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Notes On the First to Fall

Everybody by now must know what happened at Fairfax High. It’s been in the news for 10 days. How a 15-year-old kid, fearful of gangs, carried a pistol to school. How he fiddled with the weapon in English class. How, as will happen with guns, it went off. How the slug tore through one student and buried itself in Demetrius Rice. How, as will happen with gunshot victims, the 16-year-old died where he fell.

You would think such horrors no longer could interest this city of fallen angels, where burials of youngsters dropped by bullets are routine business, where churches and playgrounds and hospitals all have been visited by gunplay. Nonetheless, the civic response to this death has been remarkable, transcending the typical 48 hours of hand-wringing and remorse that politicians and anchormen reserve for high-profile bloodshed.

There are reasons this one shooting among hundreds has captured the city’s attention. First, both shooter and victim were good kids--Rice was college-bound, a winner; the boy with the gun was just one more scared and confused L.A. youngster, a victim in his own right. This made it seem even more tragic. Also, that the ugly incident was witnessed by a classroom of horrified teen-agers added a sensational, almost macabre, element. Finally, and most important, this death had a claim to distinction. Demetrius was the first to fall in a Los Angeles classroom.

“Schools,” Bishop Carl Fisher told mourners who packed Transfiguration Church on Thursday for the funeral, “should be and must be safe havens for learning, for growth and development. And because they are not, Jesus today stands weeping over our City of Angels gone mad.”

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Certainly there is no good time for a 16-year-old to die. Still, the death of Demetrius came at a particularly bad moment for public schools in Los Angeles and, for that matter, throughout California. Once the best evidence of a state’s greatness, California public schools today are in big trouble. Money is tight. Teachers are disgusted, demoralized. The political dynamics have begun to shift: Public schools are being cut loose, abandoned.

A ballot initiative is in the works to establish a voucher system that, in essence, will take money from public schools and give it to private schools. Some San Fernando Valley suburbanites want to secede from Los Angeles Unified. Entrepreneurs sense an opportunity, laying plans to build and market private schools like Burger King pushes its Whoppers: education--have it your way.

In short, we appear to be bound inexorably for a two-track education system. One track will be for those who can afford options. The other track, the public school track, will be for those who cannot. We are told that the intent, of course, is to improve education. The talk is of SAT scores and Ivy League requirements.

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While I don’t doubt learning plays a part, it’s hardly the whole story. The evidence, in fact, would indicate that in many cases private schools don’t do a better job of teaching children. My hunch--supported not by polls, but by almost every conversation I’ve ever had with a parent--is that the push away from public schools is the product of fear. Fear of stolen backpacks. Fear of bloody noses. Fear of drugs and thugs and people who seem, well, different. And fear, now, of bullets.

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Demetrius, Fisher preached Thursday, gesturing toward a coffin draped in a high school football jersey, at last “is in a place safe and secure. What this world could not provide, God has now provided.” While methods will be argued, the shooting seems to have produced consensus that gunfire common to the streets cannot be allowed to seep into schools.

The bishop believes public schools must turn back to God, and he took the opportunity of the funeral to call for classroom prayer. The superintendent of schools would settle for metal detectors.

This is no small mandate, asking schools to somehow remain the city’s lone DMZs. Already, they are required to serve as surrogate parents and as baby-sitters, to provide discipline and nurturing, to foster assimilation and promote cultural awareness. And, yes, to teach. In fact, that test scores actually have crept upward under this extreme extracurricular burden strikes me as one of the great overlooked successes of our time.

I doubt, though, many others see it that way. For too many parents, the death of Demetrius provides confirmation for what they already presumed: The public schools have failed. Listen. All over the city, they ask the same question: Who needs this? No, the race, I’m afraid, is on--the race to get the hell out, to escape public schools as fast as vouchers and Volvos allow. In that context, the gun that exploded in Room 218 was a starting pistol.


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