Tranquility Shattered at Montebello School

Times Staff Writer

Wilcox Elementary School is on a pretty residential street. Its students can romp in a playground that slopes gently into a hill overlooking the city, making the sky seem within reach.

In the past three weeks, its tranquility has been marred by the Feb. 25 abduction and sexual assault of a 6-year-old student from the school. The threat to the children was underscored this week with the similar abduction and assault of a young boy, who was snatched from his home Monday night in nearby Monterey Park.

And despite tightened security at the Montebello school, yet another kidnaping attempt occurred when a man tried to lure an older girl into a car Friday. A witness to the attempted kidnaping said the girl told her she attends Schurr High School, which is across the street and north of the elementary school.

The three incidents are believed to have been committed by the same man, according to Lt. Ralph Brown of the Montebello Police Department.

The Wilcox kidnaping, which has stunned this mostly middle-class community, has caused school officials to keep students on the playground until parents have picked them up, prompted the Montebello Unified School District to call for a review of security at its 27 schools and resulted in prevention programs begun by the Montebello Parent Teachers Assn. Council.

Most parents have responded to the school's request that they not leave their children unattended by being more punctual about retrieving their children. However, some parents are still dropping them off early in the morning when there is no supervision, according to school officials.

Saying the community was "very shocked" and that the kidnaping was a "big awakening for parents," Cissy Bishop, president of the Wilcox PTA, said, "You never think that it is going to happen, certainly not to someone you know or to your own little school."

Bishop, who said the "the school is not in any way at fault," placed the responsibility of child care on the parents.

"School is for education, not for baby sitting," she said. "Parents must realize that it is their duty to always know where their child is."

Waiting for Sister

The kidnaping occurred within a two-hour period, while the child was waiting for an older sister to pick her up at a bus bench on the north side of the school, located at 816 Donna Way.

Instead, a man believed to have been driving a white car, possibly a Volkswagen, with a light brown interior carried the girl away in a zip-up garment bag, according to Detective LaVerne Fuller of the Montebello Police Department. After the girl was assaulted, she was dropped off in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, where a resident of an apartment complex found her crying and called the police, Fuller said.

The girl was reported missing after her sister found only her lunch pail and book on the bench, Fuller said.

Principal Doris Mori-Kerkes is now requiring students to stay on the playground if they have not been picked up after 2 p.m. There they are supervised until 3 p.m. by a recreational leader, who has regularly been on duty at the school.

Wait in Office

Students who have not been picked up after 3 p.m. must wait in the school office until parents are called to come pick them up.

After 3 p.m., the school usually calls the person listed on the child's emergency card, Asst. Supt. Sal Traslavina said. As a last resort, school officials will call the police, he said, adding that the alternative is rarely used.

Classes begin at 8:15 a.m. and end at 1:50 p.m., but some parents drop their children off by 7:30 a.m., when there is no supervision, Mori-Kerkes said, adding that she had previously sent out numerous bulletins asking parents to be more cautious with their children.

Mori-Kerkes, who is in her first year as the school's principal, said that because most of the parents are middle class they are able to afford child care or can arrange for someone to pick up their children. It has not posed as critical a problem as it might for lower-income parents, she said.

In a letter issued to parents two days after the kidnaping, the principal wrote, "We often feel while seeing hearing and/or reading about situations like this, that it can never really happen to our children here at Wilcox.

'Not Isolated'

"However, this situation has dictated to us that we are not isolated from tragedies that afflict children and we need to take more measures to insure the safety of our children."

Mori-Kerkes, who has been an educator for 13 years, said the kidnaping was "terrible" and a "hard lesson to learn."

As part of a prevention effort, the Montebello Council of PTA presidents and board members have started programs that include films and speeches by the police on child safety for parents and children, according to Bishop, president of the Wilcox PTA, which has 475 members.

The Montebello Police Department's Crime Prevention Unit will also present a film, "Better Safe Than Sorry," March 22 at the school, which has 575 students and 21 teachers.

Herbert Stearns, a member of the school board since 1965, said the kidnaping is the first in the history of the district.

"We're beefing up security at all the schools and the children will be detained at the school," he said. "This may be hard on parents. The problem is that you have those parents working, or you have one parent in the household and that parent is working and they pick them up when they can.

"But this time, the children are going to wait in the school and the parents are going to pick them up at the school."

Worry About Child

Ni Chsiung, a parent who picked up his daughter at the school last Friday, said the kidnaping has caused him and his wife to worry more about their child and that they are no longer letting her walk home from school with her friends.

"We were shocked," he said about the kidnaping.

Across the street, residents of the 10 houses that face the school echoed Ni.

Describing the area as a "quiet, decent neighborhood," Dorothy LaPuzzo said, "I guess this made everybody more aware."

LaPuzzo, who has lived across from the school for 35 years, said, "One is too complacent. We think this could happen somewhere else, but not here. What else is there to say, except we're horrified."

Her neighbor, 22-year-old Johnny Santiago, also had the same reaction and was upset because he was outside washing his car at the time of the kidnaping but was unable to prevent it.

"I really feel bad because I happened to be out front, but I couldn't see or hear anything," he said. "It's hard to watch what's going on because it gets super crowded. There's so many cars and it's real hard to keep track.

"This is a nice area, and it shocked a lot of us to find out that something happened right here."

The incident, Councilman Art Payan said, is "the kind of situation" that "frightens" the community.

"The fear always exists that someone who could do something like this could return or that other people could get similar ideas," Payan said.

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