A student was shot in the jaw on Aug. 27 at Hollenbeck Middle School in Boyle Heights, possibly struck by a bullet fired from off campus, an incident that Los Angeles school officials publicly acknowledged for the first time Tuesday.
The Los Angeles Unified School District confirmed the shooting after it was disclosed at a Tuesday school board meeting by Gil Gamez, the head of the school police officers union. Los Angeles police are investigating, a department spokesman said. The student, who was not identified, is recovering.
After Gamez spoke to board members, The Times made immediate queries and School Police Chief Steven Zipperman quickly put together a written briefing for the Board of Education and released the document to The Times. An LAPD spokesman said the department agreed with the facts in Zipperman’s report.
“A student was standing in line at nutrition/lunch, when another student standing behind him mentioned he was bleeding near the ear/jaw area,” Zipperman wrote to the board. “The student apparently also felt ‘something’ strike him.”
Zipperman’s rundown noted that the school nurse treated the student but “it was still unknown what caused the bleeding.”
“At the time of this incident, no other persons, both students and adults nearby, heard or saw anything unusual,” Zipperman noted.
Without any obvious evidence of a shooting or information about what struck the student, “this incident was deemed NOT an on campus-related crime,” the report stated.
The boy’s mother took him to a local hospital, Gamez said.
That day, Hollenbeck Principal Elsa Bolado sent out brief phone and email messages to parents saying “there was an incident outside the school that caused a student at Hollenbeck to be injured. Be assured that the student is well and all of our students are safe.”
The principal offered a revised version of events in a message sent out Tuesday night, after the disclosures by Gamez.
“We have received further information that the injury appears to be a result of an ‘off-campus’ discharge of a firearm from an unknown location or person, whereby the projectile came to rest within the campus perimeter, striking a student,” the principal said. “As previously mentioned, the injured student is recovering and has been receiving the necessary support.”
It was not immediately clear how officials knew that the gun was fired “off-campus” if they did not know the origin of the gunfire.
In his memo, Zipperman told the board that his office received an update from Los Angeles police Thursday and that parents would have been apprised Tuesday night regardless of Gamez’s disclosures.
Hollenbeck is a large campus, occupying about two blocks atop a short hill, and serves about 1,000 students. Its white, red-roofed buildings and open spaces are surrounded by a chain-link fence, which provides separation from the surrounding streets. The outdoor lunch tables are clearly visible from beyond the fencing.
At Hollenbeck on Wednesday morning, several parents expressed concern that the school was not more forthcoming about the shooting. Nereyda A. Bautista, whose daughter attends the school, said she went to a “coffee with the principal” shortly afterward, where the issue came up.
Bautista said that the principal told parents it was not precisely known what happened but that the student may have been injured by a piece of flying debris from a car accident off campus. Baustista recalled thinking that this explanation did not make sense.
“We were like, ‘Wait, what is that?’ I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. I feel like it doesn’t make sense because just one little piece gets into campus and hits one boy?”
Principal Bolado, who was overseeing the arrival of students, said she’d been directed to refer all questions about the incident to the school district’s office of communications. When asked about the car accident explanation, she said that she “could not comment on anything because things get taken out of context.”
Parent Felipa Martinez said that, based on the school’s explanation, she had assumed a student was injured off campus after school. She was unhappy to learn that details were withheld. She said she plans to begin volunteering on campus to get a better sense of how safe it is for her daughter.
Another parent, Felipe Alarcon, said the school should have provided more information, but that he feels his son is safe on campus. He’s had two older children go through the school without any problem. Overall, he feels the neighborhood and school environment are safer than when he grew up in East L.A.
“Compared to before, it was gang infested,” he said. “I never saw any kind of danger for my son. And I have a very good experience with this school, you know, nothing like serious fights or he’s never been bullied.”
In an interview after his comments to the school board, Gamez said he was not personally involved in the investigation.
After Gamez spoke at the meeting, one board member, George McKenna, expressed surprise that he was just learning about the shooting and asked whether the gun was fired from off campus or on campus. Gamez replied that he did not know.
No other board member commented on the shooting; they quickly returned to the scheduled topic, a discussion about the district budget. The shooting was not further discussed at the meeting.
Afterward, board member Scott Schmerelson said in an interview that he’d already been aware of the shooting, but only because he reads daily incident reports from across the nation’s second-largest school system. He remembered thinking that it was odd that a student would be shot and it would not be immediately obvious to the student and those around him.
The last time a student was injured by a bullet at a Los Angeles middle school was Feb. 1, 2018, after the apparently accidental discharge of a gun in a student’s backpack. Law enforcement descended en masse upon Salvador Castro Middle School west of downtown. The bullet injured two students and a teacher. Police locked down the entire school and then evacuated students section by section as media and police helicopters hovered overhead.
Gamez raised the issue of the Hollenbeck shooting to argue for more funding for school police officers on campus. He said each middle school used to have an assigned officer. Now an officer will patrol the area around two or three middle schools, he said.
There also are activists, including students and civil rights organizations, who are calling for fewer officers and less policing on campus. Their faction gained ground last year when the school board agreed to stop the random searches of students on some campuses. The activists called the practice dehumanizing and ineffective.
Defenders of the searches, including McKenna and Gamez, said the practice had deterrent value, making students less likely to bring a weapon on campus.
It’s not clear that the Aug. 27 incident would offer fodder for either side.