ary Wiley, 85, is standing under the tiny overhang at the doorway to her neat 36th Place house, watching a river of uniformed students from Foshay Learning Center rush by on their way home from school. Their shoulders sagging under the weight of their overstuffed backpacks, the children laugh and talk. They linger at the ice cream truck, trying to cadge a Fudge Bomb or Dreamsicle. There is some good-natured pushing, foul language, but nothing approaching harassment, much less violence. One of the girls waves to Wiley, whom the kids call Grandma.
Im bringing my friend home to have an ice cream, she yells.
Another child appears bewildered when asked by a reporter about his neighborhoods safety.
Yeah, its safe here, he shrugs, perplexed by the strange question. Youd better ask my mother about that. Shes in Kid Watch.
Under USCs five-year-old Kid Watch program, some 700 neighbors like Mary Wiley have volunteered to stand on their porches and lawns and watch 9,000 children walk to and from school. If they see anything suspicious, they call police.
Sounds simple, right? But Kid Watch is credited with making a dramatic change in the area around USC, an area once known as a move-out community, a blank-faced landscape of barred windows, padlocked fences and snarling dogs that families struggled to escape, not improve.
Kid Watch volunteer Bertha Magaña.
The program has received national honors and has been cited as a model for community policing across the country and even internationally. But most importantly, participants say, Kid Watch has kick-started the rebirth of a community where people move in and get involved.
Ive met a lot of people, and I think weve made the area better, says Wiley.
Kid Watch is a partnership of USC, the Los Angeles Police Departments Southwest Division and the Los Angeles Unified School District, targeting the 4.3-square-mile area around University Park an area bordered by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the Santa Monica and Harbor freeways and Normandie Avenue. The neighborhood is mostly Latino and African American, the working poor rather than welfare recipients, but still poor, says LAPD Southwest lead officer Randy Cochran, one of the founders of the Kid Watch program.
Well over 90 percent of the students in the neighborhoods Family of Five Schools L. B. Weemes Elementary, Norwood Street Elementary, Vermont Avenue Elementary, 32nd Street/USC Magnet Center and Foshay Learning Center qualify for free or subsidized school lunches, placing them below the poverty line.
In the early 90s, the neighborhood was one of the citys most notorious, a den of crack dealers, gang thugs and drunken derelicts. The drugs were so bad you could almost smell them changing hands, says Wiley.
Middle and high school students preyed upon younger kids, Cochran says. In 1989-90, we had fights every day after school, recalls Foshay Learning Center principal Howard Lappin. Kids were attacked on a daily basis for their jewelry, tennis shoes. They could never carry backpacks or books.
How did they do their homework? They didnt do homework, he says.
gainst that backdrop, Kid Watch was one of the first of the Family of Five Schools programs launched in 1994 to focus the universitys ample resources on its own environs. When President Steven B. Sample arrived at USC 10 years ago, he found the
city reeling from a regional economic depression and demoralized by the Rodney King riots. Surveying the universitys existing outreach programs, Sample felt that the institutions time and money were being spread too thin.
We decided that rather than try to save L.A., or save Southern California, we would concentrate on our immediate neighborhood, Sample told Time magazine last year.
The university had always done programs, but many were perceived as not having had impact, adds Jane G. Pisano, USC senior vice president of external relations, who was charged with turning things around.
Deputy chief Bob Taylor of USCs Department of Public Safety chats with Kid Watch volunteer Mary Wiley as several neighborhood schoolchildren pass by.
University officials called a meeting with school principals, who identified safety as the overriding community issue. The kids didnt feel safe, and the parents didnt feel the kids were safe, Pisano remembers.
She called on deputy chief Mark Kroeker, then commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Departments South Bureau, for help.
He said, I cant do much. I have budget constraints. But I can help you make your own community safer, Pisano recalls.
By this time, the Family of Five Schools committee had expanded to include community and police representatives. A subcommittee on safety broke off and started kicking around ideas.
The blueprint for Kid Watch was based on a model in the San Fernando Valley called Safe House. Launched by Van Nuys-based LAPD officer Ron Carpenter, Safe House called on volunteers to open their homes to children in distress. Unfortunately, the program never got off the ground because of legal concerns about the use of premises that were presumed safe as implied by the name.
The USC program was designed differently. Children would be encouraged to knock at volunteers doors, but would remain outside while the neighbors telephoned the police. And the volunteers would be told to call in their reports rather than try to help the children directly.
One of the members of the safety task force was Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum executive director Margaret Farnum.
My contribution was the name, she says. I said: Lets make it like Neighborhood Watch, only for kids.
The first 25 volunteers came largely from existing Neighborhood Watch ranks, primarily African-American residents who had been in the community for 30, 40, even 50 years. With intensive recruitment, the Kid Watch pool soon expanded to include Latino parents; 78 percent of current volunteers are Spanish-surnamed.
Belying media hype about black-brown conflict in the inner city, racial tension is not an issue, participants say. Language is, but Kid Watch staff and materials are fully Spanish-English bilingual. The program has enlisted an astounding 900 people to stand sentinel for the kids; about 120 are no longer active, most because they have moved away, organizers say, and others are waiting for LAPD clearance to join the program.
From her porch, Kid Watch volunteer Virgie Simon waves to children passing in front of her North University Park home.
The key to Kid Watch has been making it easy, says Samuel Mark, assistant vice president of civic and community relations at USC. Volunteers arent locked into a rigid schedule, although more than 40 percent of them report that theyre on duty three to four days a week. Police do the screening; the turndown rate is very low, Cochran says.
Participants water the lawn, read the paper or finish their coffee as they visit with neighbors. New friendships are born.
When theres trouble to report, calls to the police can be made anonymously. Even so, just displaying the bright yellow-and-black Kid Watch decal (a house with a silhouetted girl and boy, cupped in sheltering hands) could make you a target for gang retaliation.
You have to admire these peoples courage, Lappin says. There are many neighborhoods where people would be frightened to put a decal on the door.
Far from victimizing volunteers, the Kid Watch decals seem to have driven the bangers and crack dealers away, Cochran says.
I dont know where theyve gone and I dont care, as long as theyre gone, Lappin says of the gangs.
In fact, very few crimes are reported, against children or anyone else. Most of Cochrans calls are about stray dogs or vendors blocking driveways. Dogs Ill take any day over kids getting beat up, he laughs.
Its possible that Kid Watchs impact on neighborhood crime has been exaggerated. In the late 90s crime dropped nationwide for a variety of reasons, ranging from a strong economy to a decline in the crack wars to the fact that many of those responsible for the earlier violence were either dead or in prison.
Now crime is on its way back up, and the LAPDs Southwest Division, where USC is situated, is no exception, Cochran says. Some community people say they have seen gangs begin to creep back in.
Still, Southwest experienced a 35 percent drop in gang-related crimes as of October 2000 over the previous five years, according to the latest LAPD statistics. Thats by contrast with the adjacent Watts area, where last years soaring homicides inspired the January 7 Los Angeles Times Magazine cover story describing that neighborhood as a killing zone.