In High School, Groups Provide Identity
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 28, 1999; Page A1
For the Trenchies at Paint Branch High School, the day starts at 7 a.m. on a patch of trampled grass known informally as the "Dead Zone."
Nothing threatening or Gothic about it. Just a gathering point beneath a stop sign in the school parking lot to smoke Marlboros before first period, while the car buffs turn doughnuts in a burgundy pickup nearby. The grass died long ago, crushed each morning by more than a dozen pairs of combat boots and tennis shoes.
In dark T-shirts, fatigues and the occasional knee-length black jacket, this cadre of self-described misfits is as close as it gets to a Trenchcoat Mafia within the Paint Branch student body, a blur of suburban ethnicity in Montgomery County. They listen to the bands Slayer and Fear Factory, trade insults with the Preppies and the Yos and the Jocks, and wear overcoats that are suddenly symbols of schoolyard violence.
"We have nothing against other people," says Skunk, a brooding 19-year-old senior known to his teachers as John Pizzuto. "They just have something against us."
The tragedy last week in the hallways of a high school in Littleton, Colo., has inspired a reexamination of the complicated social hierarchy that confronts students during their most formative years. Cliques and clubs have defined school days for decades, providing a framework for friendships and prom dates and booked weekends. But for parents, such groups have always seemed alien, and counselors worry that the maze allows troubled children to mask loneliness and disaffection.
At Paint Branch, the social scene is as typical and unfathomable as that of any Washington area suburban school. A few days' wandering its maroon-and-gold hallways and cinder-block classrooms reveals a staff and student body that are proud of the school's tolerance and diversity, but are confronting new fears about what it means to be unpopular.
Just two weeks ago, only a dozen parents showed up at a meeting about school security. Fred Lowenbach, the school's popular principal, received at least that many calls the day after the Littleton shooting and has scheduled another meeting for next month.
The Trenchies have faced hallway threats and hushed cafeterias in recent days, while the school tries to memorialize the 15 deaths at Columbine High School with white lapel ribbons and a pledge "to prevent destructive decisions for myself and my community."
"You and your friends are responsible for the deaths and you're going to die for it," read one note left in a Trenchie's textbook last week. Taunts of "Oh, don't shoot me!" followed Trenchies in the cafeteria.
Lowenbach denounces the insults and calls this "a teachable moment" to help Paint Branch's 1,600 students get along. But some students says that in the wake of Columbine, they are wary of classmates in dark clothes and trenchcoats.
"I immediately thought of Paint Branch and the people we have here, because it's so similar," says Jenny McCarthy, 16, a sophomore whose circle of friends comprises cheerleaders such as herself and members of the pompom squad. "We have outcasts. A lot of those shot [in Colorado] were in popular groups. So what if we are targeted?
"I don't think any Trenchies would want to hang around with Poms or cheerleaders," she adds. "We just don't mix."
Jereme Musgrove, 17, wears a necklace with beads spelling his name and "420," the police code for marijuana. The Littleton shooting happened on April 20, Adolf Hitler's birthday, but to Musgrove and some of his friends, the date is more notable as the national marijuana smoke-off day. Preppies, he says, are shallow and preoccupied with looks. His right eyebrow is pierced twice, his tongue once.
"In seventh grade, I withdrew from people. I didn't have any friends. I started doing bad in school. I was probably more depressed. Then it kind of developed into anger," says Musgrove, smoking a morning Marlboro. "I just try to keep my distance from them [Jocks and Preppies]. They're more outgoing. Most teachers like them more."
The 30-year-old Burtonsville campus draws students from both sides of Route 29, a road that serves as a demographic dividing line separating lower-income housing to the east from spacious neighborhoods to the west. Eighty-five percent of Paint Branch's graduates go on to college.
Among them are Preppies and Yos (students who favor "gangsta" fashions and music), Jocks and Trenchies. There are Headbangers who favor heavy metal music, Skaters who are partial to skateboards, Techies who man the drama department's backstage crews, Nerds and honor students all part of an array of irregular social groups that operate beneath the school's more formal network of school-sanctioned clubs.
They are organized in a loose hierarchy Jocks at the top, Trenchies near the bottom and form around common interests: ethnicity, neighborhoods or friendships carried over from days together at Benjamin Banneker or Briggs Chaney middle schools, which feed Paint Branch. Some of the labels are slurs, applied by rival cliques, while others are worn with clubby pride. McCarthy, the cheerleader, says: "They call us ditzes, snobs. But we're not, and I hope we wouldn't be stereotyped."
