3,000 Locked in School for 6 Hours After Gunfire
The early morning shooting of a school police officer outside Belmont High School on Monday led to a nearly daylong lock-down of the huge campus near downtown Los Angeles--a precaution that forced students to scrounge for food, while away the hours listening to rock music and relieve themselves in plastic sacks provided by their teachers.
Nearly 3,000 students spent more than six hours behind closed doors in their classrooms, as dozens of police officers combed the year-round campus and surrounding neighborhood for a gunman and his accomplice after the shooting of school district Officer Conrad Bonilla, 33.
Although Bonilla was only slightly injured, authorities said it took them most of the day to assure that the two assailants were no longer a threat to the school. Teachers finally released students about 2 p.m.
During the most protracted school lock-down in district memory, some instructors went on with their lessons, despite the tension of a police search. A few students managed to get some homework done. But mostly it was a day of endurance and coping, until police confirmed that the gunman was not on school grounds, just west of the Harbor Freeway.
Several dozen parents paced nervously in front of the school for much of the day, hoping to receive some word about their children. But most students seemed to take the ordeal with good humor, as evidenced by a few who hung placards out of classroom windows pleading for water, or to be set free.
“It was boring and scary and exciting all at the same time,” said Marcos Coronel, 13, a ninth-grader.
Zoila Monterrozo was in a school office when she was ordered to stay put. Later, she and other students followed police officers and teachers to the nurse’s office, to use a bathroom. They also received some water and cookies.
“We were looking out the window [of the nurse’s office] to the front of the school,” said Monterrozo, an 18-year-old senior. “We saw police officers eating hamburgers. We were like, ‘OK, when do we get to eat?’ ”
Los Angeles Unified School District policy requires, at the time of a shooting, that all students be immediately secured in classrooms or other campus locations, away from danger. Monday’s Belmont lock-down was reinforced by an order from Los Angeles police, who told school administrators that students could not be allowed in the hallways, district officials said.
Police insisted that the prolonged lock-down was necessary to ensure safety at one of the city’s most crowded schools. The shooting occurred just before the beginning of the day at the campus.
“Unfortunately, we found out several hours later that the suspects had fled out of the perimeter prior to our [SWAT] deployment,” said Officer Jason Lee, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Police acknowledged that students endured hunger and boredom in their cramped classrooms, but they said the lock-down was a necessary evil, given the possible danger.
“I’m sure it was pretty uncomfortable for them,” said Richard Page, of the L.A. Unified police department. “I have teenagers, and I know they don’t like to be held for a long time in one place.”
Belmont Principal Ignacio Garcia said school administrators opted for the trash bag toilets as the only safe alternative. A police officer helped deliver the bags, which were taken from earthquake emergency kits.
Garcia and another administrator even explained in an interview how teachers could use the metal frames of classroom seats to fashion crude toilets. It was unclear whether any teachers actually followed through on such plans. By later in the day, police officers were escorting students to restrooms, school police officials said.
One school board member was not amused by the day’s events, criticizing the length of the lock-down and the fact that some students were expected to rely on trash bags in place of restrooms. “It’s inhumane,” said David Tokofsky. “If this is state-of-the-art approach to lock-downs, then I’m a little confused.”
Tokofsky said that in 1993, when he was a teacher at Fairfax High School, administrators and police escorted students to restrooms during a lock-down after a student was shot and killed.
The long Belmont episode began just after the 7:20 a.m. shooting, when school and police officials ordered students, teachers and staff to remain indoors until a thorough search had been conducted.
With no food and no bathroom trips permitted, many teachers cast their lesson plans aside and did their best to entertain their stir-crazy teenagers during a hot day that seemed to drag on forever.
“I gave them every piece of candy I had in my classroom,” said English teacher Pam Nehring.
One math teacher popped open the CD-ROM on her classroom computer and let her students blare Led Zeppelin and the Beatles. Other teachers let their students play Jeopardy on computers or hangman on chalkboards.
