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Shootings Prompt a Call for Tighter Security Near Schools

Police arrest two men in the wounding of a student outside a South L.A. campus Tuesday.

September 18, 2003|Cara Mia DiMassa and Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writers

As police announced the arrests of two men Wednesday in the shooting of a student near a South Los Angeles high school, community leaders, parents and the victim called for increased vigilance and security in the areas around the city's public schools.

A 16-year-old freshman at Duke Ellington Continuation High School was hit in the leg by a stray bullet Tuesday as he waited for a bus outside the campus. Los Angeles Unified School District police said Wednesday they had arrested two men on charges of attempted murder and said a third was wanted for questioning. Citing an ongoing investigation, they did not release the men's names.

The shooting victim, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, was scheduled for surgery in the next few days to repair his calf.

"I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said from a local hospital. "I think they should have more cops in that area because there is too much shooting going on." That was the second shooting involving students outside Los Angeles high schools in a week.

On Sept. 9, three teenagers waiting at a bus stop outside Taft High School in Woodland Hills were wounded when men in a car shouted a gang challenge and fired into a crowd.

At a news conference Wednesday across the street from Washington Prep, which shares a campus with Ellington, Los Angeles school board member Marguerite Poindexter La Motte called on residents, students and police to work together to make schools and neighborhoods safer.

"We just must abhor violence across this city," said La Motte, a former principal of Washington Prep, "if it's at Taft High School, if it's at Washington, if it's at Duke" Ellington.

Students and parents agreed.

"I don't like this situation," said Jimmy Elliott, father of 14-year-old Kynela Spencer, a freshman at Washington Prep. He said he was considering withdrawing his daughter from the school. "She's ready to check out. This is just too much."

"It's too close to the school," said his daughter, who catches a bus almost every day near the shooting site. "You don't know when it's time to die."

Alan Kerstein, chief of police for Los Angeles schools, said that over the past year his department has been more vigorously patrolling the half-mile radius around campuses, calling the action "a protective umbrella around our schools." But he downplayed suggestions that the incidents represented an uptick in violence near campuses.

"I think it's just a sense of increased attention has been paid to this," he said. "That's basically all it is."

Statistics kept by school police paint an incomplete picture. Since July 1, officials have reported four shootings involving students or school personnel near Los Angeles campuses: Tuesday's violence; the incident near Taft; and two reports over the summer, outside Jordan and North Hollywood high schools.

Last school year, there were nine shootings near L.A. Unified campuses; in the 2001-02 school year, there was only one.

Kerstein said that it would be improper to conclude that campuses are not safe. Instead, he said, it's a "coincidence of location. It isn't persistently dangerous schools," he said. "It's persistently dangerous neighborhoods. And in every neighborhood, from Seattle to Washington, D.C., you are going to have neighborhoods with violence."

However, Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm, said he was seeing a "significant spike" nationwide in high-profile incidents of school violence, including a number of shootings on and off campuses.

"Without being alarmist," Trump said, "you wonder whether we are in for a much hotter year in terms of school violence."

The issue is expected to be discussed today at a previously scheduled meeting at USC. Mayor James K. Hahn, Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer and LAPD Chief William J. Bratton were scheduled to meet with residents of South Los Angeles to discuss how to make neighborhoods in that area safer.

Ever since a lunchtime fight in March on the Washington Prep campus escalated into a brawl involving several hundred students, L.A. Unified officials have been working to upgrade security there and at Ellington. New principal Herbert Jones established stricter discipline policies and retrained security staff, among other changes.

And school officials began bringing together parents, teachers, community activists and law enforcement officers to plan ways for ensuring that students get to and from school safely. Coincidentally, that group met Tuesday, only a few hours before the shooting.

However, school district spokeswoman Stephanie Brady said gang problems in the neighborhood around Ellington and Washington Prep make off-campus security a special concern. "This is a school that probably has more gang intersection than any other school in the city," she said.

Monica Lee, a 17-year-old Washington Prep senior, said she feels secure inside school, but not outside its gates.

"Right now my parents are afraid for my safety -- not because I go here. Once I am in school they know I am safe. But the predators outside -- that's what they are afraid of. They are petrified."

Washington Prep student Sam Turner, 17 -- waiting with a friend for an MTA bus Wednesday afternoon -- said that incidents like Tuesday's shooting are "normal for us.... We're not shocked that somebody got popped. We feel sorry for him, but we have to keep going."

Turner said he had almost been shot once standing at a bus stop. But the incident did not deter him, he said, as his bus pulled up and he stood to get on it.

"I still have plans," he said. "I need to go to school. Life goes on."

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