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A Sense of Security : Principal Spends $50,000 in 5 Years to Protect His School

September 29, 1985|JOHN L. MITCHELL | Times Staff Writer

Richard Homet, the principal of Alta Loma Elementary School, says he has finally made his school a safe place for the children and teachers. But it has taken nearly five years and $50,000 to do it.

For years, Alta Loma Elementary School, located on Vineland Avenue east of La Brea Avenue, has been plagued by break-ins, graffiti and other forms of vandalism. Homet said the problems disrupted the education of the 900 children and made it difficult for the school to attract good teachers.

Homet said he decided to combat the problem by making his school one of the most security conscious in the western area of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Break-ins had occurred monthly before the security measures were undertaken, but there were only two in the 1984-85 school year, he said.

School Plagued by Graffiti

Graffiti are still a problem but officials hope that by removing the writing as soon as it appears, they will discourage other perpetrators. Graffiti appeared on school walls four times over the summer. Each time, Homet called district maintenance workers to remove it and then asked local artists to paint murals throughout the campus because graffiti artists are reluctant to paint over them. So far, the plan is working, he said. The murals have not been touched.

"The principal has the responsibility for the safety, welfare and health of the students," Homet said. "I have to know that this is a safe campus. A safe campus will create a stable environment for the children to learn in."

Homet used money that might have gone toward books or educational materials for the security measures. He justified his expenditures by saying: "If we didn't spend it we could lose even more" to burglaries and vandalism.

But creating a safe campus has not been easy. Alta Loma is a night-time hangout for teen-age gang members who do not go to his school, he said.

Homet said that shortly after he came to the school almost five years ago, he had security grills affixed to every window. The grills were bolted to the building after burglars discovered they could be pulled off. Then, when the bolts failed to keep out intruders, bars were welded over the grills on the office windows. Metal doors were installed with heavy padlocks. That seemed to work.

Homet also thought he had created a "burglar-proof" room for television sets and other expensive equipment. He had the door secured with a heavy steel bar and padlock. Burglars ignored the door and smashed through the wall to get four televsion sets. Since then the wall has been reinforced with steel.

Last year, someone drove up to the school one weekend and removed two upright pianos and one baby grand piano. The baby grand fell off the back of the truck as the thieves drove away. The thieves were never caught.

Other Schools Suffer, Too

Ron Lozer, director of maintenance for more than 170 school facilities in the district's western region and part of the central city, said that although Alta Loma has one of the worst vandalism problems in his area, others schools also suffer.

"There is a school of thought that says all first-floor windows at schools need to have security grills," he said. "We haven't reached that point yet, but basically we do need them for rooms with expensive items like computers and audio-visual equipment."

Homet begins his security check at Alta Loma each morning around sunrise when he arrives on campus.

He deactivates the school's sensitive alarm system that is designed to detect an intruder's body heat and motion. Then he surveys the buildings for graffiti or any evidence of a break-in. He often completes the check in the school yard searching for broken beer bottles.

By 7:30 a.m., most of the teachers have arrived. Because the school does not have a parking lot, teachers are allowed to park their cars on the school yard if they arrive 10 minutes before the children come for the school's breakfast program. After that, the teachers must park on the street where, many said, their cars have been broken into. The teachers are rarely late.

Then from 8:20 a.m. to 2:20 p.m., the campus is closed and all entrances, except the front door, are locked. No one is allowed to enter the school grounds without permission.

The extra security is worth three times what it cost, said Lynette Goldner, a first-grade teacher. "I would like my children to have a greater sense of pride in their building and I don't like to look out my window and see four-letter words on the wall."

"When you come into your school and find that your room has been vandalized you feel devastated," said Barbara Carson, a teacher. "It makes you feel as if your home has been broken into."

But not all teachers agree with Homet's expenditure on security. Aladean Markham, a sixth-grade teacher, said, "I doubt that we have saved that much as far as material (losses), but if it saves us in emotional stress then it could be worth it."

Maureen Baker, a fifth-grade teacher, said that money could have been better spent on educational materials. "Personally I think they are a little phobic about the whole thing," she said. "I think the bars set a bad example. I wouldn't put them on my home and I don't like to see them at work. I feel it is going overboard."

But Margaret Young, the mother of a kindergarten student, disagreed. She said the bars are reassuring. "I feel safe when I'm in the school," she said.

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