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Paul Coates

January 13, 2008 |  5:35 pm

Paul_coates Jan. 13, 1958

Juvenile terror has been a fact in this town for a long time. It's nothing new.

But there is something new about the latest series of outbreaks which hit the headlines over the last few days.

Take a look at the stories:

First, there was the 16-year-old honor student son of a Norwalk high school principal who went on a wild spree with some "model youth" friends and ended up firing three bullets into a liquor store clerk.

There there were the dozen boys from typical, conservative middle-class homes who filed into court last week to be sentenced for terrorizing the men, women and children of a quiet neighborhood in North Hollywood.

There was Barbara Burns, 19-year-old daughter of the late comic, Bob, and her young Hollywood society friends who became caught on their own doorsteps in a vicious web of narcotics.

And, over the weekend, there was the arrest of 14 young men, including five star Glendale college athletes, for some of the most senseless, destructive acts of vandalism reported here in years.

The young men, most of them 18 and 19, allegedly caused more than $15,000 worth of damage to some 40 parked cars by aimlessly attacking the empty vehicles with hatchets, crowbars and rocks.

In newspaper accounts of the above stories, there were some striking similarities.

In nearly ever case, the youths were reported to have been from "good families, from excellent environment."

In those cases involving robbery, the kids invariably were quoted as saying that they didn't do it for the money. They had money.

And when asked why they did what they did, they had other stock answers:

"I don't know... for kicks maybe... Nothing else to do."

I think that now might be a good time to emphasize the fact that none of these kids were from the so-called "underprivileged, gang-infested" Eastside of town.

1958_0113_cisneros_2 In fact, when these stories were making black headlines, there were some stories about Eastside "kid gangs" buried much deeper in the news.

In case you didn't see them, they concerned Eastside "kid gang" activities like collecting food for poor families, like planning charity benefit dances.

Councilman Ed Roybal has griped for years that newspapers "protect" the delinquent kids of high income neighborhoods and repeatedly blow up juvenile disturbances on the Eastside into "gang wars" and "rat pack terrorism."

I don't agree with Roybal.

And I think police statistics will back me up. There has been much more juvenile trouble in low-income neighborhoods than in high-income ones.

But over the last 15 or 20 years, there has been quite a change in our Eastside.

Most of the slum areas are gone. Some vanished by edict of the city. But more disappeared simply as a result of the hard work and sincere effort by those who inhabited them to give their kids something a little better.

Eastside and Southside gang problems haven't been wiped out, by any means.

Still left is a lot of the fear and poverty which drives kids into bands of their own for protection and something called "status."

But those kid gangs which are still active aren't usually guilty of the same type of offense which we've been reading about for the last week. Gang members' strange code of honor allows them to maim and kill each other, but usually it spares the outsiders--the women and children.

This is by way of explanation, not excuse.

This weekend, I talked with a longtime Eastside social worker. I asked him for his analysis of Eastside teenagers and the so-called "more favored" ones.

"There's never been a lot of difference," he said. "Except that, on the whole, most of the other kids got off to a better start in life."

I asked him how, recently, the two groups seemed to be finding their positions somewhat reversed.

"Maybe," he answered me, "it's part of growing up. Kids are known rebels at certain ages.

"You take a kid, tell him he's not expected to amount to anything, then give him a little encouragement--and watch him fight to make good.

"Take another kid, give him everything, tell him he can't miss being successful with his background. Then offer him a little temptation--and watch him try to make a liar out of you."

L.A.'s got a problem--and it's not going to be solved by gawking bystanders.