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3 Students Say They Were Searched at Gunpoint on Watts Campus

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three Watts middle school students said they were forced at gunpoint to lie on the ground outside a classroom while school police shouted obscenities and searched them for a gun.

None of the boys, who attend Markham Middle School, had a gun, and school officials would not comment on the search.

Markham Principal John Miller said he could not recall the incident. “I can’t remember anything out of the ordinary,” he said.

Assistant Principal Lee Byrd declined to be interviewed.

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But Los Angeles Unified School Police confirmed that an armed search occurred. They said details were sketchy because officers involved had not written a report and could not be reached.

Several students and staff members said the scene outside a classroom shocked the students involved and staff members who witnessed it.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Robert Truxal, 25, a teacher’s aide who runs an after-school arts program at Markham. “As an adult, I haven’t had to go through anything that violent. . . . It was too much for a school campus, to see all those guns out.”

The boys and two staffers who witnessed the incident said it occurred June 13 as the students were headed to their third-period classes. The boys’ parents said they were outraged that their children were subjected to an armed search on campus and that officials at Markham failed to notify them.

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“I was upset,” said Tanya Morgan, whose son was searched. “Nobody called me. You know they didn’t have to pull a gun on a little child.”

Larry Hutchens, assistant chief of school police, said officers are not obligated to inform parents when children are subjected to an armed search.

Hutchens said the search was apparently initiated by a report that a child on campus had a gun.

“The assistant principal and the officers then went looking for someone who fit the description,” Hutchens said.

Morgan’s son, 13-year-old Joseph Morgan, said he had just completed an errand for a teacher and was returning to class when he encountered two officers with guns drawn and three boys already lying on the ground.

Tonesia Moss, an aide in the class that Joseph had left seconds earlier, said she heard officers shouting orders and obscenities.

“I thought maybe they were talking to adults who came on campus,” she said. “The way they were talking and yelling I didn’t think they were [talking to] kids. I didn’t think they would talk to kids that way.”

Joseph said he tried to explain to the officers that he had permission to be out of class.

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“They just told me to shut up,” he said.

Moss said Joseph was petrified.

“He burst into tears,” she said. “The officer says, ‘If you don’t shut up I’m going to slam you against the wall. Just do what I say, I don’t care about your pass.’ ”

The other boys attempted to quiet Joseph, telling him to obey the officers’ commands, she said.

Finally, one of the officers “put the gun to my head and he grabbed my neck and he slammed me to the ground,” Joseph said.

“I thought he was gonna shoot me when he had the gun and he told me to lay down,” the boy said.

William Welch, 15, said he was stopped by officers and ordered to the ground.

“When I walked up, three boys were already on the ground handcuffed,” he said. “They didn’t have to put me on the ground like that. I didn’t have nothing.”

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Rodney Laird said he was walking to class when officers ordered him to freeze and get down.

“I got down,” he said. “They had the gun close to my head and put handcuffs on me.”

At least two school administrators were present but said nothing, Rodney said.

The boys said officers searched them, took their names and then sent them back to class.

Truxal said he tried to get the boys to talk to a counselor, but “their basic attitude was, ‘This is how they treat us.’ That’s the part that broke my heart, that they’re content that that’s the way they’re supposed to be treated, and to them that’s status quo.”

The boys’ parents said they had not been informed of the incident by school police or administrators.

“He could have been blown away or anything,” said Rodney’s mother, Christina Hill. “He could be dead right now today. They just don’t do kids like that. I don’t understand. He was just walking to his class.”


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