Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Don’t Fence Them In: Urban Schools Take Down Fencing in Sign of Gentler Times

A fence is more than just a physical barrier – it can also be a symbol, and, let’s face it, a bit of a downer.

As such, the removal this summer of the wrought-iron fences in front of Leuzinger , Hawthorne and Lawndale high schools in the Centinela Valley school district seems to signify a more peaceful era.

And, school officials are hoping, a new day for Centinela Valley’s struggling schools.

“When students ask where the fencing went, I say, ‘Do you go to a school or a prison?”‘ said Ryan Smith, the new principal at Leuzinger High School. “Symbolically, we’re saying we want to be more inviting to students and the city of Lawndale.”

Erected during the racially tense and violent era of the mid-1990s, the fencing has come down during what district officials are hoping is a period of transition.

The district is struggling to boost chronically abysmal test scores that have purportedly left one school – Leuzinger – under threat of a state takeover.

Meanwhile, tension has been simmering between the teachers union and administration over an inter-school shuffling of teachers. A formal grievance process is under way.

But the district seems to be making modest progress.

Earlier this month, test scores released by the state showed Leuzinger making significant gains, though the school’s scores remain quite low.

The 8-foot fences went up during a turbulent period for Los Angeles County, around the time of the 1992 riots in the wake of the acquittal of officers in the Rodney King beating. Crime rates were soaring, race riots were all too frequent and gang violence had a way of spilling onto campuses.

On at least two occasions during that era, Centinela Valley students were wounded by gunfire on or near their school grounds.

Superintendent Jose Fernandez says that’s all ancient history.

“We have very peaceful schools,” he said. “Many years ago, in the 1990s, things were rough. Unfortunately, sometimes perception and reality take a while to catch up to each other.”

To be sure, not all the fencing has been removed. Much of it has been relocated to inside campuses.

Other portions along the perimeter have been left in place for the same purpose. But in the most prominently viewed areas of the schools – the front of Leuzinger High School on Rosecrans Avenue, for instance – the barriers are no more.

The first to go was the one in front of Leuzinger High. Crews removed part of it in the spring and the rest of it over the summer. The walls in front of Hawthorne and Lawndale schools came down just before the first day of school.

The security presence on the campuses is unusually robust.

In 2009-10, the school district went so far as to create its own security division, hiring a director who trains and oversees some 30 officers and seven substitutes. On any given day at each campus, five to nine officers are on-site, zooming about on stand-up motorized scooters. In addition, each campus is assigned an armed police officer or sheriff’s deputy.

The unarmed security officers patrol the campuses all night, with a night shift stretching from 7 p.m. until 5 a.m.. In addition, at least a dozen hidden cameras are embedded on every campus.

The entire security operation is expensive. Last year, Centinela Valley spent more than $2.3 million on the department, which amounts to about 3.3 percent of the school district’s entire budget.

But Fernandez says it’s worth the expense.

“We’ve captured people trying to do bad things,” he said, noting several incidents in which overnight burglars – including a man posing as a custodian – have been apprehended.

As for on-campus troublemaking, suspensions last school year were down by about a third from 2005-06, but expulsions doubled in that time, to nearly 140.

Top school officials attribute this to heightened vigilance.

“When students know there is going to be a uniform policy within the district, and they know the consequences will be severe, they begin to avoid behaviors that would get them in trouble,” said Jim Tarouilly, the district’s new director of pupil services.

Though teachers and administrators seem to be at constant loggerheads, the fence removal is one topic on which they agree – for the most part.

“I never was a big fan of the fencing,” said teachers union President Betty Setterlund. “On the other hand, I recognize children are not victims when they are inside the fences . … But we’re not seeing as many gangs anymore.”

Back in the early to mid-1990s, the area served by Centinela Valley schools seemed to be a much rougher place.

Tensions between black and Latino gangs ran high.

In 1993, Leuzinger senior Justin Sagato was shot in the shoulder on campus after a lunchtime argument with reputed gang members.

In 1995, a plan to let students out early due to rumors of an impending riot backfired, and a massive fight broke out that led to 30 arrests and left a 15-year-old student with a bullet in the leg. (The shooting happened a few blocks away.) Back then, school officials used to grease the wrought-iron fences to keep students from scaling them.

Current Leuzinger senior Jamila Johnson said she gives the campus an “A” grade for safety.

“We have cameras everywhere,” said Jamila, a student in the multimedia career academy and a football cheerleader.

She added that she noticed the absence of the fencing right away.

“When the fences were here it kind of looked like we were locked in,” she said. “It looks less like a prison and more welcoming.”

rob. kuznia