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Surge in Highland Park violence terrifies students

March 22, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

Gina Amodeo shouted "Pancake!" and her second-grade students knew exactly what to do. They immediately dropped to the floor and flattened out, minimizing the chance of getting shot.

It was only a drill, but they've been doing the real thing far too often lately. With a recent surge of violence in the vicinity of Monte Vista Elementary School in Highland Park, the students are terrified.

"We don't want to get hurt," one of Amodeo's students told me after the Friday morning drill, smiling innocently.

I wish I had known what to tell him and his buddy, who both looked at me as if an adult ought to have an answer for this kind of madness. I told them they were safe in their classroom, and they nodded but didn't seem particularly reassured.

Amodeo had invited me to campus to see what these kids are up against, and I sat with her in the principal's office for a while as we took turns saying how tragic and unacceptable it is. Principal Jose Posada, a Marine in the first Gulf War, said he didn't see as much action in Iraq as there's been in the neighborhood in recent weeks. "We're caught in the middle of it," he said of violence that may involve competing Highland Park gangs.

Jeff Carr, the mayor's gang reduction leader, acknowledged that there's been a recent uptick in gang violence after a long lull in the area. But he said there's no strong evidence that there's all-out raging war underway among the region's notorious gangs.

Still, he understands the fear that students, parents and educators feel, and he said police and other agencies are responding to their concerns.

As Posada puts it, though, when you hear gunshots, sirens and helicopters so routinely, it's hard to take comfort in official reassurances. Reality doesn't seem to jibe, he suggested, with the line from City Hall.

Last Monday morning, Posada said, students were on their way to school when a shooting broke out at the corner where Monte Vista is located. "It was six to eight shots," said Posada, who ran in the direction of the shooting to check on his students.

Posada saw one gunman fleeing down an alley across the street from the school. He said parents and between 30 and 40 elementary school students had hit the ground while the bullets flew between two gunmen. Police arrived within a minute, he said, but the shooters were long gone.

It was chilling, Posada said, a brazen shootout in broad daylight with children so near the line of fire.

Posada, by the way, fled his native El Salvador in 1980 because of the violence there. He recalls walking past dead bodies on the way to school. Now he sees his staff and students talking about the risks of just getting to and from school safely.

Monte Vista lost funding this year for a counselor who focused on at-risk kids and their families. Hard to believe in a country where mismanaged financial companies received taxpayer bailouts, with millions in bonuses for their executives.

Posada said that when shots are heard, or helicopters appear overhead, the school bell rings for an extra-long time, signaling a lockdown in which all students are to go immediately to their classrooms, with teachers instructed to lock the doors.

"I've lost track of how many we've had," Amodeo said, but there were several last week and two in one day alone, when a rock thrown at an unmarked police car brought screeching sirens and a swarm of helicopters to the neighborhood.

"I work in lockdown city," Amodeo wrote in a recent entry on her Facebook page. "One time I was in my classroom after school, and I heard gunshots on the street. My classroom is right on the playground, so I opened my door to let kids in to safety. You know what? Not one kid came to my room. They were running -- running for cover."

Amodeo said it's easy to love the children of Monte Vista and cheer the progress they've made despite great challenges -- 96% of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch because of low family income. Test scores are up, there's a new music program and students are designing a garden in Griffith Park.

But then comes another threat, and everyone stops, drops and flattens like a pancake.

As teacher Jutti Marsh wrote in her journal: "One thing I never envisioned was teaching from the floor . . . Singing is good. It calms the children and helps pass the time. Minutes pass like hours when you are under your tables in the dark."

There's lots of writing going on these days at Monte Vista.

"Teachers cannot teach, nor students learn under these increasingly dangerous and frightening circumstances," teachers union rep Sonya Hamilton wrote in a letter to Los Angeles Unified School District officials and other local officials. "We believe we need a heightened level of security at and around the Monte Vista campus."

But the most powerful words were penned by fifth-grade students writing to city and national officials.

Dear Mayor Villaraigosa,

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