Police established a task force. Schools were alerted. Letters went home. Flyers were posted. Meetings were held. Children were warned, taught and cajoled.
A man believed to be responsible for molesting more than two dozen children struck again Wednesday, accosting an 11-year-old girl as she walked to Van Nuys Elementary School. This time, his victim got away.
"She followed the instructions that she has been given here at school, that is not to talk to strangers, to run away from strangers," Van Nuys Principal Sally Shane said.
As news of yet another attack spread through the San Fernando Valley on Thursday, parents and school officials were incredulous about the brazenness of the attacker and self-congratulatory because their efforts to protect their children have so far been successful.
Since news about the string of molestations broke three weeks ago, many parents have angrily challenged police and school administrators, claiming a right to know more and more quickly of crimes against children in their area.
Police have said that once they established in early November that there was a pattern of crimes, they needed to keep the information out of the news so as not to scare the suspect underground. Schools have said they let parents know about the crimes as soon as they knew.
Many parents cited the most recent incident as proof that they are the best guardians of their children's well-being.
"It's as a result of the news getting out, because parents started reinforcing what they have been teaching their children all along about strangers and what to do," said Jan Sandman, PTA president for Fullbright Avenue Elementary School and the mother of a 10-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl.
Thursday afternoon at Hazeltine Avenue Elementary School in Van Nuys, children searched through a line of waiting friends and relatives and scurried away within minutes after the bell. Not more than a few miles from the most recent attack, few--if any--unaccompanied children walked home from Hazeltine.
By 4 p.m., after all other children had cleared away from the grass in front of the school gate and the crossing guards had packed away their lawn chairs, 8-year-old Wendy waited patiently for her mother.
Normally, she said, her 10-year-old sister picks her up and the girls walk home together. But today, Wendy said, her mother told her to wait. "She heard in the news about strangers," Wendy explained, hiking her bright pink backpack up on her shoulder.
She did not wait long before one of the lingering adults reminded her that she should not wait in front of the school by herself.
"Remember what we've been taking about?" Patricia Abney, Hazeltine's principal, asked the third-grader. "About how there are strangers out there? Your mom will find you if you wait in the yard."
Schools throughout the Valley on Thursday sent home new notes to parents and continued to assess their safety instruction.
At Nestle Avenue Elementary School along the Tarzana-Encino border, Principal Edward Catlatt said he went to each classroom and had the children write "promise notes" to their parents pledging that they would not walk home alone.
"We're going to start a parent patrol around the school," Catlatt said. "Groups of two patrol the perimeter in the mornings and after school." In the afternoon the volunteer parents, who will wear identifying yellow badges, will be "on the yard, sitting on benches and not doing anything but watching the gates," Catlatt said.
William Snow, principal at Blythe Street Elementary School, said that while he has been stunned by the recent crimes, he has been forced to recognize that they serve as a warning on our society.
"Not in 28 years have I been in a situation where one person has been so bold as to continue to do this," Snow said. "There's lots of crazy people out there and we all just have to be more careful. Society will not let us play the games we played 25 years ago."
At Van Nuys Elementary, parents waited in groups along the front walk, and talked about what they had heard in news reports and from friends. Hyacinth Guerra, waiting for her two sons, ages 7 and 9, said the latest attack might have been worse.
"I tell my boys about strangers," said Joyce White, balancing her 1-year-old son, Tevin, on her hip while she waited for her two other sons, ages 5 and 6. "It's scary. I can't tell them enough and I can't get it across to them.
"If a stranger came up to my child and said, 'I'll give you a Nintendo tape, they'd be gone.' "
The Valley Molester: 14 Attacks
Police believe serial child molester may be responsible for as many as 26 attacks on San Fernando Valley Children since February, at least half of which involved students on their way to Valley schools. The partial list below is from sources in the LAPD:
1. Columbus Middle School 22250 Elkwood, Canoga Park Date and time: Feb. 22, 6:45 a.m. Victim: female, 12 years old