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Attendance Plummets at City Schools

A major increase in absences is reported amid rumors of gang violence. L.A. Unified fears loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

May 06, 2005|Joel Rubin and Nicholas Shields | Times Staff Writers

Tens of thousands of Los Angeles students stayed away from city schools Thursday amid rumors of impending gang violence.

Principals and teachers at several Los Angeles Unified School District campuses let out a collective sigh of relief as the school day progressed without any major incidents. They cringed, however, at the increased number of absences that could cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost state funding.

"I'm devastated that a rumor can cause such fear," said Randy Cornfield, assistant principal at Hamilton High School. "I was telling parents it would be safer to have their kids in school than out on the street or at the mall."

Districtwide, about 51,000 middle and high school students, or 18%, missed classes -- an eight percentage point rise compared with last Thursday. Though school officials speculated that some absences might have been due to "senior ditch day," they agreed that the majority were because of the rumors. At some schools, the number of absences was far greater than the district average.

At Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles, about 1,700 of 2,800 students did not attend -- more than a fivefold increase over a normal day. "I am sitting here staring at a mountain of absentee cards," said Johnny Stevenson, an attendance officer.

Students arrived at some schools amid a larger police presence, after several days of persistent rumors that leaders of a Latino gang allegedly had ordered the widespread killing of black gang members on Cinco de Mayo in retaliation for stealing drugs.

Finding no evidence to support the rumors, school and city police nonetheless bolstered security as a precaution. Earlier in the week, some principals sent letters and mass phone messages, urging parents to send their children to school.

Only one L.A. Unified school, Narbonne High School in Harbor City, reported an incident possibly related to the rumors. At lunch, five black and five Latino students faced off in a "minor physical altercation," said Ellen Morgan, a district spokeswoman. A security officer intervened; there were no arrests.

With funding from the state determined by average daily attendance figures, the thousands of empty desks could cost the district nearly $600,000, officials said. But they said they would probably pursue reimbursement of the lost funds, hoping that the rumor-driven absences would be considered unusual circumstances.

At Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles, where 710 students were absent -- about double the number on a typical day -- some teachers kept their classrooms open at lunch for students who were nervous about the possibility of fights. Regardless, Raymond French, a 17-year-old junior, left Jefferson just after classes began, saying that he did not feel comfortable enough to stay.

At Crenshaw High, Tramond Holmes, 17, said his three siblings had refused to come to school. "But I am not afraid of rumors," he said. "There aren't racial tensions here. We all get along."

Students arrived to find television reporters filming mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, Councilmen Bernard C. Parks and Martin Ludlow, and school board members. Villaraigosa said the officials were there to provide students "safe passage."

The elevated tension came after racial violence at some high schools in the region. Melees between Latino and black students erupted at Jefferson last month, leading to injuries and arrests.

Times staff writer Daniel Hernandez contributed to this report.

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