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Students Take Center Court to Decry Violence : In Wake of 4 Deaths, Washington High Parents and Officials Join Youths to Search for Solutions

May 15, 1994|CHARLES SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Four chairs.

Each draped with a black graduation robe. Each with a diploma on the seat.

Each representing a student who once attended Washington High School.

At center court of the school's Margaret Wilson Physical Education Center last week, the four chairs served as a grim reminder of young lives cut short by gunfire.

Students, parents, city officials, businessmen and ministers gathered in the gym to address high school violence, a topic that Washington is all too familiar with. The school has lost three students--Sam Cannady, Antonio Lewis and Michael Nasir--and recent graduate Wallace Dumas to fatal shootings this year. "We've come here to find solutions to stop senseless violence," said senior Gregory Gales, a member of Washington's football and basketball teams. "Something has to be done."

The most recent death, that of Lewis, came April 30 at a house party in Gardena. According to the youth's uncle, Clyde Lewis, the party had turned rowdy before the shooting: "The family was told by authorities that 911 was called to report a party that was getting out of hand and the police (then) drove by the house."

Gardena police said they responded within minutes of shots being fired at 11:43 p.m. The case remains under investigation.

Lewis' slaying sparked anguish and anger among the Washington student body. The next week, students met to prepare for the May 9 press conference that would serve as a forum in which they could voice their frustrations about the violence.

"We are here to let you know we are ready (to find solutions)," 17-year-old senior Jaman Cotton said. "I spent hours and hours preparing for this press conference. I want to know what's going to be done."

Rod Wright, an aide to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) who offered possible legislative solutions such as harsher criminal laws at the county level, said violence first must be dealt with "at the student-body level."

"The shooters can be flushed out if people in the community get involved," he said.

Antonio Bolden, a Los Angeles Unified School District police official, agreed: "We need people to step forward. Antonio was my son's best friend. I used to play ball with Antonio from 8 to 10 every Sunday morning."

Washington graduate Rory Kaufman, an aide to County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, said high school students in general, and at Washington in particular, need more positive interaction in their lives. Faith must be emphasized in school and community, he said.

Herbert Jones, director of the Los Angeles schools' Black Education Commission, said people who have lived "the South-Central experience" can reach youths.

"I used to dodge bullets and gunfire all the time," said Jones, who attended Washington from 1972 to 1975. "We need the former people from the (neighborhood) to come here because their names carry more weight than politicians and policemen. It's amazing, this (press conference) shows what children will do if we provide the floor."

The 40 students gathered in the gym Monday represented a voice that has long cried out without a reply.

"We are tired of being brought down by the media," said student body representative Shannon Jackson. "We are tired of being stereotyped in a negative light."

But some of those who were invited to the press conference said the situation can largely be corrected by the community itself.

Said Kaufman: "(When I went to school), we students held gangs down. I believe students can do it. But parents, students and community have to want to do it. Brothers and sisters have to talk more than they fight."

Principal Marguerite P. Lamotte encouraged students to sign up for future conferences to discuss more solutions. "This is a beginning, a commencement for us," she said.

"(Violence) is not a black-or-white issue but a human issue," said 18-year-old senior Demiko Fitzgerald.

He said the students and the members of the community who were invited to the press conference need to come together. "Leave with a name, number and address instead of will-dos, can-dos and broken promises.

"Has it gotten so bad that we as young people have to worry more about what's going on in the community than our college choices?"

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