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Attack raises doubts at school

Parents question Harvard-Westlake's handling of the troubled student. Classmates say they had tried to reach out to him.

May 19, 2007|Carla Rivera and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

An attempted murder case in which a Harvard-Westlake School student attacked a classmate with a hammer has roiled the exclusive college preparatory campus nestled in Coldwater Canyon and raised questions about whether more could have been done to prevent it.

Parents said they were pressing administrators to explain what system was in place to identify troubled students and whether red flags about this particular 17-year-old's behavior were taken seriously.

As classmates rallied to the beaten 18-year-old student's bedside with flowers and get-well cards, they also spoke of her alleged assailant as someone who seemed to prefer being left alone and anguished about school and his personal issues.

"People really tried to reach him, but he just wasn't receptive," said one student, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because the school had told students not to speak to the media about the incident. "He was always the odd man out."

No one, however, could recall previous violent incidents directed at himself or others.

Friends and family of the victim said they believe that the girl was targeted, even though the two shared only a few conversations.

The victim's mother said the suspect struck her daughter 40 times with a claw hammer, breaking her nose, shattering her leg and splitting open her scalp in several places.

The boy's attorney, Patrick Smith, said his client was suffering from troubles but would not provide details. He added that the boy, who lives in Beverly Hills, pursued social activities and had close friends both in and out of school.

Harvard-Westlake is a tightknit community, and most students and adults would speak only on the condition that their names not be used.

Fellow students said they made a concerted effort to get to know the alleged attacker, sitting with him at lunch and trying to draw him out.

School officials, the students said, had encouraged the boy to become more involved in extracurricular activities and to join a peer support group. He took up fencing and mounted a short-lived campaign for student body president.

Harvard-Westlake administrators Friday did not return calls seeking comment. But in an interview Wednesday, President Thomas Hudnut said the school had in place sufficient security systems to protect students and supportive services for students with problems.

As well as staff psychologists and chaplains, "all of the deans and senior administrators do a great deal of counseling," Hudnut said. "We've been communicating the facts through e-mail to all parents to keep them informed and ensure the situation is being addressed and dealt with professionally."

The boy was charged this week by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office as a juvenile. He faces three felony counts, including attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon.

At a hearing Friday, a juvenile court judge -- over the objection of prosecutors -- refused to issue a warrant authorizing the boy's removal from a psychiatric hospital, where he has been receiving treatment.

He was admitted there Monday after the incident, which occurred as the two students sat in the boy's Jaguar on a residential street in Studio City near the private campus.

Smith argued at the hearing that the public would be better served if the boy remained in a secure facility where he could continue to receive treatment for his illness. Smith declined to say what specifically the boy is being treated for.

"The court's refusal to issue a warrant for my client's arrest in no way minimizes the seriousness of these events," Smith said afterward. "But it was the right decision because providing treatment for the boy addresses the needs of all parties involved."

In an interview with The Times, the girl's mother, Barbara Hayden, said that despite the injuries, her daughter was determined to attend tonight's senior prom, even if it meant being transported there by ambulance. The girl was expected to be discharged from the hospital late Friday.

Hayden was performing a surgery at a Westside hospital when she was informed that her daughter had been attacked. She and her husband, an emergency room physician, raced to her bedside. "Her hair and face were caked with blood," Hayden said. "On the left side, her head was shaped like a football."

Hayden, who sat in on her daughter's police interview, provided the narrative of the attack:

The girl said she was invited to drive with the suspect to a Jamba Juice near campus after they had finished taking an Advanced Placement exam.

The two sipped smoothies and talked casually. Once they were back in the car, he reached into the back seat for a backpack, which he placed between his legs.

Instead of returning to campus, however, the boy detoured to a quiet residential street. She said he appeared anxious, and she became increasingly alarmed. He told her that he was thinking of committing suicide. She urged that they return to school to get help from a counselor. He told her: "It isn't going to happen that way."

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