A 17-year-old Venice High School student was fatally shot Monday after a fistfight between black and Latino students spilled onto the campus parking lot, police and witnesses said.
Police were unsure Monday evening if the student, identified as Augustine Contreras, had been shot in the chest or the face. LAPD officers were searching a section of Venice’s Oakwood neighborhood for the assailant in the 3:10 p.m. attack, which authorities believe was tied to a gang dispute.
Two people were briefly detained and then were released, officials said.
“It was a very chaotic situation,” said Police Capt. Bill Williams, who added that the clash involved several students who scattered after the victim was shot.
Although the fight was described by witnesses as between Latinos and blacks, the gangs involved are believed to be interracial, Sgt. Lee Sands of the Los Angeles Police Department said.
Venice High, which is on the Westside, has long struggled with problems linked to several gang-plagued neighborhoods that surround the campus.
The gang tensions at Venice, although reportedly less than at other Los Angeles Unified School District campuses such as Jefferson High, nonetheless bubble up periodically, students and community members said.
“The kids that feed into this school come from a community that has active gangs, and the schools are a reflection of this,” school Police Officer Jose Santome said.
Some community activists said their biggest fear was of some sort of gang retaliation for the killing.
“It’s almost guaranteed,” said Oscar de la Torre, a community activist who deals with race relations on the Westside.
A student, who did not want her name used for fear of retaliation, said she witnessed the fight, which began on campus just before 3 p.m. when the final period ended.
Three black students and one Latino student started fighting, drawing a larger crowd, the 17-year-old sophomore said.
The Latino was bleeding from his mouth. Then four more Latino students entered the fray, taunting the blacks to fight. But the blacks tried to walk away, the girl said. She said she heard one of the Latinos shout the name of a gang.
The dispute drifted into the faculty parking lot, where someone screamed, “One of them has a gun!” she said.
The girl said she did not hear the gun go off but saw Contreras, who wore a white T-shirt, lying on the ground.
A teacher raced over and cradled the boy’s head, sobbing, until a security guard told her to move because an ambulance was coming, the witness said.
“We’ve been doing pretty good out here with violence on that level,” said Stan Muhammad, executive director of Venice 2000, which provides gang intervention and prevention services.
“I’m surprised to hear this happened,” he said. “I feel not only for the family but for those individuals who have been organizing on-campus alternatives to gang culture. I hope this doesn’t escalate.”
The gang overtones of the shooting raised concerns among community activists because portions of Venice have experienced deadly gang wars in the past.
“It’s been calmer in recent years, but the tension is a constant,” De la Torre said.
In the early 1990s, the Oakwood neighborhood was rocked by violence involving a black gang and a Latino gang. De la Torre said that in 1994, the area had 24 killings.
“You were talking about semiautomatic rifles going. You were talking about a 35-year-old man walking his kid to school getting shot and killed,” he said.
He and others urged city officials to step up already extensive gang-intervention efforts in hopes of stemming the violence.
Although two school police officers usually are on campus, six will be at Venice High today as a precaution, Santome said.
“We want the kids to feel protected but not hindered,” he said.
The school has an enrollment of 3,200 students.