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Schoolyard Shooting Tragedy Spurs Plan to Provide Experts : County to Assist Police With Mentally Ill

February 24, 1985|SANDY BANKS and MARITA HERNANDEZ | Times Staff Writers

A year has passed since the playground of the 49th Street Elementary School erupted with the sound of gunfire and screaming children in a fusillade that left 12 people wounded and three others dead--including a 10-year-old girl and the deranged sniper, who killed himself.

The Feb. 24, 1984, shooting shocked the community and left scars that have yet to heal on the hearts and minds of the schoolchildren and their families.

But the tragedy also focused public attention on the inadequacies of Los Angeles' system of dealing with the potentially violent mentally ill. In response, police and mental health officials have developed a plan that they hope will prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Good to Come From Tragedy

That hope, as much as the lingering scars, is the legacy of the shootings.

On Friday, the schoolyard seemed back to normal. The hundreds of children noisily at play seemed oblivious to the approaching anniversary of the day Tyrone Mitchell gunned down their classmates from his home across the street.

About 100 of the 1,200 students received psychological counseling after the shooting to cope with their memories and fears, but school officials said most of the children appear to have recovered completely.

Attendance, which dropped immediately after the shooting, was soon back to normal, and the school's academic performance actually has improved in the last year, Principal Charles Jackson said.

The only tangible reminder of the tragedy is a small plaque in the school library, dedicated to the memory of 10-year-old Shala Eubanks, who died in the attack, along with 24-year-old Carlos Lopez.

But, Jackson admits, no one has forgotten the schoolyard carnage.

"A year later, outwardly this seems to be just a normal school campus," he said. "The problem is, we don't really know what is in some of the students' minds."

The mother of Anna Gonzales, the most seriously wounded student, knows her daughter has not forgotten. Anna, 11, had a kidney destroyed when one of Mitchell's bullets tore through her side, and she is still recuperating. Just last month, she underwent another in a series of operations to repair the damage.

"Daily, she still remembers what happened," Esperanza Gonzales said.

Anna has returned to 49th Street School, but still frightened by her memories, she leaves school each day through a different door, her mother said.

Wanted to Stay Home

On Friday, the last school day before the anniversary of the shooting, Anna was so frightened that she begged her mother to let her stay home.

"She's been worrying that it'll happen again," her mother said. "My heart felt uneasy. But I had to force her to go. I told her not to worry."

But Esperanza Gonzales still worries herself, just as other parents do.

The sight of the stately Victorian house, where Mitchell barricaded himself while he fired 57 rounds into the crowded schoolyard and another into his own head, still triggers frightening memories for many whose lives were touched that day.

"My sons haven't forgotten. I don't think they ever will," said Rosa Ortiz, whose two sons were present when the gunfire rang out.

"I haven't forgotten it," she added. "Every time I come on the playground and see that house across the street, I remember. A lot of parents I talk to wish they would tear it down."

Inside the house, which has a new coat of paint, Tyrone Mitchell's uncle, Willie Mitchell, still lives amid the memories.

"We're pretty much back to the way things were before it happened, though you never forget it," Willie Mitchell said Friday.

Still bitter about the deaths of his nephew's victims, as well as his nephew himself, Mitchell blames the police for not intervening before the sniper attack--to "put (Tyrone Mitchell) away."

"They just wouldn't listen until it was too late," he said. "I just hope the police learned something from this."

It is impossible to say whether the shootings could have been avoided if the police had acted differently, or if the obviously disturbed Tyrone Mitchell had come to the attention of mental health authorities.

Lessons Were Learned

But it is clear that police and mental health officials have, indeed, learned something from the tragedy.

After the shootings, the Los Angeles Police Department convened a board of inquiry, and representatives of the city and county's Fire, Mental Health and Health Services departments, as well as advocacy groups for the mentally ill, joined in to study whether such violent outbursts might be predicted, or prevented, in the future.

Now, a year later, a plan has been developed that would help plug the cracks in the criminal justice system through which Tyrone Mitchell and so many others who are mentally ill and violence-prone have fallen.

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