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Gang Wars Bring Sorrows to School Turf : Education: Recent violence is prompting school administrators to heighten security and call in psychologists to counsel frightened students.

October 25, 1990|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just months after a state report showed a decline in school crime, one gang-related death and a spate of arrests and confrontations at or near area schools have raised concerns that gang turf wars are bleeding from San Gabriel Valley streets onto school campuses.

In districts from Pasadena to Rowland Heights to Pomona, concern over school safety has prompted administrators to beef up security, cancel a varsity football game, bring in psychologists to counsel students and form task forces to study campus violence.

But administrators say it is often difficult to prevent incidents that occur off campus, even if they involve students. Earlier this year, for instance, there were several shootings close to Pomona schools, an official from Pomona Unified said.

Oct. 16, a 12-year-old boy from Marshall Junior High School, whom Pomona officials described as a "wanna-be" who hung out with gang members, was shot in the head and killed, apparently by a member of an opposing gang, as he rode home from school in the back of a pickup truck.

No one has been arrested. The murder has traumatized students at the school, prompting the district to bring in psychologists to counsel the children.

"Because we live in L.A. County and because society is what it is today, none of us are exempt from being exposed to that kind of violence," said Linda Harding, principal of Los Altos High School.

The Hacienda Heights school had its own brush with violence late last month when a student from a rival high school was arrested at a football game, carrying a loaded gun.

Pasadena, which showed a drop in overall school crimes last year, according to the state report, has been hit by a number of potentially violent incidents in recent weeks. Students, parents and teachers feel especially vulnerable, since district cutbacks recently slashed security by half.

At Tuesday's board meeting, parents asked for increased security at Pasadena Alternative School, which lost its only security guard this year due to the budget cuts.

"I don't want to wait until something really bad happens," said Patty Sedlacko, whose children attend Pasadena Alternative.

Several incidents at Pasadena schools in recent weeks underscore her concern.

Two weeks ago, two young men entered a classroom at Blair High School, interrupted teacher Allen Perlstein and refused to leave when he asked them to. Pasadena officials say the two, who were not students, shouted gang-related slogans at class members before abruptly leaving. But they returned a few minutes later and demanded to be let in, pounding violently on the classroom door, which Perlstein had quickly locked.

Perlstein, a 20-year veteran of Pasadena Unified, said he felt "absolutely endangered" by the young men, whose breath reeked of alcohol. He wrote a letter to the board, which read in part:

"I will not give up my life nor my health because this financially strapped school district is having budget problems. Your students as well as your employees have a right to a safe, clean, sane environment and a quality education."

In a second confrontation at Blair, Pasadena officials say a teacher and some students attending a "Back to School Night" in September were harassed and intimidated by two young men. The men refused the teacher's request that they leave and eventually were escorted off campus by security officers.

Pasadena officials say they have requested help from the Pasadena Police Department and that both the police and the district's own security are maintaining a higher profile on high school campuses during school hours.

After an uproar among parents and at school over the Blair incidents, Pasadena assigned two additional officers to that school "to make sure outsiders do not penetrate the campus," said Charles W. Parcell, administrative chief of campus police for Pasadena Unified.

The district is also studying long-range plans that could include bringing off-duty police officers onto campus and shifting some of the district's night security to daytime duty, said John Porter, the district's director of secondary instruction.

Other districts have also taken steps to ward off gang activity. Earlier this year, Pomona Unified launched a day patrol of five armed security officers. The patrol is districtwide, but focuses on junior high and high school campuses.

In addition, the district long ago moved football games out of Pomona, to Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut. That campus is patrolled by L.A. County sheriff's deputies and the college's own security.

Last month, after security officers at Hacienda La Puente Unified arrested a 16-year-old Nogales High School student carrying a loaded gun at a football game, the district canceled one game and decided to increase the number of off-duty deputies at future football games.

It has also set up fences to separate members of opposing schools, figuring that it will lower the risk for violence if it minimizes interaction between them.

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