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Man Held in Girl’s Killing Is Released as Alibi Holds : For Nadia’s Classmates: Grief, Wariness

Times Staff Writer

Michelle Sherman and her grandmother have a code word. No one--police officer, teacher or family friend--will ever convince Michelle to get into a car unless he utters that code word, she and her grandmother say.

Like many of her classmates at Diamond Elementary School in Santa Ana, Michelle was reminded of that Wednesday, a day after the body of schoolmate Nadia Puente was found in a garbage can in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park.

The mood around the Diamond school campus was somber Wednesday as psychologists talked to students in classrooms to help them cope with their grief and discuss their fears, according to Diane Thomas, spokeswoman for the Santa Ana Unified School District.

Teachers had been told at a morning staff meeting how to identify children who might need to talk with a counselor about what they were feeling, Thomas said. Several children had sessions with a psychologist, she said, but she did not know how many.

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“This is a day of grieving” for those at the Diamond school, Thomas said Wednesday. “There is a lot of grieving going on today. Because this is a student who was very visible on campus.”

One of Nadia’s close friends was so upset that she stayed home from school, the girl’s mother said. “She couldn’t sleep last night,” Teresa Padilla said of her 8-year-old daughter, Valerie, who she said was very close to Nadia. Padilla had stopped at the campus to let school officials know that her daughter would be absent.

Officials at the Girls Club of Santa Ana, where Nadia had been a member, said that many of the girls who were on Easter break from their own schools had gone to the year-around Diamond school across the street to take advantage of the counseling.

“The counselors have helped us deal with our emotions and with our grief,” said Sandee Gordon, executive director of the club, who said she spoke with the counselors herself. “We had a couple of girls here who were extremely close to Nadia,” Gordon said.

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There were plenty of parents walking their children to school Wednesday morning. But school employees said that was not unusual.

“Most of the people here walk their kids to school,” said 58-year-old Salvador Becerra, who has been the school’s crossing guard for 2 years. Becerra, who monitors the crosswalks at the intersection of Greenville Street and Edinger Avenue, said he sees very few children walking alone to the school.

Warnings Reinforced

Parents and older siblings who walked younger children to school Wednesday said the only difference in their activities since Nadia’s kidnaping and slaying was to reinforce warnings to come straight home after school and to beware of people who might harm them.

Adding to parents’ instructions to beware of strangers, police and school officials said Wednesday that youngsters should also be wary of people they know--including family friends and casual acquaintances.

“Generally parents say, ‘Don’t go with strangers,’ ” said Laurie Clemons, a detective who investigates sex crimes for the Westminster Police Department. “But to tell a child not to get into the car with a friend of the family is something a lot of parents don’t do.”

Police Department officials said that criminals prey on children’s innocence, trust and desire to be helpful. Officers who teach safety to children said that these people frequently fool children by telling them that their parents are ill, by offering candy or money, or by asking children for help.

‘They Use Anything’

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“They use anything that would appeal to a child,” Clemons said.

Carolyn Plettinck, who coordinates children’s safety programs for the Anaheim School District, emphasized the need for communication between parents and their children to establish strict safety guidelines.

“Parents should give their children the specific names of people they can ride with, any day, any time. If any other person offers, (just say) ‘No thank you.’ ”

Plettinck said her district’s programs teach children to stay at double their arm’s length away from any adult who might pose a threat, and to run in the opposite direction if they are approached. A block-parent program where adult participants agree to look out for children who need help is also used in the city, she said.

“A lot of children feel that because it’s a friend of mom and dad, it’s OK to get in the car,” Plettinck said.

So parents must reinforce clear guidelines for their children, she stressed. The more a child knows about whom he or she can trust, the safer the child will be, she said.

Instruction from school is not enough. “Parents must reinforce it,” she added.


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