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Schools Prepare for King Verdict


WESTSIDE — There will be no fire-drill bells. No commands to "drop." But should civil unrest accompany the verdicts in the Rodney G. King civil rights trial, public and private schools on the Westside are prepared to swing into action--quietly and quickly. Nearly all schools have disaster contingency plans, designed initially for earthquakes but applicable to civil disturbances as well. And extra measures will be in place at most facilities, officials said.

"We are trying to prepare in a calm and reasonable way," said Los Angeles Unified School District spokesman Shel Erlich. "We don't anticipate problems at the schools. . . . We are hopeful that students will remain on campus and not feel they have to join in (any rioting that may erupt)."

Last spring, even though most Westside schools were physically removed from the rioting that broke out after not guilty verdicts in the state trial of the four Los Angeles police officers who beat King, they were far from immune to its effects. At the Los Angeles district schools, for example, the majority of students are bused in from areas that were affected by the upheaval and could not be safely transported across town. Attendance dropped sharply, and schools shut down for one day.

In classrooms across Los Angeles today, students will be discussing the imminent verdicts as part of an "L.A. for CommUNITY" day. Deputy Supt. of Schools Ruben Zacarias said the forums are part of a district effort to promote calm student dialogue before the announcement and responsible behavior by young people afterward, regardless of the outcome.

The students will discuss the possibilities--guilty, not guilty, mistrial--and be asked to share their feelings. More general issues of race relations among Los Angeles' diverse ethnic groups may also be discussed.

"We will strongly encourage students to continue their constructive dialogue on these issues with their families and relatives at home and with their friends and peers in the community," he said.

Once the verdicts are in, communication of accurate information and safety instructions is vital. In older schools that lack even an intercom system, staff may have to rely on megaphones and walkie-talkies. Concerned parents may call a district hot line for updates: (213) 625-4000.

Los Angeles district officials said all city schools will be open on the day of the verdict and in its wake, except for any designated by the Los Angeles Police Department as being in "critical" zones. Then, as happened last April, endangered schools would be shut down.

"We really feel the safest place for kids is in school," Erlich said. "What good are tens of thousands of teen-agers out of school on a day they're going to announce the verdict?"

The district's director of police and administrative services, Herbert Graham, said there will be no early closures. "When we have no specific date for the verdict, you can't have parents just not going to their jobs . . . and it's our responsibility to safeguard these youngsters," Graham said.

He said that no school buses were targeted during last year's riots, and no children were injured en route to or from school. Still, he said, school officials and the LAPD will be in close contact concerning schools where safety threats may emerge. The school district's own police force will recall all officers who are on leave and will also deploy officers on their usual days off to work overtime, he said.

"You will see a substantial increase in school police and patrol units," Erlich said.

Each school has its own plan, which ranges from locking gates to releasing children only to their parents. But only acting School Supt. Sid Thompson has the authority to close schools. On the day of the verdict, about 300 school police officers will be deployed on campuses across the city, and could be rerouted immediately.

"But if there is a rush for the door, we don't have enough staff to barricade teen-agers inside," Erlich said.

If incidents occur while classes are in session, schools could cancel field trips and late buses or reroute them around trouble spots, as they did last spring.

Palisades High School Principal Merle Price said teachers and administrators have been meeting quietly this week "to explore contingencies. We just don't want to overreact or encourage hysteria."

Smaller school districts, which are on spring break this week, appear to be taking a more casual approach. Culver City Unified will rely on its basic emergency plan, and has no plans to beef up security.

"We don't feel that is necessary," said Assistant Supt. Vera Jashni. Should the streets become unsafe, parents of elementary school students would be called to pick up their youngsters; high school students would be expected to remain at school, she said.

"At the present time we are not planning to close schools--last year when we did, we realized children may be safer at school than at home if the parents work. At least we can provide a supervised environment."

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