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Locke sends a message: No more disturbances

Police patrol the halls and specialists counsel students on the first school day following Friday's campus melee.

May 13, 2008|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

Conflict-resolution teams and tight security helped ease jitters at Locke High School on Monday, the first school day following the roving, half-hour-long melee last week that involved 600 students and required more than 100 police officers to defuse.

The riot was the most dangerous occurrence to date during a difficult transition year for the Watts school. The campus at 111th and San Pedro streets has long been one of the most troubled in the Los Angeles Unified School District, with frequent fights and low test scores.

As of July 1, Locke will become a charter school operated by Green Dot Public Schools, a nonprofit that is independently run and publicly funded.

The Friday chaos began as students returned from lunch to their fifth-period classes. School officials called police for help; students and faculty said it took about half an hour for school district and Los Angeles police officers, many in riot gear, to restore order.

First thing Monday morning, officials sent a clear message that no further disturbance would be tolerated: A dozen school police officers patrolled the campus while Los Angeles police manned perimeter streets, standing next to bicycles and parked patrol cars. On Friday, student fights had overwhelmed two school officers and 14 security aides.

There also were efforts Monday to counsel students and determine what and who started the riot, which resulted in four arrests and numerous minor injuries.

Local clergy and parent volunteers walked the halls, while Supt. David L. Brewer supervised the response. They were joined by Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot, who operates a number of other small high schools in the area.

Meanwhile, 20 conflict-resolution specialists broke into teams of two, working with more than 300 students before noon.

About half of the students said the brawling was prompted by their peers -- bored with school and ready to ignite, said intervention specialist Holly Priebe-Diaz.

Other students, she said, blamed ongoing racial tensions and gang problems. Historically black Watts has changed rapidly to a Latino-majority community, with gangs of both ethnicities claiming overlapping turf in the economically depressed streets. Locke's student body is about 65% Latino and 35% African American.

"This is a microcosm of something bigger happening in the community," Priebe-Diaz said.

But events on campus were not irrelevant, she added: "They don't know what's going to happen to them next year with the charter school. There's a lot of anxiety."

The school's official enrollment is about 2,600, although close to 20% are absent on any given day.

An additional 250 or so stayed home Monday, said interim Principal Travis Kiel, who came out of retirement when the district removed Principal Frank Wells near the end of the last school year. District officials removed Wells after he openly sided with Green Dot's efforts to take control at Locke.

Kiel admitted to a challenging year.

"I'd be insane to say there were no gang problems at this school," he said Monday.

Kiel has had to confront an explosion of gang graffiti as well as increased tension, said some teachers, because the school saw an influx of more students who live in a neighborhood associated with rival gangs.

In fact, students said that the fighting, though mostly black versus brown, also included black-on-black and Latino-on-Latino clashes.

Kiel estimated that about 75 students engaged in actual fighting, with many more watching.

Fernando Marenco, 16, an 11th-grader, said there was "a lot of chaos," and though students said they were scared, they were "still running toward the stampede."

Some students were jumped and pummeled as they tried to get to class.

Chanell Campbell, 16, said there had been talk that "something bad would happen" leading up to Friday. She said she saw students with gashed heads and broken noses.

Staff at Locke, including teachers, members of the security team and Kiel, said the district cut security staffing in half at the start of the year. Kiel said much of the staffing had been restored by winter break.

Another district official, Assistant Supt. Earl Perkins, said the reduction in security was minimal and brief, and that Locke has more security than last year.

Friday's scene "terrified" parent Vikki Reyes, who got a frantic cellphone call from her daughter, who had run off campus after being knocked down. The fall ripped her pants and bloodied her knee.

"As a parent, it was one of the scariest phone calls I had ever received," Reyes said, "to hear the cry in her voice, to know she was off campus and there was this war going on."

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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