By William Covington, Special to the NNPA from Our Weekly –
To most students enrolled at Jefferson High School on Sept. 16, 1971, it was just like any new semester school day. Classes were held as usual. Some students hurried, while others lalligagged on their way to class, and the usual toughs roamed the grounds.
Although guns had been seen on campus at various times before, none had ever been fired. This day would be different. A small group of gang members ran around the campus, grabbing guys’ Ace-Deuce brand stingy-brim hats under the pretext that only their gang members could wear them. “If you are not a [gang’s name] you don’t deserve an Ace-Deuce,” the leader was heard to exclaim.
However, one of the confiscated hats belonged to a member of one of five rival gangs known to be active at “Jeff” at the time. Angry over the loss of his hat, he and members of his set [gang] scurried to the car belonging to the hat thieves and let the air out of its tires.
Then they found the hat thieves and chased them to the disabled vehicle, knowing there would be no speedy getaway. That’s when the chasers opened fire, striking the leader several times before fleeing.
The incident seems lost in school district annals, although former students recall it clearly. But, the incident may be important as the first known shooting on a Los Angeles high school campus, and it may have changed the way education is pursued locally from that day on.
Carver Junior High, a feeder school to Jeff, mirrored Jeff with a second on-campus shooting weeks later. Donald Anderson, a former LAUSD security agent, remembers that a Carver student was shot in the arm with a zip gun (a home-made device) outside the boy’s locker room in 1971.
Slightly less than a year later, in November 1972, five teenagers were shot near a homecoming float on Jeff’s campus. This second shooting was believed to be part of “a continuing feud between two rival gangs,” the Los Angeles Times reported. Several hours later a 15-year-old youth believed to be a Jeff student was arrested in his home. Later still, a 17-year-old was booked on the same charges.
Security agents had already been assigned to some campuses years earlier because of the discovery of handguns on campus. Jomo Uhuru-Adafo, formerly Harry Blakely, remembers that among the measures the district took was to assign the first security agents to Jeff as early as 1966 as result of the occasional handgun found there long before any shootings.
By the 1990s—and there is no evidence that the incidents at Jeff or any Los Angeles school started the trend—guns were popping up in schools throughout the nation.
In March 1992, campus gun violence had become so widespread that a Newsweek article by Tom Morganthau, stated: “Tragedy came to Crosby, Texas, over breakfast in the high-school cafeteria. The victim was Arthur Jack, 17, captain of the varsity football team ...” The article said Jack was helping himself to a glass of orange juice when a bullet from a .38-caliber revolver fired by a 15-year-old pierced his heart.
“Gun violence is on the rise in schools all over America, and the nation’s children are trapped in its path,” Morganthau warned. “According to the federal Centers for Diseases Control, one student in five reports carrying a weapon of some type and about one student in 20, or 5.5 percent, reports carrying a gun.”
In 1993, a 16-year-old Fairfax High School student Demetrius Rice became the first student to die in a classroom when he was shot in the chest after a. 357-magnum dropped out of student’s backpack and discharged. Another student was wounded.
Rice’s mother, Mildred Hunt, lost her only son. She reportedly lobbied the Los Angeles Unified School District to institute more stringent security measures, including metal detectors. The metal detector random search policy was implemented that year, no easy task in the second largest school district in the nation, behind the New York City Department of Education.
By 1994, Sen. Dianne Feinstein estimated that about 100,000 students across the nation were carrying handguns to school. In a July 29 Los Angeles Times article she stated: “It’s time to stop making excuses about gun violence in schools so that our law-abiding students can learn in safety... “Thirty-two of the 44 largest school districts in the country now use metal detectors to keep guns off campus. By adopting a gun-free school policy, the Los Angeles Unified School District has seen gun-related incidents decrease by 14 percent in the last year,” she said.
Still, after decades of school violence, the nation has become so inured to it that there was little public outrage when the Fairfax-style shooting was played out again at Gardena High School—where a 17-year-old student would come to school packing a weapon.
