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California

Anxious parents send children back to L.A. schools as safety concerns linger

Back to school
Leah Hooper, 8, hugs her mother, Tiffany, as she is dropped off at Germain Street Elementary School.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Outside the gates of a Highland Park elementary school Wednesday morning, parents kissed their children goodbye and lingered to watch as they scampered inside. Students carried class projects of handcrafted tepees, and a teacher’s aide stood outside welcoming students with a cheerful smile.

A day after a bomb threat caused an unprecedented shutdown of the nation’s second-largest school district, Aldama Elementary was back to normal — along with more than 900 other Los Angeles Unified campuses that serve 640,000 students. Authorities concluded that the threat was a hoax and reopened all campuses, a decision most parents and students seemed to support even as they expressed some concern about safety.

“We’re not going to stop bringing our children to school, because that would jeopardize their education,” said Joana Munoz, whose 5-year-old daughter, Yaretzi, attends Aldama. “All we can do is pray and cross our fingers and hope that nothing bad happens to the school.”

She praised L.A. Unified officials for quick action and good communication in informing parents — she said she received automated calls shortly after 7:30 a.m. Tuesday from the district and the school. “It was not an overreaction; it was a precaution,” she said.

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Such sendoffs, smiles and hugs were replayed throughout the district, which reported no disruptions in getting the system up and running again. Los Angeles Unified school police beefed up their patrols, with an additional 25 detectives and others on special assignment redeployed to join about 200 sworn officers at schools; all were ordered to wear their uniforms for high visibility, L.A. School Police Chief Steven Zipperman said in a text message. He added that the Los Angeles Police Department and Sheriff’s Department have also committed to extra patrols around schools.

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All principals were given district handouts on how to help students cope with crisis: Let students share their feelings. Maintain daily routines. Be calm and optimistic.

District officials also deployed extra staff members, including crisis counselors, to schools.

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Some walked the halls to reassure students as needed, while others set up in libraries to offer a listening ear to any student needing to talk, district spokeswoman Gayle Pollard-Terry said.

Sergio Corral, Aldama’s principal, said he deliberately wore his colorful Christmas tie — featuring Santa and reindeer — to help students move past this week’s shutdown and refocus on the school and the upcoming holidays.

“We’re trying to go back to routines.… Kids seem pretty happy and pretty normal today,” he said.

Corral said he met with teachers Wednesday morning to share the district’s guidance about supporting students. On Tuesday, two officers from the Los Angeles city and school police departments had searched the entire campus and found nothing out of the ordinary. “No open windows. No mysterious backpacks. No doors unlocked or ajar. Everything was status quo,” Corral said.

Of 46 parents, students, teachers and community members who shared their thoughts about the school reopening with The Times on Wednesday, all but eight said they supported students returning to class, but some asked for more security.

“They should be back at school, and K-9 bomb dogs should be on every campus,” Michele Birke, who identified herself as a grandparent, wrote on The Times website.

Celene Figueroa, a Dearborn Charter Academy parent, said she was concerned that school police are not stationed at elementary schools. But she said she brought her children to school Wednesday so as not to keep “feeding my fear” at home and fully backed the closure.

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“I think that there’s absolutely nothing more important than our children,” she wrote on The Times website. “I think that prioritizing their well being and their safety shows how important and how serious they take it.’

At Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Feliz, Madeline Harmon and Lian Macdonough dropped off their children and lingered outside as they noted the lack of any visible security presence at the school.

“Do we feel safe? No. How do I know there’s not a bomb on the soccer field right now?” Harmon said.

She said she drove around the school and to the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters Tuesday, and felt frustrated by what she sees as a lack of concern about children’s safety.

“I saw so many cops just sitting in their cars. Why aren’t they patrolling the schools?”

Raquel Mancilla, 15, a sophomore at San Pedro High, said her mother asked her to text throughout the day to offer assurance that she is safe.

“My mom is really worried,” Raquel said. “She was talking about it all this morning while she was dropping me off. She was telling me to be careful.”

She said she feels safe at school but couldn’t stop thinking that someone may again threaten the district and cause another school shutdown.

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“It’s really messed up we got to worry about that,” she said.

But some parents’ fears were trumped by their children’s eagerness to return to school.

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Angie Guinto, a parent at Yorkdale Elementary, said she would have preferred for classes to be canceled for the rest of the week. “I don’t feel 100% safe leaving her. They said there would be police here just in case, but there isn’t anybody here,” she said. “I have to go to work now and worry about her. I just want peace of mind.”

Guinto planned on keeping her daughter Kirsten out of school Wednesday, but reluctantly agreed after the girl pleaded her case.

“It’s science fun day,” the girl said. “I really wanted to come to school.”

Amanda Arreola, bundled in her puffy pink winter jacket, stood on her tiptoes and reached up to her mother, making the sign of the cross. Her mother smiled and did the same to her, giving her a kiss on the forehead as she saw her off.

“I love you,” the 9-year-old said. Then she bounced away onto the playground, blowing kisses as she went.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter: @teresawatanabe

Times staff writer Frank Shyong contributed to this report.

ALSO

Many parents complain that L.A. school district notified them too late about closings

A timeline of how LAUSD told parents to keep kids at home

L.A. defends response to threat that New York dismissed as a hoax


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