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3,000 Locked in School for 6 Hours After Gunfire

July 31, 2001|DUKE HELFAND and KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The early morning shooting of a school police officer outside Belmont High School on Monday led to a nearly daylong lock-down of the huge campus near downtown Los Angeles--a precaution that forced students to scrounge for food, while away the hours listening to rock music and relieve themselves in plastic sacks provided by their teachers.

Nearly 3,000 students spent more than six hours behind closed doors in their classrooms, as dozens of police officers combed the year-round campus and surrounding neighborhood for a gunman and his accomplice after the shooting of school district Officer Conrad Bonilla, 33.

Although Bonilla was only slightly injured, authorities said it took them most of the day to assure that the two assailants were no longer a threat to the school. Teachers finally released students about 2 p.m.

During the most protracted school lock-down in district memory, some instructors went on with their lessons, despite the tension of a police search. A few students managed to get some homework done. But mostly it was a day of endurance and coping, until police confirmed that the gunman was not on school grounds, just west of the Harbor Freeway.

Several dozen parents paced nervously in front of the school for much of the day, hoping to receive some word about their children. But most students seemed to take the ordeal with good humor, as evidenced by a few who hung placards out of classroom windows pleading for water, or to be set free.

"It was boring and scary and exciting all at the same time," said Marcos Coronel, 13, a ninth-grader.

Zoila Monterrozo was in a school office when she was ordered to stay put. Later, she and other students followed police officers and teachers to the nurse's office, to use a bathroom. They also received some water and cookies.

"We were looking out the window [of the nurse's office] to the front of the school," said Monterrozo, an 18-year-old senior. "We saw police officers eating hamburgers. We were like, 'OK, when do we get to eat?' "

Los Angeles Unified School District policy requires, at the time of a shooting, that all students be immediately secured in classrooms or other campus locations, away from danger. Monday's Belmont lock-down was reinforced by an order from Los Angeles police, who told school administrators that students could not be allowed in the hallways, district officials said.

Police insisted that the prolonged lock-down was necessary to ensure safety at one of the city's most crowded schools. The shooting occurred just before the beginning of the day at the campus.

"Unfortunately, we found out several hours later that the suspects had fled out of the perimeter prior to our [SWAT] deployment," said Officer Jason Lee, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Police acknowledged that students endured hunger and boredom in their cramped classrooms, but they said the lock-down was a necessary evil, given the possible danger.

"I'm sure it was pretty uncomfortable for them," said Richard Page, of the L.A. Unified police department. "I have teenagers, and I know they don't like to be held for a long time in one place."

Belmont Principal Ignacio Garcia said school administrators opted for the trash bag toilets as the only safe alternative. A police officer helped deliver the bags, which were taken from earthquake emergency kits.

Garcia and another administrator even explained in an interview how teachers could use the metal frames of classroom seats to fashion crude toilets. It was unclear whether any teachers actually followed through on such plans. By later in the day, police officers were escorting students to restrooms, school police officials said.

One school board member was not amused by the day's events, criticizing the length of the lock-down and the fact that some students were expected to rely on trash bags in place of restrooms. "It's inhumane," said David Tokofsky. "If this is state-of-the-art approach to lock-downs, then I'm a little confused."

Tokofsky said that in 1993, when he was a teacher at Fairfax High School, administrators and police escorted students to restrooms during a lock-down after a student was shot and killed.

The long Belmont episode began just after the 7:20 a.m. shooting, when school and police officials ordered students, teachers and staff to remain indoors until a thorough search had been conducted.

With no food and no bathroom trips permitted, many teachers cast their lesson plans aside and did their best to entertain their stir-crazy teenagers during a hot day that seemed to drag on forever.

"I gave them every piece of candy I had in my classroom," said English teacher Pam Nehring.

One math teacher popped open the CD-ROM on her classroom computer and let her students blare Led Zeppelin and the Beatles. Other teachers let their students play Jeopardy on computers or hangman on chalkboards.

The students in one art class, equipped with a television, watched the police and crowds swell around their campus on the morning news.

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