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A Campus Oasis Amid the Violence

Fremont High, with its two school police and 18 security guards, offers sanctuary from the mean streets in South-Central.

April 11, 2001|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three blocks east of the 101 in the heart of South-Central Los Angeles, Fremont High School sits on a street of indifferent looking motels, burger stands and stray dogs. Across the corner from a self-service laundry where police say truants buy and sell drugs, the school is nearly hidden behind a $475,000 fence of curving iron spears and a metal screened wall that serves as the entrance. A friendly guard waves bewildered visitors over to a gate. After the first bell at 7:40 a.m., it is the only way in or out.

Inside, two armed school police officers and 18 security guards patrol a flowering oasis of lawn, shrubs and twittering birds. A county probation officer oversees the 50 or so probationers among the school's several thousand students.

The high security has led some students to nickname the school "Fremont Pen." But all things considered, said expelled student Gerardo Gomez, "I'd rather be in there than out here. There's too much gangbanging out here." At lunch last week, Gomez, 17, had been unable to persuade the guard that he should enter, so he talked through the screen to a friend inside. Gomez, his head fuzzed with stubble, said that he had been kicked out for fighting and for hitting a teacher with a stick but that he hoped to be readmitted some day.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 13, 2001 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong freeway--A story Wednesday about Fremont High School misstated the name of the freeway near the school. It is the 110.

Unlike suburban schools shocked by campus shooting sprees, Fremont is a sort of sanctuary amid an ambient presence of violence. The neighborhood is home to four major street gangs and has the city's highest rates of poverty, homicide and foster care. Nearly every student knows someone who's been shot.

Interviews with about 20 students revealed: a 16-year-old girl whose 14-year-old brother was shot and killed in September by unknown assailants; a 19-year-old paralyzed in a drive-by shooting who has lost five friends and relatives to gunshots since September; and a 20-year-old whose first love, a 16-year-old girl, died in his arms after a drive-by shooting.

Some, like student body president Kathy Rosado, 17, live with a constant low-level fear that they may get caught in cross fire. Kathy said she never feels completely safe, even at home, at school, or at quincean~era parties where she's seen people brandish guns they had packed in their fancy clothes. "You're not safe anywhere, not even if you're sitting in church," said Kathy, a lively girl in a T-shirt labeled "Princess" in rhinestones.

As a child, Kathy said, she used to be frightened at the sight of police squads pointing rifles at homes of suspected drug dealers in her neighborhood. Now, she said, "it's just something I've gotten used to. It's become normal to me."

So have the routines in and around Fremont's fence. The security staff and administrators use walkie-talkies to monitor students' movements and speak in code ("Fremont One to Charlie Four.") A patrol car assigned to the school cruises the perimeter, as the security staff call it, and checks for truants, tardies and any problem that might cause students trouble.

If serious fights break out, perpetrators are read their Miranda rights, handcuffed, taken to the school police office, then turned over to police. Administrators periodically use a metal detector to check students in a randomly chosen classroom.

But the emphasis on physical safety at school is costly, and it can obscure other unexplored issues. The money spent on safety equipment may generally diminish mental health or academic efforts; the school's image can discourage more experienced educators from teaching there. Security is as much about people as equipment, authorities say. Despite mixed reviews of the fence, which went up last year, students and teachers said they feel protected in part by a sense of family and community, by knowing others and being known by them. The unspoken code, they said, is that people don't shoot at strangers or people they know for no reason; they shoot only at perceived enemies.

The safest place for a student, authorities said, is one with the most adults who are responsible and care about them. At Fremont, many students said, those adults are often the guards who pay attention to them and hold them accountable.

Enrollment of 4,400 Students

Fremont is a large school with 4,400 students on three tracks, no more than two-thirds of them on campus at one time. Nearly 90% of the students are Latino, including a large number of immigrants, and 10% are African American.

The campus is as safe as any middle-class suburban high school in the district, said Wesley Mitchell, chief of the Los Angeles Unified School District's police department, which assigns at least one armed officer to each of its 49 high schools and most of its middle schools.

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