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Van Nuys Teen Held in Gun Threat

March 17, 2004|Richard Winton and William Wan | Times Staff Writers

A Birmingham High School junior who allegedly told other students not to come to school Tuesday because he would "shoot the place up" was arrested before classes, police said.

The 16-year-old, who police said had no criminal record, was taken into custody about 2 a.m. on suspicion of making criminal threats. But the boy's mother said Tuesday she believed her son's comments were misinterpreted.

Los Angeles police detectives removed about 53 rounds of ammunition from the family's Van Nuys area apartment but no guns capable of firing the rounds, authorities said. Because the boy is a minor, police did not identify him.

"Fortunately here, others did the right thing and alerted the police, and we were able to avoid any sort of calamity," said Capt. Jim Miller of the Los Angeles Police Department's Van Nuys Division.

The boy's mother said she had been in the process of buying a handgun to protect herself after their home was burglarized twice. She obtained a permit Friday, placed a $100 deposit on a gun and purchased ammunition. But after her son's arrest, the woman said she decided not to buy the gun.

"I wish I never tried to get that gun," she said. "It caused more trouble than it was worth."

Miller said the boy had shown classmates bullets, some of which he may have obtained while accompanying his mother to a firing range.

Those rounds of varying caliber, along with two BB guns, were seized from the family's Parthenia Street apartment, LAPD Officer Sarah Faden said.

Police said the boy allegedly had warned a group of classmates Monday.

"He told them something to the effect, 'Don't come to school tomorrow. I am going to shoot up the place,' " Miller said.

The motive remains unclear, and police said the boy's mother had been unaware of his alleged threats. However, she said she believed her son's words were directed at teenagers at the school whom she believed had burglarized their apartment. The boy was issuing a warning that the suspected burglars would be shot if they tried it again, the mother said.

Los Angeles Unified School District Police Chief Alan Kerstein said the district had two or three threats annually that result in arrests.

Since July, his officers have discovered 23 guns on campuses across the district, Kerstein said. Two were at Birmingham High, according to Olga Quinones, a spokeswoman for the Van Nuys school.

In the 2002-03 school year, Birmingham High had nine possession of a weapon offenses, two assaults with a deadly weapon and 28 batteries, according to school police.

A study of juvenile court records between 1988 and 1997 found that 1,893 LAUSD students were arrested on campus for carrying guns in that period. Sixty percent were placed on probation or sent to diversion programs.

School districts and police agencies across the nation have taken a much more cautious approach to threats by students since the April 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo. Armed with rifles and pipe bombs, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, went from room to room, killing 12 students and one teacher before taking their own lives. Parents of those killed have questioned why authorities there ignored warning signs such as prior threats.

Kerstein said students can help prevent such incidents.

"The real hero in this case is the student who realized this was important enough to report it," he said.

Detectives began the investigation after the mother of a student who heard of the boy's alleged warning Monday called the LAPD about 9:45 p.m. to report what her child said. Detectives quickly interviewed students and then made the arrest.

The boy was being held in Sylmar juvenile hall Tuesday.

Neighbor Dori Walker said the boy "looks like a regular kid. I feel bad for his mom."

Other neighbors described him as quiet and said he could often be heard playing computer games.

At the Birmingham High School campus Tuesday morning, television trucks and vans crowded the curb. Many students wondered if the timing of the incident had to do with a major examination being administered Tuesday.

School officials told students of the arrest in the morning and sent a letter to parents detailing events. A locker search was also conducted before classes, said spokeswoman Quinones.

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