The students in one art class, equipped with a television, watched the police and crowds swell around their campus on the morning news.
As word of the shooting reached teachers, they frantically shepherded students into classrooms on the 78-year-old campus. But once the immediate threat seemed to subside, staff and students appeared to take it all in stride.
As the hours wore on and lunchtime approached, most seemed more preoccupied with their growling stomachs than with the possibility that a gunman was on the loose. Many frazzled parents were not quite so sanguine. They huddled on the sidewalk outside the campus, waiting anxiously for any word on their children.
Responding to the news crews outside their school, students in one classroom waved signs out a window with messages that read: “Food, Water” and “Let Us Go!” and “Need Food--Room 314.”
“I wouldn’t call it harrowing,” said English teacher Jennifer Bunnell, who also coaches the color guard squad.
Members of the color guard were preparing for practice on the ball field when the shooting erupted. Bunnell hustled her students into the auditorium, where the doors were locked. With nothing else to do, the squad members took the stage and practiced their routines.
“Not the whole time,” Bunnell said, “because it got tiring. We also played tick-tack-toe.”
Toiletries Passed Out During Search
As SWAT teams searched for the assailants, janitors and police went from classroom to classroom, handing out more than 5,000 garbage bags and boxes of Kleenex. The teachers were instructed to use the supplies for students to go to the bathroom. One teenage boy laughingly described how he grabbed one of the large black trash bags and stepped into a classroom closet to relieve himself.
But many other students did their best to avoid the makeshift bathroom arrangements.
“I wasn’t going to use a bag, man. It’s unhealthy,” said Doris Velasquez, who said she slipped out of her fourth-floor classroom after telling her teacher she wouldn’t venture far. Instead, she made her way to the cafeteria, two floors below, where she used the facilities. She also managed to split a tuna sandwich with a teacher.
Police said the shooting occurred just before the start of school, when most students were already on the campus. The campus officer had just arrived for work, not yet fully in uniform. A student told him about two young men in the school parking structure who were acting suspiciously.
One was described as a teenager, the other as being in his early 20s. The older one “produced a blue steel handgun and fired a shot” at Bonilla, said Capt. Mike Moore of the LAPD’s Rampart Division.
Authorities said that a bulletproof vest probably saved Bonilla from more serious injury when the gunshot struck him in the chest. He was treated at Good Samaritan Hospital and released Monday afternoon.
The school officer “returned fire, but was not sure whether his assailant was hit,” Moore said. The two young men fled. Not long after, 60 to 70 LAPD officers were on the scene. The school district sent several backup officers.
But it took 2 1/2 hours before the police SWAT team arrived and launched a comprehensive search, LAPD officials said. Police said they needed the time to plot a search that would keep students, staff and officers safe. The gunman had fled long before the search began, police said.
A district spokeswoman said that Belmont staffers followed a school safety protocol: Announcements were broadcast on the school’s public address system ordering all students to proceed immediately to their first-period class or the nearest classroom.
“We were instructed to hold the students in the classrooms until we got an all-clear from LAPD,” spokeswoman Hilda Ramirez said.
As for late arrivals, she said, they were first ordered to the school’s baseball field, and then sent to classrooms.
Students were held in their classrooms until about 2 p.m., when they were released into the quad to eat lunch. They were summoned back to their classrooms and dismissed about 3:15 p.m., about 10 minutes earlier than usual.
Parents paced at the school’s front gate, waiting for their children to appear.
“With all the news about kids being shot in schools, anyone would be freaked out,” said Luis Colon, who was waiting at the gate for his son and daughter. “I just want to take them home.”
A few students had second thoughts about returning to school, saying the shooting had struck fear in them. But most said they were planning to be in school today. And Principal Garcia sought to reinforce the message that his school is safe.
“This is not a common occurrence at Belmont High School,” he said. “It is truly an aberration.”
Times staff writer Carla Hall contributed to this story.