Safety A Top Priority in New School Year

At the end of April, parents at Vaughn Next Century Learning Center’s G3 Academy in Pacoima were shocked to learn that an 8-year-old student had brought a gun to the elementary school.

Fortunately, the gun, which was registered to the boy’s uncle, had a chain-style lock on it which meant it could not be fired.

The school sent letters to the parents, indicating that the boy — a third grader — apparently intended to share something he had seen in a video game.

In the end, Los Angeles county District Attorney Jackie Lacey decided not to press charges on the boy’s uncle because the gun was in a box on top of a dresser, meaning he had done everything to prevent the child from having access to the gun, which he carried in his backpack before showing it to other students in the school located on the 11000 block of Herrick Avenue.

It was not the first weapons scare for the five charter schools that comprise the Vaughn Next Century Learning cluster of campuses. A month earlier, rumors had spread like wildfire about a threat to the middle school and main campus located on Vaughn Avenue, prompting a noticeable police presence at those schools.

After the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. that claimed the lives of 17 students and staff, schools and weapons have been an ongoing conversation for parents and students.

On March 14 (a month after the shooting), students across the county — and particularly at Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley — held rallies calling for stricter gun laws and an end to school violence.

As the new school year gets ready to start this Tuesday, Aug. 14, the topic doesn’t seem to abate.

School Safety Recommendations

On Monday, Aug. 6, LA City Attorney Mike Feuer released the final recommendations of his School Safety Report for Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) campuses, developed in response to testimony and public input gathered by the Los Angeles School Safety Blue Ribbon Panel, which had held a series of meetings across the city.

The panel was created after a gun brought to campus by a 12-year-old girl accidentally discharged inside a Salvador Castro Middle School classroom, injuring two students, in the Westlake district, near Downtown Los Angeles on Feb. 1. The group held meetings in each of the seven LAUSD board districts.

Among the top recommendations cited in the report is limiting school campuses to a single entry point, requiring all classrooms to have an interior locking device, and hiring a safety director to oversee security at Los Angeles schools.

“Our School Safety Report is the final result of bringing together students, parents, educators, other stakeholders and experts to tackle one of the most significant issues of our time. Our Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommendations would make a real impact on school safety,” Feuer said.

“I look forward to continuing to work closely with educators, parents and residents across Los Angeles to translate these proposals into action and protect our kids.”

Chief Steven Zipperman of the district’s Los Angeles School Police (LASPD) thanked Feuer for the suggestions.

“The panel’s recommendations will help guide our district as we refine policies and develop new strategies to help us protect our schools from violence,” he said in a statement.

 “The district has been making continuous improvement, including the creation of Mental Health Evaluation teams at each local district to provide immediate support to students in crisis,” Zipperman added.

The Los Angeles county Board of Supervisors is also giving schools a hand. The board recently approved a motion aimed at strengthening the School Threat Assessment Response Team (START), a 10-person team of mental health professionals that helps principals, counselors, school security officers and parents who raise a red flag about individual students.

START members evaluate students who talk about suicide, make threats or exhibit other alarming behavior. They visit the student’s school and home as part of the assessment. In most cases, counseling is recommended, though more serious situations may lead to students being placed on a 72-hour hold in a psychiatric facility or arrested.

“In partnership with law enforcement and our schools, the START program is an important tool that can work to prevent tragedies by responding to clear warning signs and cries for help by those who may be a danger to themselves or others,” said Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who co-authored the motion along with Supervisor Janice Hahn.

 Since February, the team has received 133 calls of possible threats.

Under the proposal, the county’s Department of Mental Health would partner with the Los Angeles county Office of Education to distribute training materials, including a video, to all county school districts so that administrators can create campaigns to prevent school violence as students and teachers head back to campus.

The idea is to teach educators what to look for, and the importance of reporting concerns and incidents to the authorities.

Another component is teaching kids, especially those with traumatic life experiences, how to handle their emotions, Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the board.

“Most violence is preventable … but people need a toolkit,” said Ferrer, a former high school principal. “Everyone gets angry and everyone feels hurt and everyone feels disrespected. But we need tools that allow us to handle those feelings, which are normal feelings, in a way that doesn’t hurt other people.”

Ultimate responsibility is with parents

Of course, students often wouldn’t have access to weapons if they didn’t have them in the home. And authorities are also cracking down on this.

In March, two San Fernando Valley fathers were fined and charged for allegedly failing to properly store firearms, which were discovered by police investigating school threats allegedly made by their sons.

“It’s imperative that adults lock up their guns. For goodness’ sake, lock up your guns,” Feuer said during a press conference then to announce the charges. “It’s the law. There’s no excuse not to and it could make the difference between life and death in the community in which you live. Store your guns safely.”

Robert Christy, 59, was charged with three misdemeanor counts of unlawful storage of a firearm, and faces up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine for each charge.

According to Feuer’s office, Christy’s 16-year-old son made threats around Feb. 5 to other students at Chatsworth Charter High School, indicating he was going to carry out a shooting. He allegedly made numerous references to his parents’ guns on previous occasions.

On Feb. 17, Los Angeles school police went to Christy’s home after another parent reported the alleged threats. Police recovered an unsecured rifle in the closet, two revolvers and one semi-automatic handgun unsecured in a bag behind a dresser and about 90 rounds of ammunition also in the bag, according to the City Attorney’s Office.

Dazo Esguerra, 50, was also charged with two misdemeanors — criminal storage of a firearm and unlawful storage of a firearm.

In February, according to Feuer’s office, Los Angeles school police visited the defendant’s home after his 17-year-old son allegedly made threats involving a gun to another student at Granada Hills Charter High School. His son also allegedly made social media posts with the firearm.

Officers said they found a loaded semi-automatic handgun unsecured in a bag located in Esguerra’s closet, along with a magazine with seven rounds of ammunition, according to Feuer’s office.

Feuer said at the time that “tragedies were averted” in both cases “because students and adults talked to each other and then contacted the school police. If you see something or you hear something, it’s imperative that you say something.”

Zipperman said the two cases were only a few of the 75 school threats his department had handled since February.

City News Service contributed to this story.

Please report safety concerns to your school or to law enforcement. The Los Angeles School Police Department also has an anonymous 24-hour Weapons Hot-Line at (800) 954-HELP (800-954-4357).