Incoming LAUSD superintendent to review safety in wake of Gardena High shooting
By Melissa Pamer Daily Breeze Staff Writer – 1/19/2011 | http://bit.ly/hQ4apN
[Last updated 01/18/2011 07:26:41 PM PST] - Incoming Los Angeles schools Superintendent John Deasy plans to re-examine district safety policies that are being questioned in the wake of the shooting Tuesday at troubled Gardena High.
In a news conference after the apparently accidental shooting that left two students wounded, Deasy said the Los Angeles Unified School District was "absolutely committed to do everything in our power to support safety."
"We didn't allow a gun to come into campus; the student violated the law. It was a criminal act and LAPD will appropriately deal with that," said Deasy, a district deputy superintendent who will assume the top job April 15. "It's very important that (parents) understand that we will take all the measures within our ability to ensure safety."
But as the 2,400-student campus reels from the incident, some are asking about the adequacy of a district policy that calls for random checks with metal-detector wands administered by school officials.
"I'm watching this and I'm thinking about Tucson two weekends ago and I'm thinking, `Oh my God, this could have happened in my classroom,"' said Gardena High teacher Nick D'Amico, who added that he was punched in the face by a student on campus two years ago.
"We have infrequent use of these wands. ... We have no permanent metal detectors," D'Amico added.
District spokeswoman Lydia Ramos said secondary schools are each issued two metal detector wands and staff members are recommended to conduct at least one random weapons search daily. Searches, which may occur in classrooms, hallways or other areas of campus, are typically performed by campus deans at varying times of day, Ramos said.
Checks do not occur as students enter campus, she added.
But this morning, students will be "wanded" as they come to school, Gardena High Principal Rudy Mendoza said.
"I just want to reassure parents and the community that Gardena High School is a safe campus. We are ensuring that this campus is safe for all of the students, faculty and staff," Mendoza said.
The district's random metal-detector search policy was implemented in 1993 in response to increasing violence, according to an LAUSD bulletin. Ramos said school staff members are provided with an instructional video on how to perform random searches and how to properly "wand" students.
"The whole point of these searches is just that they try to maintain a safe campus," Ramos said. "One, to try to find any gun, and also to deter students and reduce any potential incidents."
Several Gardena High students said they had not witnessed regular metal-detection checks at the school.
Senior Latanya Drake, who was assisting in the school office at the time of the shooting, said at first she thought it was a joke, and that the shooting didn't seem real.
"I never thought it would happen here. I've never seen a metal detector in the four years I've been here, but I do see them on game days," said Drake, a basketball player.
The shooting comes during a school year in which LAUSD officials have introduced a variety of reforms to turn the academically struggling campus around. In September, Mendoza promised "a new Gardena."
He said that when he was first assigned to the campus in the fall of 2009 - following a string of principals - he regularly saw students walking around campus outside of class during instructional time. School board member Richard Vladovic was able to secure funding for two more campus aides, solving that problem, Mendoza said.
Vladovic, a former local area superintendent who once oversaw Gardena High, has often noted that the school's 55 acres make it difficult to police. It's one of the largest campuses in LAUSD.
Vladovic issued a statement Tuesday night saying he was working with district officials to review security policies "and make changes or enhance them if necessary to ensure that an incident like today's situation never happens again."
Gardena High was in the spotlight in 2002 when a student opened fire in the center of campus as school was about to let out. A 16-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy were shot. The school was criticized after that incident for lax security and gaps in emergency response plans because parents were not given timely information.
In 2004 and 2006, there were gang-related fights at Gardena High along racial lines. Police deployed pepper spray on the campus in the 2006 incident, according to earlier Daily Breeze stories.
But despite the school's poor reputation, violence on campus has abated in recent years, many in the Gardena High community have said.
Waiting for her son to be released from campus Tuesday, parent Luz Vasquez said she was hesitant to send her child to the school. She ultimately decided to do so because they live across the street.
"I think Gardena High is a rough school," she said. "I think it's gotten better in recent years, but I'm still concerned."
An economics and history teacher who sits on two school councils, D'Amico said that several staff members remain concerned about safety. In the past few months, D'Amico said that an assistant principal had voiced concern to teachers about how campus police were handling security. A student who was found with ammunition was not adequately disciplined, D'Amico said.
"The buck has to stop somewhere," D'Amico said. "My concern is that the L.A. school district ... law enforcement is taking that kind of laissez-faire attitude. It doesn't make me feel safer; it makes me feel less safe."
Mendoza said the ammunition incident had been turned over to Los Angeles School Police for investigation, per district policy.
"It had nothing to do with this incident," Mendoza said, referring to Tuesday's shooting.
Another teacher, Wayne Johnson, said that he has always felt safe on campus but that many of his co-workers do not.
"We have a lot of teachers who say this is an unsafe school. But on any given day this campus is no more unsafe than any other school in L.A. Any kid can walk into any campus and make it a Columbine, make it a nightmare," said Johnson, who graduated from Gardena High in 1966. "I've never felt threatened and I've gone toe to toe and nose to nose with a couple of kids who were going to beat my ass."
Mendoza plans to be on campus early this morning to meet with teachers and answer questions about safety policies. That will be followed by a meeting for parents.
Counselors would be available to the school community today as well, he said.
"For the long term, we are definitely going to follow district policies and procedures," Mendoza said. "We are going to make sure we are doing the right thing using district guidelines."
In the meantime, some are already calling for change.
Latanya Drake's mother, Tosucha Minor, said she rushed to campus to pick up her daughter as soon as she heard about the shooting.
She believes the school should be equipped with metal detectors and more security guards, and she planned to keep Latanya home from school on Wednesday.
"This school isn't safe," Minor said. "It's a little scary when you feel like school isn't even safe. That should be their second home. They should feel safe because that's where they spend eight hours every day."
