A School Asks Why : Shooting: 10-year-old boy's attempted suicide at front door of school leaves parents, officials and students searching for answers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even in a city where life often ends young, this is not supposed to happen.

A fifth-grade boy is not supposed to be carrying a gun. He is not supposed to be crying at 7:30 a.m. He is not supposed to stand at the front door of his elementary school and shoot himself in the head.

On Wednesday, a fifth-grade boy did.

Twenty minutes before the morning bell rang at 49th Street Elementary School in South-Central Los Angeles, this sobbing youngster pulled a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol from his backpack, then pressed it against his temple.

The handgun was owned by his father, who kept it stashed under a mattress. The ammunition was stored separately, on the top shelf of a bedroom dresser. The boy, police said, had searched out the weapon and loaded it himself. As his classmates filed into school, he fired a single round.

His 10-year-old body fell to the pavement, not far from a sign that warns, "A Safe School: Everyone's Responsibility. Report Weapons on Campus." A pool of blood spilled out, leaving large red droplets on the ground even after a custodian tried to hose it down. After more than four hours of surgery, the boy remained in extremely critical condition late Wednesday, hooked to life-support machines in the neurosurgical intensive-care unit at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.

"I'm at loss for words," said Los Angeles Police Detective John Garcia, who is investigating the shooting. "It just kind of makes you shake your head."

This corner of South-Central is no stranger to gunfire. The 49th Street School, in fact, was turned into a battlefield 10 years ago when a deranged neighbor opened fire on the campus, killing two people and wounding a dozen others before turning the gun on himself.

But for the distraught parents who came to pick up their children Wednesday, news of the apparent suicide attempt was as inconceivable as it was sad.

"Ay, this poor little boy," said Alicia Sanchez, as she headed home with her kindergarten-age daughter. "I don't understand how he could have the capacity to do something so horrendous. At that age, they're minds are still so clean, so pure."

The only possible clue to the boy's grief, police said, was a one-day suspension he had received Tuesday from one of his teachers. A classmate, 11-year-old Steve Navarrete, said it was for using profanity.

"The teacher said: 'Don't come to school tomorrow,' " the classmate recalled. "He was kind of sad."

Principal Lemuel Chavis said the boy, who did not have a history of disciplinary problems, had been given a note asking his parents to come to school Wednesday to discuss his behavior. Although the note may have urged the youngster to stay home for a day, Chavis said, it was not considered a formal suspension.

"It's difficult for me to fathom that a note like that would create this kind of anxiety, unless there was something else bothering him in his personal life or home life," Chavis said. "I certainly didn't see this coming, and I don't think the teacher did either."

Detectives said the boy never told his parents about his trouble in class. As usual, the boy's father dropped him off at school Wednesday morning. At the family home, police said, they saw no signs of physical or emotional abuse.

"They just seemed like any other ordinary family," Garcia said. "And he just seemed like any other ordinary 10-year-old boy."

In a ritual that has become all too common at Los Angeles schools, crisis counselors for both students and staff were called in shortly after the shooting. A psychologist who serves as a suicide-prevention consultant for the Los Angeles Unified School District also was on hand.

Throughout the day, nervous parents gathered outside the schoolyard, complaining about what they perceived as a lack of security. Cristino Palacios, the father of a first-grader, circulated a petition demanding increased patrols during the hours when youngsters arrive and leave the campus.

"This just really did something to me," said Pat Smith, the aunt of two 49th Street students, whose own son attended the school during the 1984 sniper attack. "First, these kids get shot by the people who live across the street. Now one of their own classmates tries to take his life. It's so sad."

Few children as young as this ever go to such extremes.

Of the 1,055 suicides in Los Angeles County last year, more than 90% were committed by adults. In only one case, a coroner's spokesman said, was the victim younger than 10.

Maria Romero, the mother of a first-grader and third-grader at 49th Street School, hopes she never sees another so young. On Wednesday, she struggled to choke back tears as she described seeing this boy's body sprawled in a puddle of blood.

"He looked so precious," she said. "So tiny to be taking his own life."

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