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L.A. crime is rising where it hurts

January 05, 2008|SANDY BANKS

On the same day that a smiling mayor and police chief stood side by side at a news conference hailing a citywide drop in crime, grim-faced teachers at a South Los Angeles elementary school painted over obscenities on classroom walls, swept up broken Christmas ornaments and tried to salvage students' art projects.

Crime may be dropping on the streets outside, but inside Los Angeles Unified campuses, holiday breaks are criminals' party time.

According to an article this week by my colleague, Times reporter Paloma Esquivel, 60 campuses were hit by thieves and vandals during the Christmas break that's about to end.

At McKinley Avenue Elementary the burglars didn't steal much -- a few laptops, cameras, VCRs and boom-boxes. But they went on a rampage on the vacant campus, urinating on floors, dumping ketchup on computers and drawing pornographic images on classroom walls.

The 80-year-old building has motion sensors that should have tripped a silent alarm but didn't. Once the vandals made it over a spiked iron fence and snipped the wire blocking windows, they were free to roam the campus.

Now, school police are trying to find the culprits. In most school break-in cases, they turn out to be neighborhood teens. Police have put up posters, asking students to alert authorities to vandalism. And they're using grant money to distribute refrigerator magnets imprinted with that same plea.

Too few police

During vacations, deserted schools are sitting ducks. Los Angeles Unified campuses are burglarized about 400 times each year, and almost half of those break-ins occur during the summer vacation, holiday breaks and long weekends all across the sprawling district.

Part of the problem is the district's puny police force. It hasn't been expanded in 20 years, even though the district has grown by more than 100,000 students and 70 campuses during that period.

L.A. Unified Police Chief Larry Manion has 362 officers and responsibility for more than 800 schools scattered over 710 square miles. His priority is keeping kids safe as they travel to and from school and while they're on campus, he said. "The vast majority of our officers work during the school day. That's what the community demands."

On nights and weekends, he's too short-handed to give campuses much patrol attention. "We don't have the troops," he said.

Taking a page from Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton -- who credits the city's crime drop to more officers on the streets -- Manion wants to double the size of his force within five years. But even then, he wouldn't have enough officers to watch district schools 24/7.

Holiday break-ins have become a criminal tradition, he said. "And 95% of the time, when a burglary is committed, it's accompanied by vandalism or some distasteful comments written on the wall."

School social worker Petra Galindo is often called on to counsel children -- and teachers -- who return from vacation to find their classrooms defaced. "You try to protect the kids from seeing it. It's so disruptive to the psyche of a school," she said.

I told her I was stunned by the viciousness of the damage at McKinley Elementary. Smearing ketchup on children's writing projects? Urinating on classroom floors? But Galindo said she has seen worse: "Feces smeared on walls. Incredibly racist and obscene scrawls."

The vandals are typically teens "with an ax to grind," she said. "If they don't feel respected, in terms of how they're interacted with at school; if they're not doing well, truant a lot, disconnected at home . . . any little thing can set them off.

"Holidays bring on a lot of depression and sadness for people who don't have that sense of connectedness," Galindo said. "The schools are empty, no one's protecting them. The kids go in there as a group, it escalates, things get out of hand. . . . It's violent anti-social behavior. Schools are an easy target."

Some arrests

School police sometimes collar the culprits. Officers nabbed four burglars inside Budlong Elementary in South Los Angeles on New Year's Day and recovered $26,000 in stolen property. On Christmas Day, a silent alarm at Pio Pico Elementary drew officers "who caught the suspects in the commission of the crime," Manion said.

They could prevent more burglaries if all schools had security cameras and alarm systems that actually worked. "We'd like a monitor in every school, up and operable," he said.

District officials told me that most of the district's 700-plus schools do have "intrusion detection systems," though they couldn't tell me how many actually function. They're maintained by the district's information technology division, the same group that saddled school employees with a perpetually malfunctioning payroll system.

I guess it's too much to expect a district with a computer system that can't accurately pay teachers to provide campus security systems that are able to protect millions of dollars of equipment and students' priceless psyches.

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