Los Angeles police descended on Venice High School on Friday, arresting nine students in connection with a series of sex crimes that began more than a year ago and involved at least two female classmates.
All but one of the arrests were on campus; authorities were attempting to locate five other students. The investigation began after a parent reported the allegations on Tuesday.
As detectives investigated, they discovered at least one photograph showing sex acts, according to law enforcement sources. A photo that appears to show two teenagers engaged in a sex act has been circulated on social media. Allegations involved both consensual sexual acts between minors and coerced acts, which complicates the case, police said.
Twelfth grader Gabriel Siria said he was on his way to his second-period history class Friday morning when he walked past two school administrators with police officers. He watched as three students were handcuffed in the hallway outside of class.
FOR THE RECORD:
Venice High: In the March 14 Section A, an article about the arrests of Venice High School students suspected of sex crimes reported that parent Karen Wolfe said there had been repeated complaints about sex and pot smoking in the bathrooms. After publication, she clarified that she has heard complaints about those activities taking place on other parts of campus, but not in the bathrooms.
Law enforcement officials stressed the investigation is still in its early stages and that police made the arrests quickly in an effort to prevent any more incidents.
“We didn’t want to leave the suspects out there to potentially victimize other girls at the school,” Los Angeles police Cmdr. Andrew Smith said. “The last thing we wanted was to have another victim.”
The alleged crimes include sexual assault and lewd acts with a minor. Although the incidents date back to 2013, Smith said, most occurred in the last two months — and as recently as this month. Sources said that several boys were present during at least some of the incidents.
Authorities provided few details about the allegations and declined to identify the boys who were arrested because they are minors, all between the ages of 14 and 17. Sources in law enforcement and at Venice High said some of the boys are members of the high school’s football and basketball program.
The allegations, they said, involved a group of male students working together to pressure girls into having sex. The boys were accused of making verbal threats and threatening the girls’ reputations, according to one of the sources.
A defense attorney who specializes in sex-crime cases cautioned against drawing conclusions early in an investigation, noting that prosecutors have yet to file charges. He said criminal cases involving allegations of sexual assault by juveniles against other juveniles are rare.
“Often, first reports don’t tell the whole story,” said attorney Leonard Levine.
Two Venice High parents, including Karen Wolfe, whose son is a sophomore, said there have been repeated complaints about sex and pot smoking in the bathrooms.
“It’s really upsetting,” Wolfe said, referring to the arrests.
“Parents are trying to piece it together,” said Wolfe, who is a member of the school’s leadership group. “Kids do stupid things. I certainly want to know what happened. Were the assaults off or on campus? Where were the adults?”
Students also were trying to sort out the truth from the rumors.
Viviana Reyes, a 10th grader, said teachers provided a vague explanation, but mostly urged them not to talk to the media.
“It's embarrassing,” she said, while standing under the shade of a tree waiting for a ride home. “The whole world knows about this school and for this. It's really awful.”
L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon Cortines said the students’ parents had been notified and crisis counselors were on campus to assist any other students.
“This is a painful moment for Venice High School and this district,” he said in a statement. “I want you to know that no sexual misconduct of any kind by students or staff will ever be tolerated in L.A. Unified.”
“We’re pouring all our resources over there today and for the next couple of weeks to make sure every child over there feels safe,” said school board member Steve Zimmer, who represents the Westside school. “Our crisis team and our psychiatric social workers are on site ready to provide services to every student who is affected by this, indirectly and directly.”
Venice High has long been a microcosm of the diverse community around it, which includes a mix of rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods and areas known as a center of gang violence. In 2006, a 17-year-old Venice High student was fatally shot as he tried to protect his younger brother from gang members.
The school has more than 2,000 students; about two-thirds are Latino. One of its most prestigious programs is its foreign language magnet, which draws students from across the city. In 2013, then-Supt. John Deasy singled out the school for its progress in improving test scores although its overall academic achievement remains relatively low.
Times staff writers Martha Groves, Veronica Rocha, Matt Stevens and Richard Winton contributed to this report.