Two Gardena High students wounded in accidental shooting on campus: A gun in a backpack goes off in a classroom. The 17-year-old suspect is arrested about an hour later as anxious parents gather at the school. One of the wounded is listed in critical condition.
By Sam Allen, Mitchell Landsberg and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times | http://lat.ms/i4FRed
Sofia Nieto wipes away tears after reuniting with her son Braulio, right, as they walk out of Gardena High School. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times / January 18, 2011)
Steve Lopez: It's time to inject sanity into the gun debate
January 19, 2011 - Third-period health class was just beginning Tuesday at Gardena High School when a 17-year-old boy walked in and set his backpack down on a desk. In the chaos that followed, accounts differed about precisely what happened. But this much was clear: A gun had discharged, apparently by accident; two students were wounded, one critically; and the campus of 3,100 was sent into a tense, frightening lockdown.
"Wow, someone just got shot in the classroom," student Dan Im wrote from the scene in a profanity-laced, Korean-language Twitter feed. "I'm freaked out."
After about an hour, police found and arrested the boy suspected of having brought the gun into the class. Meanwhile, the two wounded students, both 15, had been rushed to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where a girl who had been shot in the head underwent lengthy surgery. She was in critical condition with a skull fracture and brain trauma. A boy who had been shot in the neck was listed as stable, his wound not considered life-threatening.
Police said the two might have been struck by a single bullet.
Friends of the suspect said he was not known as a violent boy, but had brought the gun to school for his own protection.
"I think he was just scared," classmate Para Ross said, "Scared of what was going to happen when he left school and took the bus home. There are a lot of gangs around here. People are dying."
The boy was interviewed by police detectives Tuesday afternoon. Law enforcement sources told The Times one of the aspects of the investigation was whether the teen, a special education student, had been bullied on his way to and from school.
The shooting filled parents and students with dread and anger, many questioning how the student was allowed to bring a loaded gun onto campus.
Like other Los Angeles Unified School District high schools, Gardena periodically conducts random screening of students with a metal detector. John Deasy, the incoming superintendent of L.A. Unified, said the district would review whether that policy needs to be strengthened. He said extra security would be at the campus Wednesday.
The shooting occurred just after 10:30 a.m. on the large, one-story campus at 182nd Street and Normandie Avenue. According to police and Los Angeles Unified School District officials, the 17-year-old came into the classroom, set his backpack on a desk or table, and a gun inside it discharged.
However, a student who was in the class, Miguel Lopez, 17, said the boy was reaching into the pack when the gun went off. In another version, the gun discharged when the boy leaned on the backpack.
Im, a senior who was sitting in the back corner of the classroom, said the shooting sounded like a bag of chips had been popped, but louder. He recalled hearing a student exclaim, "Something popped in my backpack."
Then came a shriek from the teacher and a frantic cry for someone to call 911. A girl on the other side of the classroom clutched her bleeding neck, then collapsed, Im said. A boy asked, "Why does my neck hurt?" and then realized he was bleeding near his shoulder.
By all accounts, the shooting was accidental. By some accounts, the boy with the gun apologized to classmates before bolting from the class, leaving behind a scene of blood and chaos, with students crying and frantically phoning their parents and 911.
Outside the class, the boy apparently dropped the 9-mm Beretta handgun, then walked into a room where students were learning piano. About an hour later, in a scene captured from above by a helicopter-mounted news camera, heavily armed police ordered students in that classroom to file out with their hands up. When a boy who matched the description of the suspect emerged, police immediately threw him to the ground and handcuffed him.
Some students who knew the youth described him as someone who was unlikely to have acted intentionally.
"He was a sweetheart, always smiling and hugging people," said Ross, an 11th-grader.
"He never would have done this on purpose," said 10th-grader Brian Rogers, who said he had known the suspect for about a year.
But Hoda Makkar, a campus aide who has worked at the school for a year and a half, said she had spoken to him frequently about his temper.
"Some kids come to school angry and he was one of those who came to school angry. He walked around a lot with his fists up all the time," Makkar said. She added that his parents were frequently at the school to speak to counselors.
"I thought he was doing better," Makkar said, shaking her head. "That's why I was shocked. Bringing a gun to school? That is so dumb."
The shooting turned the Gardena campus into a barricaded crime scene, with students held in locked-down classrooms, police SWAT teams roaming the halls and helicopters hovering above. As word got out, parents descended on the school, clustering on the street outside in anxious knots.
Patricia Gutierrez rushed from her home in Inglewood after she got a call from her brother. Her nephew is a sophomore at Gardena High.
"I don't even remember getting here — I just flew out the door," she said. "I was thinking of the congresswoman in Arizona, and I thought, 'This is crazy. What is going on? Why?' "
Gutierrez said her nephew had called his father and said he was fine.
Some parents expressed anger and disappointment with the school.
Candace Green, who graduated from Gardena in 1989, has a 15-year-old daughter on campus. Green said that after moving from Bellflower this school year, her daughter was coming home from Gardena High with stories of fights on campus. Her daughter didn't want to go to homecoming after hearing about fights rumored to occur at the event.
"She loves the teachers, but she hates the students," Green said. "It's a mentality. In Bellflower, the focus was on learning. Here, the dress codes are lax, the students aren't interested in learning. This proves it."
Still, Brooke Lundy, a theater teacher at Gardena High, said the shooting did not reflect the character of the school.
"We're so much better than this," she said.
Lundy said she watched as the suspect was taken into custody.
"He didn't look cocky or anything," she said. "He looked like he knew what he did was wrong."
Times staff writers Sam Quinones, Shan Li, Victoria Kim, Howard Blume, Robert Faturechi and Jeff Gottlieb contributed to this report.