Shattered sense of security

Children affected by a school lockdown after a nearby gang shooting learn that even their world isn’t always safe.

By Susannah Rosenblatt, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 26, 2008

Third-grader Monic Santana has stopped playing in the yard at Aragon Avenue Elementary since a man was gunned down late last week at the edge of her school’s front lawn.

She’s scared, she said. And she has to watch out for her younger brother, Salvador, 7, who said he worries “that they’re going to get me and kill me.”

Even as school officials struggled Monday to provide a sense of security for children in Cypress Park, a 50-foot patch of grass was all that separated second-grade classrooms at Aragon from the rose- and candle-strewn memorial to Marcos Salas, shot 17 times in a flare of gang violence. He later died.

Police arrested a fourth suspect in the killing Monday afternoon in the San Fernando Valley. The suspect, whose name was not released, was described as the driver of the car from which the gunshots were fired and a reputed member of the Avenues street gang, which is blamed for the violence.

Thursday’s drive-by was followed quickly by gunfire from pedestrians who apparently knew Salas, 36, and then by a police shootout about 10 blocks away that left an AK-47-toting gang member dead and another suspect wounded. In the manhunt that followed in neighboring Glassell Park, dozens of blocks and several schools were shut down, separating parents and children well into the evening. The lockdown, officials said, was the longest and the largest many had dealt with.

“This is very fresh,” said Kimberly Noble, principal of Washington Irving Middle School in Glassell Park, of the violence that rocked the surrounding neighborhood Thursday. With nearly 1,500 students trapped inside under police order until after 6 p.m., Noble had to improvise a plan to manage the children and anxious parents, standing in the rain and dark waiting for answers about their youngsters locked inside.

Salina Fogel, 36, a sixth-grade math and science teacher at Irving, distributed two M&Ms each to her famished students during their six-hour stay in a temporary classroom building as they watched the movie “Hoodwinked!” and played Othello to pass the time.

“For 11- and 12-year-olds, to go through that, they were brave,” she said.

When parents were finally reunited with sixth-graders in Irving’s cafeteria, “you could see the wildness, the scaredness” in the adults’ eyes, Fogel said.

School district officials believe principals’ response worked well, considering the emergency situation.

“Schools are the safe haven in any neighborhood,” said Wayne Moore, Los Angeles Unified School District director for school operations. “All of this ruckus was happening around the school,” he said, and yet Aragon was “probably one of the safest places to be.”

Although Aragon students were able to leave at the usual time, about 2:15 p.m., Principal Louis Carrillo had to usher them out an alternative exit because the regular gates were only steps away from where Salas, holding his 2-year-old granddaughter, was slain.

Monic Santana, 9, heard the gunshots and ran to the Aragon bathroom for cover, terrified. She was soon rounded up by her teacher and ended up watching “Scooby-Doo” in the school auditorium. But she couldn’t keep her mind on the movie, she said, fearing “that they killed the little baby.”

Playground and cafeteria monitor Juana Arevalo estimated that as many as 40 children were playing outside when Salas was shot less than a block away.

Rosa Gutierrez said her little boy Juan told her he saw the shooting through the chain-link fence.

“He didn’t want to talk, he was, like, shocked,” said Gutierrez, 34. The second-grader “didn’t want to come to school the next day.” But his mother took the 8-year-old in anyway to speak to a counselor: “Probably he still needs help,” she said.

About 10% of the 630 youngsters at Aragon have been referred to psychologists and other crisis workers, Carrillo, the principal, said. But even with a battery of crisis counselors on hand, the school can’t erase skittish parents’ fears of what might be next.

“It’s not going to stop,” said stay-at-home mother Angie Yerena of the intensifying violence in the neighborhood. Her daughter Camille, 6, is a first-grader at Aragon. The little girl, Yerena says, already knows what to do when she hears gunshots: Duck and roll. “They’re going to come back,” Yerena said, “One or the other is going to retaliate. We’re still not in the safe zone.”

Aragon, Irving and Fletcher Drive Elementary in Glassell Park sent letters home to parents Friday, and several school and community meetings are planned this week to address parents’ concerns about school safety and neighborhood violence. Aragon has requested and received additional police presence nearby, and a school police officer has been newly assigned to Irving.

But the teachers remain on edge, said Jane De Haven, a fifth-grade teacher at Aragon.

“We realized how dicey it is,” De Haven said, recounting that one teacher found bullets lodged in a classroom window. “It could have been any one of us.”

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