By Howard Blume and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times | http://lat.ms/fkNUZi
Police officers keep an eye on things outside El Camino Real High School as students arrive for class a day after the Woodland Hills campus was locked down when a school police officer was shot nearby. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times / January 20, 2011)
January 21, 2011 - Thousands of students were kept in classrooms without food, water or access to restrooms longer than necessary, the Los Angeles school district's police chief acknowledged, as officials coped with complaints from parents frustrated once more with the district's handling of an emergency situation.
Students from nine San Fernando Valley schools were in lockdown for as long as five hours as officers combed campuses and neighborhoods for a suspect who shot and wounded a school police officer Wednesday just outside El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills.
Although lockdowns are the most common school crisis in the nation's second-largest school district, the Los Angeles Unified School District has repeatedly faced problems providing basic provisions and services for students.
"We unfortunately did not have the communication network we would have liked to," said Los Angeles School Police Chief Steve Zipperman. "There were restrooms down the hallways from classrooms and some schools did have the ability to deliver food. We have to determine how we get the word to schools that it's safe to do that."
Los Angeles police and school district officials each said responsibility for student conditions during lockdowns rest largely with the other agency.
Police said individual schools develop their own plans for managing emergencies. Officers focus on finding suspects and basic student safety. At El Camino, they spent hours searching hallways, storage rooms, lockers and athletic fields.
"That is not the time to attempt to deliver food to 3,500 students — during the search for an armed assailant," said LAPD Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese.
Educators said they follow the orders of law enforcement during such emergency situations. For example, they requested clearance to bring lunch to students but were denied.
The lockdown and subsequent confusion came as an early test for L.A. Unified's new schools police chief, Zipperman, who began his tenure this month, and for incoming schools Supt. John Deasy. Both men pledged to review policies and procedures as they sought to mollify frustrated and angry parents.
Wednesday's crisis came a day after two students were shot accidentally by a 17-year-old classmate at Gardena High School. Parents there complained that the school district has failed to keep the campus safe, and Deasy found that the school failed to use metal detectors in accordance with district policy.
The suspect, whose name is being withheld because he is a minor, was charged Thursday with two felonies: possessing a firearm in a school zone and discharging a firearm in a school zone. He was on probation for a misdemeanor battery charge, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Joanne Baeza. Prosecutors have filed a motion to have the minor tried as an adult.
The wounded girl remained in critical condition at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center with a skull fracture and brain trauma. A spokeswoman for the hospital said she has been able to respond to basic commands. The male victim was released from the hospital late Wednesday.
Parents in Woodland Hills complained about confusing and conflicting processes for dismissing students once the emergency passed, although officials defended their performance in this regard.
There weren't problems at every campus. Students at Hale Middle School were fed and allowed bathroom breaks after Wednesday's lockdown because authorities set up the command post there and were able to quickly search his smaller campus, Principal Neal Siegel said Thursday.
"Yes, parents are upset that their children at El Camino perhaps weren't allowed to use the bathroom," Siegel said, "but safety of the students is our top priority."
Restrictions were relaxed at six schools within a couple of hours, but not at El Camino, Woodlake Elementary or Leonis Continuation School, which were closer to the crime scene.
Some parents complained about student hardships.
"No food was given. My son and daughter said classmates were peeing into trash cans," said Odette Fulliam, whose children attend Hale and El Camino.
In fact, a 5-gallon pail is part of a "lockdown kit" that is supposed to be accessible to every classroom. The pail with a removable lid is "solely for the purpose of this kind of situation," said district spokesman Robert Alaniz.
Other elements of the lockdown kit include toilet paper and a portable toilet seat. There's also a flashlight, polyethylene bags, blankets, a pocket radio, bandages, tissues, disposable vinyl gloves, assorted batteries and duct tape.
Every new teacher is supposed to receive training in using the kit, which includes a recommendation that teachers supply a sheet that can be draped to provide privacy, said Bob Spears, the district's director of emergency services.
Other districts expressed surprise at how L.A. Unified handles emergencies.
A Chicago school district official said she had never heard about students urinating in buckets. Most lockdowns last less than an hour, said spokesperson Monique Bond, or only affect parts of a campus.
"In the event a student needs to use the facilities, they're generally escorted by an adult," she said.
Parents in Woodland Hills also were unhappy about the size of the 7-square-mile security perimeter established by Los Angeles police and its duration. Police were unapologetic.
"I know the parents are upset, but it would be nothing compared to what they would feel if their children were needlessly exposed to an armed gunman. Those kids' safety is No. 1," said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. "This guy had shown total disregard for public safety and the community by shooting an armed police officer who was doing his job."
The size of the dragnet zone was due to several factors, Albanese said. Police initially had a limited description of the suspect, who was armed and running through the neighborhood. The LAPD also received several 911 calls reporting possible prowlers in the area. Police charted the calls and set the perimeter accordingly, Albanese said.
The suspect eluded a massive manhunt involving more than 300 officers.
"At the end of the day, every single [student] was safely home with their families," Albanese said. "What other objective is more important than that?"
About 20% of El Camino's students were absent Thursday, district officials said. Normally, the absence rate is about 6%.
At Gardena High, attendance also was down, with about 365 students absent Wednesday and 216 on Thursday, compared to about 140 daily absences normally. Some parents have complained about the district's emergency notification system. They said the first alert went out for El Camino families after 1:30 p.m., more than two hours following initial news reports.
Other parents praised the district's efforts. "The school was fabulous. They communicated with us all day long," said Stuart Meadows, the father of a Hale sixth-grader.
"The parents were really horrendous," he added. "They behaved much worse than the kids. They were screaming, pushing. Maybe the school could be more efficient, but who plans for this kind of thing?"