Honoring a Slain Teen's Memory with Support for His School Band

Andy Lopez in his band class at Cook Middle School.

The October 2013 shooting death of 13-year old Andy Lopez by Sonoma County sheriff deputy Erick Gelhaus left the community of Roseland, a largely Latino area in unincorporated Santa Rosa, in a state of ongoing shock.

And as details emerged about the shooting -- including the news that only ten seconds elapsed between the deputy calling in a suspicious person and radioing again after shooting the boy seven times from behind -- students organized and led ongoing walkouts that were met with overpowering police presence, complete with helicopters overhead and police cars lining the entrance of Lawrence Cook Middle School, where Andy had been an eighth-grade student.

Though news about the incident was covered from the New York Times to the BBC, few media outlets focused on Lopez's peers and classmates at Cook Middle School. The school, which sits at the western reach of Roseland, serves a district where the majority of kids qualify for free school meals, and many are English language learners. And it has an extremely limited budget for enrichment programs like music, art or athletics.

Andy Lopez attended Lawrence Cook Middle School before he was shot and killed by local law enforcement in 2013.
Andy Lopez attended Lawrence Cook Middle School before he was shot and killed by local law enforcement in 2013.

“It was rough going at first, especially with all of the walk-outs and protests. Last year was just kind of tough all along; the feelings, the raw nerves anytime something came up,” says Lawrence Cook Middle School's performing arts teacher, Mark Mayer. “Restorative Justice came in and started working last year and there were some psychologists who came to the school. A lot of the students would meet with them whenever they had an issue, they would just head down to the office and they would be available.”

In addition to staging walkouts, creating altars and meeting in groups, many of the young teens wore T-shirts and hoodies with Andy's name and face printed on them. (My daughter, a student at the school, reported students duct-taping Andy's old locker shut and blocking off access to his desks in order to memorialize him.) Parents pasted their cars with Justice for Andy Lopez stickers. Students lashed out at campus security. The bleak atmosphere on campus continued for weeks, with each day a reminder that Andy was gone.

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Along with counseling services and community meetings, students were able to cope through involvement in the school's music program. Because Andy had played trumpet in the school band, the first step in honoring his memory and processing classmates' grief was for the band to perform the winter concert as a tribute.

Programs for the concert displayed Lopez's photograph and a written dedication. The band performed several songs he had been working on at the time of his death. His trumpet was placed in an empty seat near the stage. According to Mayer, the students' involvement in the concert helped them tremendously -- even as Cook's performing arts program faces continuous financial struggles.

“When I first got to Cook, we got about $900–$1,000 at the beginning of every year for supplies and such. Now we have nothing,” says Mayer, who has been with the district for twelve years. “The district does do instrument repairs and things like that over the summer. But other than that, we're on our own.”

Mayer says the program relies on fundraising organizations like Schools Plus or money from selling candy bars to cover transportation and other expenses.

“Good old band candy bars,” he says with a sigh. “That's how we raise money for the buses to get to the different parades and other things we do.”

The current band class at Cook Middle School, with band director Mark Mayer at right. (Photo: Darwin Meiners)
The current band class at Cook Middle School, with band director Mark Mayer at right. (Photo: Darwin Meiners)

According to John Bribiescas of Schools Plus, a nonprofit foundation that raises funds for performing arts and athletics programs at 11 different schools in Santa Rosa, Roseland has the region’s lowest overall ranking on an index that codifies "well being". Roseland's rating is 2.79 out of 10, compared to the city's Bennett Valley district, on the more affluent east side of town, which is rated at 8.47.

“It's the west side, it's the disparities that we all know about, like being low-income,” Bribiescas says of the marginalized community with a large immigrant population. “Whereas Maria Carrillo and Montgomery High, a lot of students get private lessons starting at five years old, and they get to middle school and there's a demand, a need for band classes. Not so on the other side of town.”

Some schools on the west side of town, like Comstock Middle School and Piner High School, lost their band classes entirely long ago. But after eight years without a band class, Comstock began a new music program last year, with help from Schools Plus. And when those students enter Piner High School next fall, the school will have a band class for the first time in a decade.

Bribiescas says that citywide, about 12,000 students benefit from funding provided by Schools Plus, both in the arts and athletics programs. And at Cook, about 600 kids each year are able participate in music or after school sports. This spring, the school will receive $12,000, split evenly for arts and sports; 100% of those funds will support the kids directly, as none of the funds are allowed to be allocated for teacher salaries.

A mural created by artist Mario Uribe of 13-year old Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa. (Photo: Dani Burlison)
A mural created by artist Mario Uribe of 13-year old Andy Lopez in Santa Rosa. (Photo: Dani Burlison)

Still, Mayer says the program can use any help available, including funds and instruments provided through an April 4 benefit concert in Santa Rosa. Create Again: Honoring the Memory of Andy Lopez, planned by Santa Rosa musician Darwin Meiners, has already acquired a new trumpet and clarinet for Mayer's band program. All proceeds from the concert -- and from autographed auction items donated by members of Operation Ivy, Built to Spill, Guided by Voices, the Violent Femmes and other well-known bands -- will go directly to the school.

Mayer says even though most instruments the school loans to its students are old and worn, it's important to provide a music program for kids who may otherwise display behavioral issues.

“For the most part, it's an elective and they want to be there. They want to learn how to play an instrument, or they're in performing arts and want to perform, sing, dance,” he says. “I hear [about] the behavior problems, but I don't see it the way the other teachers do.”

Now, nearly 18 months after Lopez's death, Mayer says the school atmosphere is much better, though many of his students still miss Lopez and are continuing to cope. Groups of kids around Roseland still wear Andy's name and photograph on their shirts. Several families are working to turn the site of his death into a community park. A public mural of Andy has been created by local artist Mario Uribe.

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And even as there are no easy solutions or quick fixes to a devastating loss of a child, the Roseland community and its allies continue to ensure that both Andy's memory -- and the Lawrence Cook Middle School band program -- remain strong.

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