Noe Valley Voice November 1998

James Lick Kids Barred from Shop on 24th Street

By Anne Sengès

Twenty-fourth Street should be a great place for teenagers to hang out after school. But a recent case of shoplifting at the Just for Fun gift store, involving a student from James Lick Middle School, has ended all the fun.

From now on, kids from James Lick -- or any other schools, for that matter -- have to stay away from the store, located at 3982 24th St. The shop decided to ban students, unless they're accompanied by a parent, after a rash of shoplifting incidents this fall.

David Eiland, co-owner of Just for Fun, says he is convinced that there is a way to reintegrate the kids, but only if the school shows a willingness to cooperate with him and other 24th Street merchants. He admits, however, that his relationship with James Lick Principal Michael Eddings is not very rosy at this time.

According to Eiland, things were tame on 24th Street and the James Lick students were behaving fairly well until the arrival of the new principal in 1996.

"Last year, things started getting out of control, and this year it was even worse," he said. "We found empty packaging from merchandise in the back of our store, kids were using vulgar language, and they even wrote on the walls with our pens."

Eiland noted that yo-yos and South Park merchandise -- the kids' favorites -- were the items most often stolen.

When Eiland called the Noe Street school a few times to complain, "the school reaction was that this should be between the merchants, the police, and the student body." According to Eiland, the school administrators seemed to prefer to look the other way.

But it was not until early October, when a James Lick student was caught in the act of shoplifting, that the relationship between Just for Fun and James Lick Middle School really fell apart.

In that episode, Eiland broke his toe while chasing the student around his store. That immediately spurred him to action.

After trying to reach Michael Eddings unsuccessfully, Eiland called five city supervisors and the San Francisco school superintendent to denounce what he considered unacceptable behavior from a school principal.

Eddings and Eiland did end up talking to each other, but according to both parties, the exchange did not go well.

"When I talked to Eiland, he was very angry," Eddings recalled. "He said I was not a good principal and that our kids were acting like animals.

"I replied that I understood, but I told him that I had received reports from some kids that many Noe Valley merchants didn't welcome them in their stores. Some African-American and Latino kids said that as soon as they walked in the stores, they were followed," Eddings said.

Eiland was equally disturbed by the conversation, and said he felt that Eddings had accused him of being a racist. "Over the past 11 years, we have had blacks and Latinos working in the store, and we are not prejudiced against any person or kid because of their race, their religion, or their nationality," he maintains. "But right now, we are prejudiced against the entire student body of James Lick because of the behavior of a few -- as unfair as that may sound."

The issue of racism is especially touchy at James Lick, where 43 percent of the 500 students are classified as Latino and 30 percent African-American. Most of the kids, who fall within the 11 to 13 age bracket (sixth to eighth grade), live outside the neighborhood. And many feel ostracized in Noe Valley, a mostly white, upscale neighborhood.

Eiland says several longtime Noe Valley residents have told him they try to steer clear of James Lick School whenever students are around. They're wary of the teens' reputation.

But Eddings thinks James Lick is an easy mark. "Our kids are often blamed. And I think part of it is because we are a public school," he said. "People say they use vulgar language. They just talk like 13-year-old kids who think it is cool to talk that way when Mom, Dad, or the teacher is not around."

Still, ever since the Just for Fun episode, James Lick has forbidden its students to hang out on 24th Street. "Our security guy walks with the kids after school and makes sure they catch their buses instead of hanging out in the stores. He controls one side, and I control the other," said Eddings, who has been monitoring the kids every day to prevent a repeat of the shoplifting incident.

Meanwhile, Bob Roddick, president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association, said he had not heard any recent complaints from store owners, other than the one from Just for Fun.

But according to Eiland, the Walgreens on Castro Street, a block and a half from the school, has also been having problems. Last month Walgreens' store manager agreed to cosign a letter asking the Merchants Association to take some steps to deal with the kids, Eiland said.

Once the shop owners confer, "I want to have a meeting with all the players involved. We could try to find ways to make the kids welcome by funding some of the school's projects," said Eiland. "Maybe social behavior should be added to the curriculum. One idea could be to have the kids plant some trees in the neighborhood, or to have an after-school program monitored by the parents," he suggested.

In September of 1991, a similar clash between students and local merchants occurred. At that time, a James Lick teacher came up with a plan to ask 24th Street shopkeepers to allow some of the students to work in their stores during the holiday season. Twelve merchants agreed to participate in the program, and Noe Valley for a short while became a friendlier place for the kids.

A couple of years ago, Just for Fun also let some students work in the store. "Quite honestly, I am not sure that is the best solution," said Eiland. "The kids are too young to count money, too young to open the store. But for some of them, it was an opportunity to see how a business works."

For once, Eddings shared Eiland's feelings. "That [working in the stores] would be great for high school kids, but I think our students are not mature enough," Eddings said.

And he admitted that Eiland had "brought up some good ideas."

But in mid-October Michael Eddings was not yet ready to meet with the 24th Street merchants. He said he'd wait until their anger died down.