LA PUENTE — Not a gun was fired, but Rowland Unified School District officials said that last Saturday began the most serious battle yet over gang turf in the south San Gabriel Valley.
And instead of dodging the bullets, it was district parents, students and employees who fired the first salvo, a verbal barrage of defiance in the form of blaring band instruments and chanting cheerleaders.
About 1,000 marchers from the Rowland district joined 2,500 others from Bassett Unified and Haci enda La Puente Unified in a spirited anti-gang rally in La Puente Park. Participants converged from three directions.
"Normally, we're helping our school" win football games, said 17-year-old cheerleader Beatriz Garcia. "But this is for the community."
"Who are we?" they shouted.
"What do we want? No gangs!
"When do we want it? Now!"
For Rowland participants, who met at Workman Elementary, the gathering marked the start of Operation: Safe Community, a school-district led coalition of parents, churches, service clubs, business leaders, youth groups, government officials and law-enforcement agencies.
In addition to the rally, volunteers have begun organizing neighborhood watches and sponsored gang-awareness seminars for parents.
The Rowland group coordinated its part of the rally with Operation COURAGE, another new anti-gang coalition organized by Industry sheriff's station personnel.
"Collectively, we can do something about gangs," Rowland Supt. Sharon Robinson said. "Individually, it's hard to do anything."
On Monday, a teen-ager on a bicycle fired five or six shots as he rode past Nelson Elementary School in the Hacienda La Puente district.
Gang activity became so pronounced in some areas served by Rowland that, in September, worried district officials canceled a Nogales home football game. That month, deputies recorded at least 16 gang-related shootings in and around La Puente during a two-week period.
In one incident, gang members in a car fired shots at the Nogales band during practice.
"We were practicing our field music," said Damian Perry, a ninth-grader from West Covina. "We thought it was a firecracker. We didn't know what it was."
The incident concerned parent Arfield Davis, who has two sons in the band, for reasons beyond the safety risk. "It gave the impression that Nogales was rowdy," he said. "There's no need to be afraid of Nogales."
Not every parent agrees. Some members of a Walnut group that wants to transfer to Walnut Valley Unified School District have expressed concern about their children's safety in Rowland schools.
The district felt a response to the community gang problem was in order. "I couldn't cancel a game that affected that many youngsters and not take the next step in good conscience to make sure that didn't happen again," Robinson said.
Thus, the rally.
Behind an escort of deputies, the cheerfully raucous quarter-mile procession left Workman at 10:30 a.m. As the cheerleaders led the way, pep adviser Lila Johnson told them, only half joking, to run into the middle of the band for protection if they heard shots.
The procession marched past neighborhood resident Cathy Fonseca, 41, who attended Workman Elementary and now has three children there.
"This used to be a quiet little school here," she said. "Now, there is a lot of violence at night. You hear windows breaking and gangs hollering.
"We can't leave our cars on the street anymore. They take our batteries. . . .
"We're not marching," she said, pulling her children closer to her. "We don't trust the gangs."