Playing Defense to Halt Game Violence : Schools: Intense rivalries and volatile gangs mean some football and basketball contests require more pregame strategy from security teams than from coaches.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As fans poured through gates into the Garfield-Roosevelt football game on a recent Friday evening, a school police officer patted down a father carrying a baby.

Satisfied, the officer turned to the baby's mother. "What do you have in here?" he asked, pointing to her backpack.

"Blankets."

The officer opened the pack. "What's this?" he asked.

"Bottles."

And so it went for several hours as 22,000 fans entered the East Los Angeles College stadium.

A row of officers at each gate frisked men and children. They used metal detectors to search women or asked them to show the insides of their coats.

Forty school and college police, including two on bicycles, roamed the stadium. Four Roosevelt deans, three teachers, 35 school staff members--and a like number on the Garfield side--helped out in the tunnels and stands.

"You'd like to look at families and say go ahead," said Lt. Stan Kennedy, commander of the officers at the game, as he walked from gate to gate checking on his officers.

"But now you're treading on other people's civil rights. You either search everyone or you're using a discriminatory policy. Plus, in this day and age, you never know. So you search everybody."

*

Those who oversee security at Southern California high school athletic events say the majority of games, including the football playoffs that began Friday and continue through Dec. 11, require no special precautions.

But at some football and boys' basketball games, substantial forces are deployed. Games that feature intense school rivalries, attract rival gangs to the stands or have been the site of major disturbances are singled out.

"Problems many times aren't caused by students but by former students or gang members," said Lt. Walter Nelson, who coordinates security for so-called critical games for the LAUSD police.

"The gang's power is from turf. When you have kids coming from other schools into this school's turf, it creates a gang problem," he said.

Frequent fights at games between Cathedral High School near Chinatown and Salesian High in Boyle Heights forced school administrators to schedule the teams' recent match for a football playoff spot at a neutral site with no spectators.

In January, violence in the stands halted a basketball game between Lynwood High and Dominguez High School in Compton. That game was concluded later without an audience.

In 1991, two students were injured by bullets fired outside the stadium during the final minute of the Dorsey-Crenshaw game at Dorsey's Jackie Robinson Stadium.

*

At the California Interscholastic Federation's Southern Section playoff between St. Paul of Santa Fe Springs and Mater Dei of Santa Ana at the Santa Ana Bowl on Friday night, seven Mater Dei security people, four Santa Ana Park Rangers and a few Santa Ana Police were present with three administrators and 10 teachers eyeing the grandstand.

The Southern Section regulates all high school sports in Southern California, except in the Los Angeles and San Diego public school districts. At CIF games, security is provided by school personnel, private agencies and local law enforcement.

"We feel very secure," said clarinetist Jennifer Stellar, 17, a senior seated in her red and white uniform with the Mater Dei band. She and the band members go to every football game. "There has never been a problem," she said.

Dwayne DeNolf, supervisor of the Mater Dei game security staff, roamed the stands and perimeter. He was dressed casually, except for the walkie-talkie in his back pocket, and he looked young enough to be a student.

"We blend in," he said. "That's the whole point. We can move in easier and quicker if we need to without being noticed."

In the first quarter, he walked out a tunnel from the Mater Dei student grandstand as three teen-age boys raced in.

"Where are you guys from?" he asked, signaling them to stop. When they couldn't produce Mater Dei IDs, he told them that only students were allowed in the student section and that they had to return to general admission. The boys went without a word.

DeNolf's responsibilities also include keeping students out of the aisles and making sure no one comes in under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

"If you suspect a problem, you take them to a Breathalyzer," he said. "We have one at every school function we go to."

On this night, as at most Mater Dei games, the Breathalyzer went unused and there were no serious problems, DeNolf said.

After Mater Dei won, 17-14 on a stirring fourth-quarter comeback, DeNolf stood on the field and watched the crowd leave. A parent and three children from the grandstand started onto the field. DeNolf rushed over and told them they'd have to return to the stands. No problem.

"I feel fine at these games," said Mike Rzeznik between screams after his son, Michael-John, caught the touchdown pass that defeated St. Paul. "We have a good security system. Everyone is aware of it and kind of helps each other out."

*

Security for L.A. Unified games is planned months before the sports seasons start.

Each June or July, Nelson sends the 49 district high schools a letter asking principals to list games that will require extra security.

After principals return the lists, Nelson consults with school police. The security level for each game is set in a meeting with several principals and Barbara Fiege, director of interscholastic athletics for the LAUSD.

Special security assignments are based on the anticipated game attendance and past problems. School police go to the site and plan deployment at least a week in advance, but the number of officers may change if gang rivalry flares in the days before the game.

Strategy includes placing school police patrol cars around the stadium. Police from the rival schools are placed at gates to screen students.

"Within two or three months at the school, an officer should be able to tell you about every student who belongs on his campus," Nelson said. "You can't know how beneficial that is. We have officers at the gates who may recognize kids who got kicked out of school that week."

Among other precautions: Officers never allow people to walk from one school's bleachers to the other, and they try to get separate concession stands set up on each side of the field. Efforts are often made to separate parking lots and departure routes.

*

Bright red and blue signs lined the Garfield side of the East Los Angeles College stadium. Red and yellow banners, one with a sword-pointing Rough Rider on a horse proclaiming "Somos Los Mighty," covered the Roosevelt bleachers.

As the stands began filling late in the afternoon, the festive crowd danced to "La Bamba." At halftime, when a Garfield drum major tossed her baton high, Roosevelt rooters chanted, "Drop it, drop it." When either team made a big gain, its fans chanted: "Whoomp! There it is."

"There are a lot of children here," said travel agent Antonio Rodriguez, seated in the Roosevelt section with his 7-month-old daughter, Stefania, in his lap. "It's our neighborhood and we feel comfortable."

During the second half, two officers raced out a tunnel in response to a radio call and ejected two teen-agers who had crawled in under the fence. Earlier, police dispersed several gang members gathering near a concession stand.

There were no serious problems, police said.

"Every gang in East Los Angeles is here," said Wesley Mitchell, chief of the LAUSD school police. "You also get gangs from South Gate and Huntington Park . . . all the southeastern cities.

"I also doubt that there's anywhere you could go in the city and have as many teen-agers as tightly packed as this and not worry about violence," he said.

"The security doesn't bother me at all," said Roosevelt junior princess Irene Robledo, 16, in the long white gown she wore for a pregame ceremony. "It makes me feel safer. But you still need security, because there are people who want to come and mess everything up."

"It does create a kind of sadness that we need more security," said Oscar De La Hoya, the Olympic gold-medal-winning boxer and Garfield graduate who participated in the pregame coin toss. "Maybe five to 10 years ago we did not need that. Maybe violence is getting a lot tougher."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°