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Police Assigned to El Monte High Schools Full Time

Safety: City uses grant in bid to reduce gang fights and delinquency. Some students mistrust officers, but others welcome added security.

December 26, 1999|EDGAR SANDOVAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

El Monte police officers are going back to high school--for at least three years.

Police and school administrators in this San Gabriel Valley city will station four officers full time at each of the city's five high schools beginning Jan. 3.

Many cities across the nation are putting police on campus to help ensure safety.

El Monte police say they want to curb the number of gang fights and reduce juvenile crime. So they applied for a federal community policing grant and told the U.S. government that an influx of immigrants has brought more than just rich diversity to the city of about 114,000.

Police say that Latino and Asian gangs often confront each other and that 18% of the students in regular high school and 47% of those at a special high school for troubled youths are involved in gangs or similar groups.

School administrators say they are eager to work with the officers.

"The need is here," said Mountain View High School Principal Gloria Acosta. "Students need to feel safe. Sometimes street problems carry over to the school campus."

Some Mountain View students, such as Marcela Torres and Marco Velasco, both 18, like the idea. They said they will be able to go to the police officers if they see suspicious activity or want to help a friend in trouble.

But some students say they distrust police, citing a controversial shooting last summer.

El Monte police raided the Compton home of 65-year-old Mario Paz on Aug. 9. SWAT officers shot the locks off the doors and stormed inside looking for an alleged drug dealer who had used the address in the past.

Officers found Paz in his bedroom and later said they thought he was reaching for a weapon. One of the officers fatally wounded Paz as Paz's wife watched. Police found some weapons but no drugs during the raid.

Some El Monte High School students said they already see enough police officers on campus and feel threatened.

"They 1/8police 3/8 come all the time and ask us questions," said William East, a 16-year-old sophomore. "I don't like cops.

"They probably want to pretend to be our friends to get information," he added. "I don't feel comfortable with cops in school. It's like being in prison."

School officials say police patrol the area to ensure security.

Acosta has approached some of the students to discuss what the officers assigned to campuses will do.

Each, she said, "will be a tool. If students are being hassled by 1/8other 3/8 police, he will solve that problem. We don't want him to give tickets for jaywalking. We want him to solve our problems."

El Monte police hope that the program, funded with a $500,000 federal grant, will help them demonstrate that they are there to aid students.

The money will pay the officers' salaries for the next three years. The officers will be stationed at Mountain View, El Monte and Arroyo high schools and Valley Lindo and Boys Republic continuation high schools.

Police said they began thinking about the program before the shooting in Compton and hope it will promote stronger community relations.

"It takes 1/8just 3/8 one bad incident to have people saying, 'I told you so,' " said Bill Ankeny, assistant chief of police in El Monte. "This is different. We will be there to work with them and not against them."

Ankeny said that once students and parents learn what the school resource officers do, they will view them as part of the school staff and not just as police.

Pointing to the recent rash of school violence across the nation, officials say schools can never be too secure.

Ankeny said he does not think area high school students would ever commit fatal crimes, but added, "I'm sure Columbine 1/8High School in Littleton, Colo. 3/8 could have made that statement before the shootings" there last spring.

The El Monte officers will not be in uniform but will carry guns. All have worked in youth-oriented programs.

"We want to become 1/8students' 3/8 friends," Ankeny said. "The police officers will act as mentors. The more you know about youths, the more you can understand their problems and how to solve them."

The officers will have their own office and will organize job fairs, talk with students about crime prevention and deal with problems as they arise.

John Batres, who has been an El Monte police officer for seven years, said he remembers when community activists used to visit his school to talk about gangs, drugs and alcohol.

"They made me think," said Batres, who will patrol Mountain View. "They changed my life.

"I want to teach 1/8students 3/8 the difference between right and wrong," he said. "I want to tell them that every criminal act has a consequence."

Nationwide, about 6% of public schools have city police officers assigned to campuses 30 or more hours per week, said Joanne McDaniel, associate director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, an organization that monitors the work of police who patrol schools.

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