A lunchtime fight escalated into a brawl involving several hundred students who confronted baton-wielding law enforcement officers Thursday at Washington Prep, the troubled South Los Angeles high school that authorities had promised four months ago to get quickly under control.
Eleven students were arrested and one was treated at a hospital for minor injuries after being hit by an officer's baton, officials said. Several students and officers suffered cuts and bruises.
Officials said two campus police officers tried to restrain a pair of students fighting in the open-air quad and were met with flying rocks and bottles from the crowd, which they estimated totaled from 300 to 500 students.
The officers said they were quickly overwhelmed and summoned help from about 30 school police and an equal number of sheriff's deputies, including a SWAT team that was training nearby.
Students and parents complained that officers overreacted by pushing and in some cases hitting students who were trying to escape the violence at the campus, where the faculty in November had filed a complaint about robberies, beatings and drug use.
Students were not allowed to leave the campus for several hours after the violence Thursday, and authorities promised heightened security today.
"They were slamming students on the ground and arresting people," said Jahala Chatman, an 11th-grader. "Kids were getting beaten with batons. Anybody who walked up to the cops just got whacked with their little sticks."
Law enforcement and school officials said, however, that they used the appropriate amount of force to control the crowd.
"There was an order to disperse," said sheriff's Lt. Charlie Araujo. "They were launching rocks and bottles at school police and deputies."
The incident is another bruise for the campus, which is on South Denker Avenue in a poor and often violent swath of Los Angeles between Inglewood and Watts. Washington Preparatory High is one of the lowest academically performing schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and has one of the highest suspension rates.
In November, in response to a formal complaint by the teachers union that the school was "out of control," Supt. Roy Romer promised to improve the school in 30 days by adding more police patrols, aides and fencing.
"There are serious challenges. We need to change the atmosphere fairly quickly," Romer told The Times on Nov. 20. "We're simply not going to tolerate conditions in which we are not making improvement."
On Thursday, Romer said the school already had added two safety officers, eight aides and installed surveillance cameras, but that he would further bolster police in response to the brawl.
"We will not tolerate what happened today," he said. "We'll follow up and take appropriate action. We're going to make the campus safe for your children."
Romer said the neighborhood has gang problems that spill onto campus.
"We have more to do, but you cannot take a fight between students that gets out of hand as a condemnation of this whole school.... You cannot blame the people who run this school with the tension and rage these kids come to school with," he said.
Romer strongly defended police actions. "The students were totally out of control. Police had to use strong force to keep other adults from getting hurt," he said.
The student who was treated at Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center for welts to one leg was hit with a baton after he attacked a deputy, officials said. The youth, among those arrested, was released from the hospital.
Cmdr. Larry Manion of the Los Angeles school police said eight boys and three girls were taken into custody for such offenses as battery of an officer, battery of a school employee, resisting arrest and disturbing the peace. By Thursday evening, seven had been released with citations to their parents and guardians.
Stariesha Tillis, 17, said she was making photocopies when she saw a female student throw a soda can at a police officer. The officer gave chase, but stopped at Tillis, throwing her onto a bench before arresting her, she said.
"I didn't do anything," Tillis said. "I was an innocent bystander coming out of class and he grabbed me."
Tillis' cousin, Nicole Turner, pointed to a bloody gash on the right side of her head and said she was hit by a baton when she tried to help Tillis. "I ran toward her and a police officer tried to hold me off," Turner said. "I feel like this school is terrible."
Parents outside the school Thursday said they had little confidence in the district improving the situation.
"Last time they had this uproar, the district promised me there would be a difference in this school," said Catherine Clarke, who came to school to pick up her daughter. "I told them I fear for my kid's life. The teachers fear for their lives. I am [furious]. This school has been going downhill, downhill."
Romer's pledge in November, Clarke said, didn't last long. "As soon as the news media left, everything went back to normal," she said.
Patricia Bothuel said she felt helpless about her daughter's safety. "I'm upset about this," she said. "At the same time, what can I do? Where do my kids go? Do I need to take a class to home-school them?"
Requests to interview Washington Prep's principal, James Noble, were referred to the local subdistrict Supt. Renee E. Jackson. While insisting that problems have eased at the school in recent months, she said that she will seek to hold a parents meeting soon to get their help in preventing neighborhood problems from coming onto campus.
"We want the students to be in a safe environment. We want to be able to guarantee that," Jackson said.
School board member Genethia Hudley-Hayes, whose district includes Washington Prep, did not return calls Thursday. Nor did incoming board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, the former principal of Washington Prep who will replace Hudley-Hayes this summer.