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Departing in Fear : 35 Students Pull Out of Fairfax High After Fatal Shooting

September 28, 1986|JOHN L. MITCHELL | Times Staff Writer

Fairfax High School has always prided itself on being an urban school without all the urban problems. But in the two weeks since the shooting of an 18-year-old former student on campus, an estimated 35 students have left out of concern for their safety.

"There were those parents who told us directly that they were pulling their children out because of the shooting," Principal Warren Steinberg said. "Then there were some we knew were intending to move into the school but never did, and then there were others who just quietly slipped away.

"I know a divorced man whose child was living with him before the shooting, but the child has since moved to his mother's house and is attending school in another district."

After the shooting, Steinberg said, other schools began requesting transcripts of students who wanted to transfer.

Will Lose Position

Steinberg said that their departures will cost the school one teaching position. The school already expects to lose five positions this year because its enrollment fell by 180 students, to 2,500, instead of increasing by 250 as projected

Parents and students have tried to put the memory of the first slaying in the school's 62-year history behind them, but it continues to surface in questions about the presence of gangs and weapons on campus as well as the school's overall security.

Tony Thompson, a former Fairfax student, was shot and killed Sept. 12 by two students after an argument in the first-floor hallway of the main building over the use of a pay telephone, police said.

Sue Taylor, the president of the school's community advisory council, said the shooting may be raising fears among many parents.

Reassuring Parents

"We have been trying to tell parents that (their children) can get a viable education at Fairfax and it is safe," she said. "We had done a fairly good job of trying to get the message across, but something like this can blow it. It is difficult to reassure people after this."

Steinberg said a variety of new security measures are under consideration. Parents have asked that aides be hired to monitor the halls. Students have been asked to report anyone who looks suspicious or whom they suspect of carrying a weapon. Visitors, who are already required to check in at the main office when they arrive on campus, may also be asked to wear identification badges. Access to the campus during school hours is restricted to the main entrance.

Police said the shooting was not gang-related. The two students who were arrested were gang members but Thompson was not, police said.

In fact, Steinberg said, gangs have had little impact on the campus aside from painting graffiti on the walls.

"I think the reason (why so few students have left) is that the kids know that we don't have a gang-infested campus. We have a good campus," Steinberg said.

Taylor and several other parents said they were concerned because one of the students arrested after the shooting had been allowed to enroll at Fairfax under a program that allows students who are experiencing problems at one school to transfer to another and start anew. The "opportunity transfer program" allows principals to swap problem students, but the parents criticized the program as trading bad apples.

But school officials defended the transfer program, saying they provide authorities with another option to help troubled students, short of expulsion.

Thompson, who was a freshman at West Los Angeles College, had returned to Fairfax to visit a special-education teacher who had helped him overcome dyslexia, a common learning disability.

Police said Thompson got into an argument with two students over the telephone. One of the students pulled out a gun and shot Thompson. He was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and died in the emergency room.

Cathleen Head, a social studies teacher who taught Thompson last year, started a petition drive last week to have those responsible for his killing tried as adults.

"It think it is important that young people know that if you take someone's life, you have stepped into the realm of adult behavior," she said. "They should not be able to walk away from a murder. Tony cannot walk away from it."

Added Taylor, "It was an isolated incident, but you can use it to express the need to beef up security and impress on children to encourage them to turn in kids with weapons."

"I've had two children go through Fairfax," said parent Bernard Levins. "I know it is a safe campus as reasonably safe as a campus can be."

"I think people recognize that this was not typical of this school, we are a good solid school with high academic achievement," Steinberg said. "We are an urban school and we are a good solid urban school."

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