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In crash's aftermath, efforts to find students lead to frustration

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On some campuses, there were tears. On others, relief. But frustration was another overriding sentiment at many Southern California high schools Friday, as officials scrambled to pin down whether their students were aboard the ill-fated bus that crashed in flames en route to a college tour.

In Los Angeles Unified, Supt. John Deasy said a number of issues complicated efforts to determine which students were on the bus to Humboldt State. A day after the fiery crash, district officials still had not accounted for all 19 students from 16 high schools who took the trip. Some could be alive but missing; others could be deceased but unidentified.

"It was tremendously frustrating," Deasy said, "because you don't want to call a house at one in the morning and say: 'Is this your kid?'"

Jennifer Bonilla, a senior at Dorsey High School in the Crenshaw district, was one of those still missing. Teachers and friends waited anxiously throughout the day for word about the teenager described by one instructor as "bright and shiny and eager and ready to go."

"The whole staff and the whole Dorsey family have our thoughts with her and her family as we're waiting," said Noah Lippe-Klein, a history teacher who had recently written Jennifer a letter of recommendation for a scholarship that the teenager won.

Among the challenges in tracking down information, Deasy said, was a passenger manifest that listed names but not schools or districts. Employees had to run names through district records, calling additional staff out of bed to assist; many worked through the night.

Some "confirmed" identifications later proved to be wrong. One student, for instance, was listed as attending Belmont High. But it turned out to be a student with the same name at a different school.

"Students who at the last minute did not go on the trip but were scheduled to go on it, that was a problem as well," Deasy said.

Jefferson High feared it had two students on the bus. The names were correct, but neither student made the trip.

Principal Michael Taft's frantic calls found one student at home in bed. He called another student, Zaira Castro, to his office to verify her presence in school. Zaira explained that she had already decided to go to UCLA.

Other students decided to change which bus they rode on. And some students who signed up for the trip traveled with their parents, rather than taking their assigned spot on the bus.

Such confusion was replicated elsewhere.

Humboldt's efforts to recruit students it accepted involved sending invitations and arrangements that went "directly to students," said Marco Petruzzi, chief executive of Green Dot Public Schools. "It doesn't go through our counseling department. Some students might have told our counseling staff and some might not."

When Green Dot did nail down details, the news was sobering. Two students at the Animo Inglewood charter campus have not been confirmed among either the injured or the unharmed. A third Green Dot student was confirmed safe but stranded; L.A. Unified arranged a flight home, accompanied by a staffer, along with transportation from the airport.

"It's a brutal day for us," Petruzzi said.

In Santa Ana Unified, the quest for information was particularly difficult because schools were closed for spring break and counselors who might know which students made the trip were not on campuses, said Deidra Powell, district spokeswoman. Officials learned through Facebook that two Century High students had been on the bus and were safe with minor injuries.

They scrambled throughout the day to locate a student whom Humboldt had listed as attending Middle College, the name of a district high school. They later learned it was Middle College in L.A. Unified.

Humboldt State spokesman Frank Whitlatch said confusion was also sparked by students switching buses. Students on two buses that left Union Station in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday morning were divided alphabetically by their last names. But some "did what 17-year-olds do" and switched buses to sit with friends; some arrived late and sat down without regard for the assigned seating arrangement, he said.

At Norte Vista High School in Riverside, a cloud hung over students preparing for prom night as they worried about the whereabouts of classmate Marisa Serrato, whose family told reporters she has been missing since the crash. "We just don't know if they've found her," said one classmate, who gave only his first name, Elmer.

Marisa and her twin sister Marisol, both seniors, chose to skip the dance to visit Humboldt, he said. He added that the students have been preparing for college with extra classes since freshman year. "They're smart and really dedicated," he said. "I just hope they're OK."

But other campuses celebrated news that their students were confirmed safe. At Banning High School in Wilmington, Reanna Burnett, 16, said she initially burst into tears when she saw a photo on Instagram posted by one of the injured students, Jonathan Gutierrez. But she cheered up when he texted her saying he was fine.

Nick Salerno, superintendent for the El Monte Union High School District, said officials did not collect signed permission slips or create a roster of students as they typically do for field trips because the tour was not arranged by the district.

As a result, he initially told reporters that two female students had been hospitalized and that a male student was unaccounted for. He later corrected that to report a male and a female student were in another bus and never hospitalized.

"It's been really hard to get accurate information," Salerno said.

But a third El Monte student, Adrian Castro, 19, was confirmed dead.

Students wrote messages with chalk in the school's plaza.

"You will be missed," one said.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com

Times staff writers Alicia Banks, Paloma Esquivel, Adolfo Flores and Larry Gordon contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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