VENTURA — For years, Lauren Velasco has dropped off her disabled son at Dorothy Boswell School, confident the 6-year-old would be safe in the special program Ventura County provides on the quiet campus.
But after learning that he shares the campus with older students expelled from local high schools--including some suspected in a recent attack that sent two Buena High students to the hospital--Velasco walks him into the classroom and now plans to stay with him during his sessions.
Like many neighbors and parents, she is questioning the county's decision to fill the Loma Vista Road school with an unusual mix of students: disabled youngsters, teen parents and students expelled or referred from other high schools because of minor criminal activity, drug use or habitual truancy.
"My feeling is if they can't attend school with typical children in a typical high school, if they can't do that and that is unsafe, then why is it proper to place them with disabled children?" Velasco asked. "My son couldn't run away if someone pulled a knife on him."
The older students are part of Gateway, a program run by the school superintendent's office for teens expelled or referred for various reasons that call for alternatives to regular school curricula. The county started moving Gateway students into Boswell School nine years ago, but many residents and parents did not notice until hearing news accounts about an incident two weeks ago near the corner of Loma Vista and Day roads. A Buena High School student was stabbed in the back and another beaten while on a power walk with their instructor and peers as part of a gym class.
Ventura police detectives--still in the process of interviewing nearly two dozen possible witnesses--suspect four or five students at the Gateway Ventura satellite school were responsible for what they consider a gang-related attack. No arrests have been made.
Since the attack, neighbors have been calling the county superintendent of schools and Gateway program officials with a host of questions, ranging from what kinds of students go there, to what measures are being taken to ensure safety on the campus and in the neighborhood.
County Schools Supt. Charles Weis has promised to meet with the community at Boswell School to listen to concerns and allay some fears at 6:30 p.m. on April 17.
For many, the recent attacks shattered the tranquillity of the neighborhood, bordered by the Ventura College and Boswell campuses to the south and Arroyo Verde Park to the north.
"Anything like that, you're concerned about because we generally think Ventura is safe, a beach town, a small town, where people have small businesses and know each other, so when something like this happens it's really shocking," said Cheryl Rodriguez, who lives near the school.
A number of residents said school officials had an obligation to inform them a Gateway program exists in their neighborhood.
"I think we should have been told or have some input," said Marc Wertin, a neighborhood homeowner. "I think that would have been common courtesy. The people that I know knew absolutely nothing about it. That's why it was a shock to me."
Velasco, who enrolled her son at Boswell two years ago, is urging officials to place disabled students in a facility separate from Boswell School or to implement stronger measures within the building to keep students safe.
What happens if a child like her own, wearing leg braces and leaning on crutches, is attacked, she wondered. Or what about a special education student who has difficulty speaking?
"You think you would want to put [the continuation students] with kids hard to prey on or difficult to get to, but they've surrounded them with easy prey and I find that troubling, especially when my son is involved," Velasco said. "That's what makes me outraged."
Dorothy Boswell School opened in 1982 to accommodate special education and disabled students. But when enrollment on campus dipped and left a room available, the county superintendent's office started the Ventura Gateway satellite there.
The program has now expanded to three classrooms and attempts to give continuation students and teen parents another chance to receive an education. Typically no more than 150 continuation students are in the program, but only half that many are on campus at a given time.
The continuation students do not mix with youngsters with disabilities on campus, school officials stress. Break times are staggered so that the groups do not mill around the hallways together. And, officials add, the groups are kept in separate rooms on a campus that is closely monitored by school officials.
"For nine years we haven't had any problems, and this incident that we had was not on school campus," Weis said. "So in that respect I can say the campus is safe. This incident is terrible, it's a wake-up call to enhance security, but I would have my child there and I wouldn't have a problem with that."