad behavior.
"There's not a direct relationship between hip-hop and gang behavior, especially when you consider that some of the major consumers of gangster rap are white youth in middle-class communities."
Sgt. John Urquhart of the sheriff's office said, "Hip-hop doesn't make a gang any more than my wearing a red shirt does. It's an attitude."
But he also points out that schools define gangs differently than police do. "We look more to the crime aspect of gangs."
Getting the message out
For Soung, hip-hop is about individual expression. "It's how you act, the music you listen to, the kinds of clothes you wear," he said.
"Most people would not wear these kinds of shoes with dress pants," he said, raising the hem of his dressy black pants to reveal black Converse sneakers.
"That's hip-hop to me."
Concerned that the distinction was lost on educators and fellow students at Highline, Soung and three friends — Simratpal Singh, Ratha Sochenda and Chanh Tran — set about to explain the difference.
Confrontations with school officials over the students' hip-hop style had been building for some time, art teacher Lisa Bade said, coming to a head with the photograph in the school paper.
As part of their campaign, the students — along with Hate Free Zone officials — met with district officials to plead their case. They proposed a schoolwide assembly at Highline High so they could help fellow students understand the difference between hip-hop and gang culture.
Their presentation included a skit, screen images of well-known rap artists and a performance by Seattle break dancers Massive Monkees. Their campaign earned them Hate Free Zone's Leadership in Justice in the Schools award.
Singh, who served this year as school treasurer, told the assembly he's not particularly "hip-hoppish" but urged students to be open to those who might be different, so that future students don't feel excluded.
"There are things about hip-hop that I don't agree with," he said. But "if we understand each other's culture, we'd have better control of our actions toward one another."
Ninth-grader Heather O'Brien, 14, said of the presentation, "I think they got their message out: that hip-hop is not gang. A lot of people think it is."
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or email@example.com