Count Parents’ Confidence Among the Fatalities : As the total of weapons found at public schools mounts, families move closer to abandoning the system--no matter how high the quality of the education offered.

<i> Joyce Sunila of Studio City is a regular contributor to The Times</i>

My husband attended Walter Reed Junior High School back in the Valley’s salad days. He and his brother walked to school every day, passing through the tunnel under the brand new 101 Freeway.

The tunnel is at the end of the block we now live on, and Walter Reed is just a stone’s throw from our house. On warm summer evenings I take my daughters roller-blading in the parking lot there.

As I understand it, Walter Reed is a well-regarded public school. It boasts both highly gifted and honors programs and is much coveted by parents throughout Los Angeles County. So you can see it has a lot going for it as a middle school option for my girls: convenience, high academics and sentimental value, too.


There is just one drawback. Every year a few children are expelled from Reed for carrying guns or knives.

Only a few each year. In the 1993-1994 school year, two guns and one knife. Not much out of a population of 1,900. Still, it only takes one stray bullet to kill a child.

Am I the only Valley mother casting worried glances at the neighborhood secondary school and wondering if it’s time to abandon public education? Hardly. Admissions directors at Valley private schools report an increase in parents who inquire about safety as they canvass middle school and high school options.

At the Oakwood Secondary School, the assistant to the director of admissions, Rhoda Wasserman, says the question, “How safe is your school?” comes up more than ever these days, “particularly now that the public schools plan to place children in middle school in sixth grade rather than in seventh grade.

“They’re definitely afraid of the bullying and the violence that they hear about in some public schools,” she says.

Parents see their sixth-graders as babies, private school people say, and are worried about 11-year-olds’ being thrown in with the kinds of 14-year-olds they read about in the papers.


At St. Michael and All Angels School in Studio City, admissions director Maggie Wright Falkenstein says, “It may be more perception than reality, but I would say parents now perceive the safety of our campus as a deciding factor for switching their children here from the public schools.”

At Carpenter Avenue Elementary School, which my daughters now attend (No guns there, thank God. Of course the kids are all under 12), it’s the buzz among parents:

“What are you going to do about middle school for Steven?”

“Are you saving for private school when Ellie graduates?”

“Are you thinking of moving?”

Carpenter parents have a deep commitment to public school education. These are parents who show up on weekends in their faded clothes bearing brooms, brushes, toilet bowl cleaner, hedge clippers and leaf blowers.

All of us complain good-naturedly about the need for these efforts. They cut into our schedules. But we also relish them. The sense of community they generate is hard to come by in this day and age. We warm ourselves around the glow of these old-fashioned barn raisings.

Some Carpenter parents who have followed their kids to Walter Reed are shoring up the dikes with after-school math tutoring, fund-raisers to buy sports equipment and suchlike. The rest of us watch this advance guard closely. Will we be the next wave?

It depends.

On good days we fantasize about turning Walter Reed into a model public school like Carpenter. On bad days, when the weapons reports are published or we read about the Walter Reed computer room being trashed during the summer, our enthusiasm wanes. Bootstrap idealism works just fine if enough people are pulling in the same direction. But it can’t survive too much entropy. We fear the downward pull that weapons and other mayhem signify.


The evidence of this downward pull is plain enough at the end of my block, where the tunnel my husband used to saunter through as a child is boarded up. Its eyeless surface is a bulletin board for gangs whose cryptic messages tell who controls which drug territory. Every few weeks some blessed soul paints over the graffiti. A day or two later it’s back.

“I wonder if we’ll be the last group of middle-class whites to use the public school system in this part of the Valley,” mused a six-year veteran of Carpenter School cleanups and fund-raisers. Weapons are starting to appear in Valley elementary schools. Ten altogether in the 1993-94 school year. Two of them guns.

It’s a small number, given the tens of thousands of elementary school students in the Valley.

Still . . .