On Jan. 18, the student entered his third-period classroom and removed his backpack to take his seat. What happened seconds later that led to two classmates being shot is murky. Gardena students have given different versions of the incident. One said the youth appeared to have been looking for something in his backpack when the weapon discharged. Another thought the impact of the backpack hitting the desk caused the .9-millimeter Beretta to fire.
The police report said the gun discharged when the student reached into the backpack to get a snack.
The bullet struck a 15-year-old male student in the neck before striking a female student of the same age in the head. The young lady, now released from the hospital, was in critical condition for a time. Friends of the young man said he was carrying the handgun for protection.
Officials decided to try the alleged shooter as a juvenile rather than as an adult. He was given a nine-month sentence in juvenile camp, after admitting to the weapons charge. Although the teen, whose name has not been released, was already on probation for a misdemeanor battery charge, LAPD Assistant Chief Pat Gannon said he “was not hard-core, had no gang affiliations and was filled with remorse that his gun had gone off...”
Retired LAUSD police officer Charles Wilson recalls that scanning youths for weapons with metal detectors was “a joke.”
“When we would start scanning students at a particular entrance ... other students who were aware of the security checks would notify their friends via texting or Twitter,” he said. “They were able to avoid the scanning by passing their contraband weapons over school fence to a friend or taking it through another entrance. You would practically have to tear down every school and build them as secure as a judicial courtroom or the Pentagon, with a courtyard open field in the center,” he said.
Ken Trump, a school security consultant, suggests that metal detectors would have to be used around the clock to be effective, otherwise they prove to be too costly. Officers would have to scan everyone at every event, kids on their way to basketball and cheer practice, he said. Any evening event on campus would allow a student the opportunity to visit his locker and store a weapon and retrieve it that following day.
Trump sees metal detectors as a quick solution for complex a problem. With parents searching for peace of mind, metal detectors provide false hope. He believes the best tactic for using metal detectors is to conduct unscheduled scannings on campus. Unannounced, such scannings would be a complete surprise to students.
There was a history of guns on campus long before any shootings began.
“A few of us started carrying small pistols ... because the Slausons of Fremont High and the Businessmen of Jefferson High had a fight, and there were going to be possible retaliations,” Jomo Uhuru-Adafor, who attended Jeff in the ‘60s, said. Drive-bys did not exist then. Guys would stand up and aim and shoot.”
If you were seeking tough guys during the ‘60s and ‘70s, you could usually locate them in autoshop, says mechanic Anthony Bailey, who learned his trade at Jeff. Bailey believes almost every gang had one member who had a gun stashed away somewhere on campus, most of them taken during burglaries.
“However, things were different back then,” he said. “It’s almost as if the guns were used the same way countries used their nuclear arsenals, having it in case things escalated. Back then we fought heads up, with no guns involved.”
Another former gang member agreed. He said that in the earlier years they never brought a gun on campus to shoot anyone, but needed them for protection on the way home.
By the time of the homecoming incident, the Los Angeles Board of Education had toughened regulations concerning the possession of a deadly weapon on school campuses, which included immediate suspension and the initiation of an expulsion process.
To discourage a tide of guns on campus, in 1994 the Antelope Valley Union High School District proposed offering students a $25 reward to inform on classmates who brought guns or drugs on campus. Los Angeles Unified began a hot line for the same purpose, although it offered no reward.
An Antelope Valley Sheriff’s department spokesman said in the three years he had been in the department no guns had been confiscated at the schools.
Of course, guns, although primary, are not the only weapons of choice. There have been numerous incidents of knives, hatchets and other devices brought on campuses.
In an odd twist on the youth-with-guns-in-schools issue, at the end of December a plant manager at Henry Clay Middle School reportedly walked into the school gymnasium and questioned the presence of a few staff and students in the gym at that hour. Not getting what he felt was the proper response, he left the gym and returned with a weapon, demanding that the occupants exit the gym.
For his troubles, the 62-year-old assistant plant manager has been allowed to cool his heels in the Men’s Central Jail, according to the Sheriff’s department. Co-workers who wish to remain anonymous believe he started carrying the weapon after an assault by a co-worker in 2006. “We all think he armed himself after this incident,” one co-worker said.