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Officials' reassurances fail to calm Gardena High School parents

'You guys failed us, and you failed our kids,' one parent says at a campus meeting. L.A. Unified's new chief says the school did fail to follow district policy calling for daily random weapons searches.

January 20, 2011|By Shan Li, Tony Barboza and Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times
  • A student entering Gardena High School on the morning after the shooting is searched.
A student entering Gardena High School on the morning after the shooting… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Your children are safe, they were told. Security will be beefed up, and the school's quick response was evidence of a safer campus.

But the words did little to reassure the dozens of angry parents who filled Gardena High School's auditorium Wednesday, a day after two students were wounded — one critically — when a gun that a 17-year-old boy was carrying in a backpack discharged. Any notion of safety at the school had been severely undermined, and the remarks from campus and Los Angeles Unified School District officials calmed few.

"You guys failed us, and you failed our kids," a disgusted parent said.

Judith McKinney, whose 17-year-old daughter attends the school, said after the meeting that she was irritated by school officials complimenting themselves on their reaction to the shooting and unsatisfied with what she thought were vague responses about improving security.

"If they were doing their jobs, this wouldn't have happened," she said.

Incoming L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy said that, indeed, the high school had failed to do its job in enforcing a 1993 district policy that called for daily random weapon searches with portable metal detectors. Deasy said the district would be interviewing staff responsible to determine why the policy was not being followed and would assess all high schools' compliance with the policy.

The principal of Gardena High, Rudy Mendoza, would not comment but posted a letter on the school's website, saying the campus would increase security for an "indefinite period of time" and make crisis and intervention counselors available to students.

Meanwhile, the most seriously injured of the students remained in critical condition at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center with a skull fracture and brain trauma. A spokeswoman for the hospital said the 15-year-old girl has been able to respond to basic commands.

The second student, who survived a bullet wound through his neck, was released late Wednesday.

The 17-year-old student who reportedly brought the 9-millimeter Beretta to campus in his backpack and then ran from class when it accidentally discharged, was expected to appear Friday in Juvenile Court and could face assault with a deadly weapon or a more serious charge. The youth was on probation for a misdemeanor battery conviction, a source familiar with the investigation said. The source said the student reportedly stole the gun from his stepfather.

Two other Gardena High students were also arrested Wednesday in connection with the shooting. Authorities said they believe that in the chaos after the mid-morning shooting, the suspect gave his backpack to a girl and that another boy provided him with a sweatshirt to change his appearance. One of the suspects also allegedly gave him money for bus fare to flee the area. Police said the backpack has not been located.

As students returned to campus Wednesday morning, they were forced to stand in a slow-moving line that stretched down the sidewalk, while staff members scanned them with metal-detecting wands and searched backpacks and purses for weapons.

Senior Trenika Richard, 18, said her school bus was nearly empty. "A lot of kids were scared to come," she said.

Despite the weapons search, some parents were wary of promises of change and doubted that enforcement would be long-term.

"I bet you after two weeks it's going to go back to how it was," said Gabriela Alvizo, whose 11th-grade daughter was shaken up after Tuesday's incident. "It's just more of the same; they don't give you any solutions." Alvizo said she was looking into home schooling.

Albert Partida was not overly concerned about safety at the school. What did disturb him was hearing fellow parents say their children had friends who took guns to school for protection.

"If my son came to me and told me this guy had a gun, I would go and tell the school," said Partida, whose son is in the 10th grade. "So how are you supposed to prevent this? If you see something, tell someone, don't just complain about it."

Gardena High has been touched by violence before. In early 2002, two students were seriously wounded in a campus shooting that resulted from a botched robbery.

In that incident, three students confronted a fellow student between classes outside a restroom and demanded money. When the student said he didn't have any and turned to walk away, he was shot in the back. Another student, a bystander, was also shot. The injured students later recovered.

The attack led to a campus lockdown that stretched into the night as police combed the school looking for the suspects. Three students were arrested. One, a 17-year-old boy, was sentenced to seven years in prison.

As news of Tuesday's shooting spread, prompting comments on Twitter and Facebook, Gardena High students defended their school. "This is not the 'hood. This was an accident and a very rare occurrance [sic]," one student wrote on YouTube.

For parent Veronica Gallo, who attended Gardena High more than a decade ago and now has a 15-year-old enrolled there, Tuesday's shooting was "almost like a wake-up call" for what can be done to prevent further violence. "It scares me to death, and it saddens me that my son cannot be safe at school."

shan.li@latimes.com

tony.barboza@latimes.com

corina.knoll@latimes.com

Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.

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