Administrator Maureen Cologne thought she had stumbled upon a missing cellphone two weeks ago after touching a smooth object wedged between a stack of chairs at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s newest high school. During the random classroom search, about 40 students watched her pull out a loaded handgun instead.
“What was terrifying,” Cologne said in an interview last week, “was why?”
At most urban high schools, the incident could have been considered an anomaly in an otherwise normal school year. But since South L.A. Area High School No. 1 opened in July on the old Santee Dairy site just south of downtown, nothing has been normal.
During its first week, as staff haphazardly opened five small schools on the pristine campus with little or no guidance, more chaos reigned outside. On the second day of classes, someone fired shots in front of the school. A day later, a student with an AK-47 was arrested after school in front of the campus, police said. Campus police said students jumped on officers and tried to steal their guns during a lunchtime brawl three months ago. And students said the police pepper-sprayed them as they tried to avoid the melee.
The school has earned a dubious distinction: It ranks No. 1 among district high schools for crime, with 218 reports since school began, including theft, assault and weapons possession.
“We’ve taken out knives and brass knuckles. We’ve had kids selling meth in classrooms,” said police officer Veronica Perez, who has been stationed on the 2,900-student campus since it opened. “We are the busiest school in the district, and there’s only two [campus-based officers] here.”
Supt. Roy Romer and district officials had hoped the state-of-the-art school, with its heated swimming pool, rubber track, ballet studio, fully equipped chef’s kitchen and shiny Macintosh computers, would become a pride of the district. It was intended to relieve overcrowding and serve as a model for implementing small learning communities, a reform effort aimed at boosting student achievement and graduation rates at all district high schools.
“This was, for three years, Romer’s talked-about flagship [small learning community] site,” said Board of Education member David Tokofsky. “It was his dream, and it has turned out to be a nightmare.”
Romer said the district was trying to open new schools against long odds. Changing the culture on campus and in the community, he said, is a “slow and painful process.”
“Opening a new school is challenging,” Romer said. “Doing it with the kind of unrest we have among those youngsters is also a challenge. But that doesn’t mean you don’t do it.”
The attendance boundaries are part of the problem of South L.A. Area High School No. 1, which draws students from some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods around Belmont, Jefferson, Manual Arts and Fremont high schools. Police say youths cut through more than 50 gang territories to get to school. There are 18 documented gangs represented on campus, and, staff members say, each is posturing for recognition and a spot on the quad.
Students carry weapons because “they have to go through somebody else’s turf to get to and from school,” said Dean David Hickman. “The district never asked us, who are on the ground, how to build a school.”
Even though students are divided into groups, they come together at lunch. In December, several lunchtime brawls resulted in 34 students arrested and 10 hospitalized. To quell the fighting, administrators split lunchtime into two 35-minute periods so that fewer students congregate on the quad at once.