In the crowded cafeteria and parking lot, students point out the Korean Corner and Chinatown, derisive terms used to describe the patch of blacktop or lunch table near the Frutopia machine populated by Asian students. Son Nguyen, a 19-year-old senior, sits with two fellow Vietnamese students and a girl from China. "We all went to Briggs Chaney," he says. "And we go to the same church."
The Preppies, known by critics as the 90210s after the television show popularizing lavish high school lifestyles, carve out a spot at the center of the lot to listen to rappers Cypress Hill and plot after-school plans. Several are wearing Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts. The Trenchies have the Dead Zone, the Jocks the weight room. Kelly McDonnell, a school security guard, says "the Jocks rule the school."
Duane Frazier, a social studies teacher, views group membership as a natural part of the way students form values and an identity. He compares it to the way an adult selects a political party sounding out members and deciding to join based on common interests.
"Kids pick friends and groups in much the same way," Frazier says.
Yet some group members may be more devoted than others to the clique. At Columbine, the two students who killed 12 classmates, a teacher and themselves appeared to be fringe players of the loosely organized Trenchcoat Mafia at the school, if they belonged at all. Their actions showed they hardly were representative of the group.
At Paint Branch, many students blend in and out of different cliques. Jocks and Preppies who play on the school's moderately successful sports teams socialize. Trenchies work with Techies backstage on the spring production of "Dirty Work at the Crossroads," a Victorian-period spoof.
The school's rich ethnic diversity further blurs the groupings. One student notes that the senior class portrait is a study in segregation with blacks in one cluster, whites in another and Asians in another. The parking lot looked just as segregated last year, students says. This year, though, students must park in assigned spaces.
As soon as freshmen arrive, counselors encourage them to join school-sponsored groups, whether it is varsity football or the award-winning literary magazine. Counselors work with English and social studies teachers to identify troubled students. "This stuff pours out in compositions," says Jack McKeon, a Paint Branch guidance counselor for 27 years. "These are often a cry for help."
Most students make friends and join groups in more unconventional, ageless ways. Common bonds may range from step dancing to shared struggles in honors chemistry. Most of them understand they are typecast based on whom they call their closest friends.
Senior Mike Kahn, 17, is among the leaders of the clique students call the Preppies. For the most part, they keep their hair short and spiked, wear designer clothing and in some cases sport sideburns. "People think we are the cliquiest of the cliques," says Joanne Chow, 18, a senior. "I hear they call us 90210s."
Kahn calls his group "the Fam," a cohort that includes students from other area high schools. "We think of it as kind of a high school fraternity," says Kahn, who says he plans to attend the University of Maryland-College Park next year. "We all had to do the same kind of things to become friends. We wear the same kind of clothes.
"The Jocks are known more, but I'm not sure they are the kings of the school," Kahn adds. "I think if you ask our friends, they would say we are. Everybody knows what we do on weekends."
When the last bell rings at 2:10 p.m., the trenchcoat crowd gravitates from the Dead Zone to the cars of former trenchcoat students. There's Skippy and Chandler and Boris ("because he's German," one explains). Some have graduated, some have been expelled, but they still return to hang out. A black car pulls into the lot with a rear-window sticker that reads: "We are the people our parents warned us about."
Jason Barnes, 18, says he graduated last year but not before he had a serious run-in with school administrators for carrying a utility knife on campus. He works at the nearby Pizza Hut, but returns to the Paint Branch parking lot.
He is tall and lean with a shaved head. He wears a long black leather trenchcoat, black baggy pants and combat boots. In addition to heavy metal music, he immerses himself in Dungeons and Dragons and other fantasy role-playing games.
"Security harassed us. Students harassed us. What's the point of coming to school?" Barnes says. "They think we're freaky. They don't understand why we do this."
Musgrove, in baggy jeans and flannel shirt, stands among a group of Trenchies, not far from a security guard who is whispering into a walkie-talkie. High fives, packs of cigarettes and lighters are exchanged. Two Trenchies engage in some mock wrestling. One wears a black leather trenchcoat. It's 73 degrees.
Fred Lowenbach, the principal, says cliques can cause friction between groups as well as provide a kind of safety net for young people trying to make friends.
Lowenbach says one of the chief challenges of high school is "finding their place, finding where they fit in and figuring out the pecking order."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company