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Schools at Risk : Campuses in Crime-Prone Areas Frequently Involve Students in Safety Exercises to Guard Against the Violence

August 28, 1992|BARBARA BRONSON GRAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: Barbara Bronson Gray writes regularly for Valley Life

It's the first day of school, and the teacher is explaining what to do in case of fire, earthquake . . . or drive-by shooting.

She goes over the basics with the class: Go to a protected spot, as far from the fence as possible, behind a wall if you can. Get down, cover your head. Then the class moves outside to practice what school safety experts and some teachers call drive-by shooting, or DBS, drills.

Schools in high-risk areas frequently practice what to do in case of a drive-by shooting, said Yvonne Chan, principal at Vaughn Street Elementary School in Pacoima. She received a $5,000 grant in 1990 from the state Department of Education, which prompted parents to build an wall around the school's lunch area to shield children from drive-by exposure.

"We would have had plenty of drive-by shootings without that," she said.

Many high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District use a metal detection wand at dances and athletic events to look for such weapons as knives and guns. Teachers at John Burroughs High School in Burbank wear cellular pendants or carry special key chains to alert the school office when a campus situation requires backup. Classrooms that border the street in some schools have blacked-out windows to help prevent drive-by shootings.

According to Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, more than 3 million incidents of crime are reported in American schools each year. In the L.A. district, 351 assaults with a deadly weapon took place on campuses during a six-month period in 1991, according to the district's crime report summary. In the same period, 265 students were reported to have brought knives, and 85 guns, to school.

"The big problems in schools used to be bullies," Stephens said, "but now the issues are weapons, drugs and gangs. Kids are more willing to take the risk of carrying a weapon on campus--for protection to school and for protection at school."

The National School Safety Center, a partnership of the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Education and Pepperdine University, provides information, field services, and legal and legislative assistance on efforts to rid schools of crime, violence and drugs. The center publishes a quarterly journal on school safety and provides on-site training and technical assistance programs to schools nationwide.

The problems in the San Fernando Valley and its neighboring suburbs are growing, according to Stephens.

"We better not kid ourselves about the potential for crime and violence in the San Fernando Valley. Many of our schools are surrounded by a 360-degree perimeter of crime and violence."

Buren R. Simmons, supervisor of the the L.A. school district's Youth Relations/Crime Prevention Program, agrees.

"Three years ago, some Valley schools found it difficult to admit there was a gang problem in their community," he said. "But it's no different from any place in the city. There are a greater number of weapons on the street available to young people, and as a result there are problems in the schools."

The problems are intensified when school resumes in the fall because the city's 150,000 gang members will have spent the summer looking for new recruits.

"We're recruiting new teachers, some youngsters are recruiting new gang members," Simmons said.

In the face of such staggering statistics, some local schools have developed innovative strategies for promoting school safety and making the campus a place where students can comfortably learn.

"There's no magic bullet on this," said Tim Buchanan, principal at John Burroughs High. "What you have to do is work on a whole bunch of fronts at once to develop a school climate that works."

Buchanan said his No. 1 priority for faculty and staff is to get to know the students well and to commit themselves to closely supervising the students.

"Some parents have one teen-ager at home they can't control," he said. "I have 1,700 teen-agers to oversee. They have to be closely supervised."

Many of the students at John Burroughs High, according to Buchanan, are either members of gangs or are closely associated with them. So the problems, he said, are complex.

But Buchanan gives his phone number to anyone who wants it: students, parents, faculty and the community. He said he tells the students that he'll open up the school over the weekend to get a forgotten textbook if necessary. He helps get jobs for students who have been involved in gangs--many are working in service areas at St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank--because "it's amazing what a good job can do to transform a teen-ager at risk."

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