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L.A. Unified to review search policy in wake of Gardena High shooting

District officials consider whether the screening policy needs to be updated. One Gardena student said weapons checks using hand-held metal detectors occurred 'once in a blue moon.'

January 19, 2011|By Jason Song, Los Angeles Times

Administrators and staff randomly search students for weapons on Los Angeles city school campuses, but officials acknowledged that it is nearly impossible to keep all weapons away from classrooms.

Two students were shot Tuesday at Gardena High School when a classmate's gun went off. The weapon was in his backpack and it reportedly fired when he put the bag on his desk. A girl was shot in the head and a boy was hit in the neck.

It was the second time a gun was found on a Los Angeles Unified School District campus since classes began this school year, according to district officials. A gun was found at Sylmar High earlier this year after administrators received a tip. Officials found 11 firearms the year before and six in the 2008-09 school year.

Students caught with weapons are expelled from L.A. Unified for at least one year, according to state and federal law. Since 2005, two students from Gardena High have been expelled for having firearms, district officials said.

Steven Zipperman, the school district's police chief, told the school board Tuesday that it was possible the 17-year-old suspect was not checked for weapons.

District officials have required searches since 1993, largely leaving principals to decide the details of when and where to conduct them. A district policy memo recommends that searches take place on a daily basis at different times so they don't become predictable.

The search policy was instituted after several incidents, including one in 1993 at Reseda High School where one student fatally shot another during a morning break. Officials have periodically updated the policy after campus attacks, which are rare.

Incoming Supt. John Deasy said he convened a meeting Tuesday with school and district staff members to consider whether the policy should be updated.

The meeting also will focus on the automated system that notifies families of campus emergencies. Many parents waiting anxiously outside the school had complained of delays or never receiving a call or text message about the situation.

"The system notifies parents with the number that students give us. Sometimes they are inaccurate," Deasy said. "If there were delays, I personally apologize."

School board member Richard Vladovic saw staff members at Gardena High searching students with hand-held metal detectors when he visited the campus, south of downtown, six months ago.

"It seems like they were following policy," said Vladovic, who was a district administrator overseeing the area including Gardena in 2002, when two students there were shot on campus during a robbery.

Vladovic said school district administrators would check campus logs to make sure protocol has been followed.

Vladovic said securing a large campus such as Gardena is especially difficult. The school, which has about 3,100 students and takes up nearly two acres, is one of the biggest in the district.

He said district officials would review their policies but "we can't control every entrance and exit at every school all the time," Vladovic said. "It would be physically impossible to do."

Gardena student Jessica Santiago, 15, said random inspections happened "once in a blue moon."

"They would almost never use it," she said. "Only if you looked suspicious or someone heard something and told a teacher."

L.A. Unified has the largest school police department in the nation with about 340 sworn personnel, including 270 officers and 20 detectives. But those numbers still represent a thin deployment force for more than 1,000 campuses. High school campuses typically have two officers and some have three. Most secondary schools also employ unarmed security aides.

Students have been most at risk of violence on the peripheries of campuses — especially just before the start of school, just after school and, occasionally, at athletic events.

jason.song@latimes.com

Times staff writers Shan Li and Howard Blume contributed to this report.

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