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School resumes at Washington Prep after slaying

More police are on campus, for now, after the gang-related killing of Alex Contreras, 17.

March 27, 2007|Adrian G. Uribarri and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

Relative calm returned Monday to one of Los Angeles' most troubled high schools, as details emerged in the gang-related killing of a teenager by a classmate late last week.

Law enforcement officials confirmed the identity of Alex Contreras, the 17-year-old senior stabbed to death Friday afternoon as classes let out at Washington Preparatory High School.

Contreras and the 16-year-old boy arrested on suspicion of his slaying belonged to rival gangs that have made inroads into Washington Prep, officials with the school and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said.

"It's the problems we have in our communities spilling over onto the campus," said Dona Stevens, an area superintendent for the Los Angeles Unified School District. "The gang issues are just devastating our youth."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Washington Prep stabbing: A chart accompanying an article in Tuesday's California section about a fatal stabbing at Washington Preparatory High School said there had been 310 citations for fighting on the campus in the current school year. There have been 31 citations for fighting.

Although the gangs that the boys reportedly belonged to break down along racial lines, Friday's fight does not appear to have been racially motivated, said Sheriff's Lt. Al Grotefend. That conclusion offered meager solace to school district officials who have been on edge since May 2005, when a series of brawls between African American and Latino students broke out at another high school.

In a highly segregated district in which 73% of students are Latino and 11% are black, Washington Prep is one of the few high schools where there is a more even racial mix: About 55% of its 2,300 students are African American and 45% are Latino.

Contreras' grief-stricken mother and father insisted that their son was not involved in gangs.

"He was a good boy," a sobbing Teresa Contreras said in Spanish. "My soul hurts, my heart."

The teen identified by several students as the attacker was arrested at his home during a 3 a.m. raid Saturday and confessed to the killing, Grotefend said.

Prosecutors in the county district attorney's office who specialize in violent gang crimes will decide what charges, if any, to pursue against the teen after meeting with detectives this morning. Grotefend declined to identify the student suspected in the slaying because he is a minor but said he had no previous criminal record.

By coincidence, district Supt. David Brewer and school board members are scheduled to meet today with Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) in Washington to discuss a bill she has introduced that promises funding to Los Angeles schools for anti-gang efforts.

"In order for our students to succeed, we must provide safe learning environments where children can focus on academics and thrive without fear of gang violence," Brewer said in a prepared statement regarding the bill. Efforts among various agencies are underway, he said, "but we still have a long road ahead of us."

Contreras and the other teen reportedly got into a fistfight in the quad as the school day ended and students streamed out of classrooms. When Contreras gained the upper hand, a third student joined the fray and Contreras was overwhelmed, Grotefend said. The teen Contreras was originally fighting with then pulled the knife and stabbed Contreras several times in the chest, Grotefend said.

"It looks as if he got him in the heart," Grotefend said.

Officials said they did not know what precipitated the fight.

The two other boys fled the scene, disposing of the knife on the roof of one of the school buildings, Grotefend said, adding there was no indication that the teen who joined the fight knew about the knife. There are no plans to arrest him, he said.

Violence is not uncommon at Washington Prep, which sits in a rough neighborhood at Denker Avenue and 108th Street. During the school year that began July 1, there have been 19 reported violent crimes on campus, seven of which were assaults with a deadly weapon, said Mike Bowman, deputy chief of the Los Angeles School Police.

"If you live in a real dangerous neighborhood like Washington Prep's, would it shock me to learn kids are carrying something to protect themselves? No, it wouldn't," he said. "I might have done it myself."

Even so, campus killings during the school day are relatively rare in the district, the nation's second-largest. The most recent previous one bore stark similarities to Contreras' slaying: In June, a 17-year-old Venice High School student was fatally shot after a fistfight between black and Latino students spilled into the campus parking lot.

An additional eight school police officers were dispatched Monday to assist the two assigned to Washington Prep, and crisis counselors met with students and faculty.

With a badly understaffed school police force stretched thin, however, the bolstered security is expected to last only a few days.

Stevens, the district official, said her staff would review the school's security plan and consider installing metal detectors at entrances. Already, faculty members conduct daily random searches of students' bags for weapons.

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