South Los Angeles resident Larry Thompson heard gunfire almost every day when he moved into his home across the street from Crenshaw High School three years ago. And recently, the neighborhood was closed off by police to prevent brawls outside a football game.
Violence is omnipresent, says the father of three boys.
So when the opportunity arose, Thompson and dozens of other community members volunteered for Safe Passage, a program that puts uniformed residents outside schools to ward off gang members, report truants and ensure the safety of schoolchildren on the way to and from campus.
"These people are doing something about the problem, they're not just talking about it," said Thompson, 44.
On Saturday, about 20 activists walked the streets around Crenshaw High, knocking on doors and asking residents to volunteer between two and 10 hours a week. The goal is to canvass a dozen school neighborhoods in South L.A. and enlist 300 new volunteers by the end of May for the year-round schools.
"It gives a kid a sense of security," said Khalid Shah, 49, executive director of Stop the Violence, Increase the Peace Foundation. "You can't go to school and learn if you're worrying about what's going to happen after school.... Maybe a bully is going to beat you up."
Shah said that, in Safe Passage's 10 years, crime surrounding some of its schools has decreased as much as 70%. He hopes that adding volunteers will allow the program to expand to other schools, such as Crenshaw High. Safe Passage volunteers can be found outside Locke High and Washington Prep in South L.A. and Morningside Elementary in San Fernando.
About 80 activists currently split time during peak hours -- 7 to 9 a.m. and 2 to 5 p.m. on school days. They're charged with identifying suspicious cars and individuals and then radioing the information to school officials or the police, if necessary.
"This teaches the community to police themselves," said Kenneth Bell, 41, a gang interventionist who joined forces with Shah in July after they both campaigned for calm after the jury deadlocked in the first trial of former Inglewood police officer Jeremy Morse in the videotaped beating of a youth.
Saturday's activists, most of whom were wearing yellow T-shirts with the words "Peace Ambassador," signed up 43 people during the nearly two-hour walk. Volunteers must be 18 or older and pass a police background check, Shah said.
Dorothy Austin, 70, said she remembered many meetings about crime and violence in the past. The difference with Safe Passage, she said, was that it encouraged all neighborhood residents to participate.
"They should have done it a lot longer ago," Austin said.