Schoolyard Shooting Tragedy Spurs Plan to Provide Experts : County to Assist Police With Mentally Ill

Times Staff Writers

A year has passed since the playground of the 49th Street Elementary School erupted with the sound of gunfire and screaming children in a fusillade that left 12 people wounded and three others dead--including a 10-year-old girl and the deranged sniper, who killed himself.

The Feb. 24, 1984, shooting shocked the community and left scars that have yet to heal on the hearts and minds of the schoolchildren and their families.

But the tragedy also focused public attention on the inadequacies of Los Angeles' system of dealing with the potentially violent mentally ill. In response, police and mental health officials have developed a plan that they hope will prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Good to Come From Tragedy

That hope, as much as the lingering scars, is the legacy of the shootings.

On Friday, the schoolyard seemed back to normal. The hundreds of children noisily at play seemed oblivious to the approaching anniversary of the day Tyrone Mitchell gunned down their classmates from his home across the street.

About 100 of the 1,200 students received psychological counseling after the shooting to cope with their memories and fears, but school officials said most of the children appear to have recovered completely.

Attendance, which dropped immediately after the shooting, was soon back to normal, and the school's academic performance actually has improved in the last year, Principal Charles Jackson said.

The only tangible reminder of the tragedy is a small plaque in the school library, dedicated to the memory of 10-year-old Shala Eubanks, who died in the attack, along with 24-year-old Carlos Lopez.

But, Jackson admits, no one has forgotten the schoolyard carnage.

"A year later, outwardly this seems to be just a normal school campus," he said. "The problem is, we don't really know what is in some of the students' minds."

The mother of Anna Gonzales, the most seriously wounded student, knows her daughter has not forgotten. Anna, 11, had a kidney destroyed when one of Mitchell's bullets tore through her side, and she is still recuperating. Just last month, she underwent another in a series of operations to repair the damage.

"Daily, she still remembers what happened," Esperanza Gonzales said.

Anna has returned to 49th Street School, but still frightened by her memories, she leaves school each day through a different door, her mother said.

Wanted to Stay Home

On Friday, the last school day before the anniversary of the shooting, Anna was so frightened that she begged her mother to let her stay home.

"She's been worrying that it'll happen again," her mother said. "My heart felt uneasy. But I had to force her to go. I told her not to worry."

But Esperanza Gonzales still worries herself, just as other parents do.

The sight of the stately Victorian house, where Mitchell barricaded himself while he fired 57 rounds into the crowded schoolyard and another into his own head, still triggers frightening memories for many whose lives were touched that day.

"My sons haven't forgotten. I don't think they ever will," said Rosa Ortiz, whose two sons were present when the gunfire rang out.

"I haven't forgotten it," she added. "Every time I come on the playground and see that house across the street, I remember. A lot of parents I talk to wish they would tear it down."

Inside the house, which has a new coat of paint, Tyrone Mitchell's uncle, Willie Mitchell, still lives amid the memories.

"We're pretty much back to the way things were before it happened, though you never forget it," Willie Mitchell said Friday.

Still bitter about the deaths of his nephew's victims, as well as his nephew himself, Mitchell blames the police for not intervening before the sniper attack--to "put (Tyrone Mitchell) away."

"They just wouldn't listen until it was too late," he said. "I just hope the police learned something from this."

It is impossible to say whether the shootings could have been avoided if the police had acted differently, or if the obviously disturbed Tyrone Mitchell had come to the attention of mental health authorities.

Lessons Were Learned

But it is clear that police and mental health officials have, indeed, learned something from the tragedy.

After the shootings, the Los Angeles Police Department convened a board of inquiry, and representatives of the city and county's Fire, Mental Health and Health Services departments, as well as advocacy groups for the mentally ill, joined in to study whether such violent outbursts might be predicted, or prevented, in the future.

Now, a year later, a plan has been developed that would help plug the cracks in the criminal justice system through which Tyrone Mitchell and so many others who are mentally ill and violence-prone have fallen.

Under the proposal, the Los Angeles County Mental Health Department would assign mental health experts to the city's busiest police stations to help officers identify and handle the mentally ill, and the Police Department would beef up its one-man mental evaluation unit to 11 members, including a psychologist, and computerize its antiquated card-file system of keeping track of mentally ill offenders.

More Extensive Training

The plan would also provide for more extensive training of police officers in how to recognize the mentally ill and keep encounters with them from turning violent, and familiarize them with services that are available around the clock to assist with mentally ill offenders.

"This will give us a better chance of spotting the Tyrone Mitchells beforehand and preventing some of them," said Cmdr. James Jones, who represents the Police Department on the multi-agency committee that devised the plan.

"The Police Department in the past has been in the position where we did not know what to do or where to take people (who appeared to be mentally ill)," Jones said. "It was totally frustrating for us, as well as dangerous for the community.

"Now we'll have a method to bring that person to the attention of the mental health system, hopefully before some kind of violence occurs. We won't catch all of them, but it we can prevent just one incident like the school shooting. . . . "

Showed Signs of Trouble

Even before the shootings, Tyrone Mitchell had a history of bizarre, threatening behavior, and was known by friends and relatives to keep an arsenal of weapons in his home. He was not being treated for mental illness at the time of his attack, though county officials had declared him "unemployable" five years earlier because of an "anxiety neurosis" characterized by excessive fear or dread.

Police had been called to the Mitchell home several times in the years before the shooting, in response to reports from relatives and neighbors that Mitchell was threatening them or firing weapons into the air at passing airplanes. But Mitchell was prosecuted only once--for firing a gun into the air--and spent only four days in jail.

In fact, just two months before the schoolyard shooting, police responding to a "family-dispute" call confiscated a shotgun from Mitchell but had to return it to him in February when his uncle refused to press charges. Three weeks later, the same shotgun was found with two other weapons beside Mitchell's lifeless body in the second-floor room from which he fired his deadly fusillade.

Prevention Possible

Under the proposed new system, still in its preliminary planning stages, police officers trained to recognize symptoms of mental illness could have arrested Mitchell and brought him in to be evaluated by their station's mental health expert, or the department's mental evaluation team.

If he were deemed violent, Mitchell could have been committed to a psychiatric institution for examination and treatment, or channeled to a community-based treatment program for help if his mental problems were not considered severe.

"We're trying to find a way to divert people that would be more appropriately treated by mental health away from the criminal justice system," Jones said. "People come to our attention all the time and we wind up booking them and putting them in jail, when the root causes of their action are psychiatric.

"Putting them in the criminal justice system is not going to prevent their anti-social behavior. Psychiatric treatment might."

Approval Required

The proposal still needs the approval of all the agencies on the task force, Jones said, adding that it would cost about $600,000 to fully implement the program.

Funding would be sought by the Police Department through a budget increase that would have to be approved by the Police Commission and the City Council.

The county would pay for the services of mental health experts through state funding, budget increases or cuts in other programs, a county spokesman said.

Police and mental health officials are optimistic that the program will be approved, and it could go into operation this spring.

"What it will do is provide greater coordination between our agencies," said Roberto Quiroz, acting director of the county Mental Health Department. "That ensures a person is not going to be shunted from one place to the other without being given some kind of care and attention."

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