Crime & Justice

Authorities try to calm Venice High parents after sexual assault case, remain mum about details

Several dozen parents attended a meeting Wednesday, March 18, 2015, at Venice High School Auditorium to hear officials talk about the arrest of 12 students for alleged sexual assault.
Several dozen parents attended a meeting Wednesday, March 18, 2015, at Venice High School Auditorium to hear officials talk about the arrest of 12 students for alleged sexual assault.
Frank Stoltze

Los Angeles police and school officials Wednesday night sought to allay concerns about student safety at Venice High School following the arrests starting last week of 12 male students for the alleged sexual assaults of two female students on and off campus.

“This is a safe campus,” Los Angeles Unified School District Police Chief Steven Zipperman told several dozen parents who gathered for a meeting inside the school auditorium. “There is very little crime that occurs in and around this campus.”

Some parents were unconvinced.

“It’s a great school,” said Hazel Bermudez, whose daughter is a sophomore. “But they need more security.”

She worries about her daughter, and recounted regularly seeing kids smoking pot on campus when she picked her up from school. At the same time, she is withholding judgment of the students who were arrested, some of whom her daughter knows.

“There is always two sides to every story,” she said.

Her daughter also complained about insufficient security and described an atmosphere of impunity around drug use. But she said she did not feel sexually threatened on campus.

“As long as you have your priorities straight, it's easy to say no,” she said.  “If they are chasing you, you can go tell an adult.” Her mother asked that her daughter’s name not be printed to protect her privacy.

One parent asked Zipperman if he planned to increase the number of officers on campus. There are two assigned to the school.

“This is not a police staffing issue,” the chief replied.

School administrators said they are reviewing the supervision schedule and safety plan at Venice High School. They acknowledged budget cuts have reduced staffing.

At the meeting, school administrators would not talk about the status of the students who have been arrested nor the details of the case: when, where and how the alleged assaults occurred. But investigators believe the assaults began in December of 2013.

Because they are juveniles, the students have not been named. They range in age from 14 to 17.

No charges have been filed against them.

“The investigation is ongoing,” said L.A.P.D. Deputy Chief Beatrice Grimala, who also addressed the parents.

“There are so many dynamics to this, especially when we are talking about a world in which social media interchanges are part of the dynamic,” Grimala told KPCC. “What does consent mean to one person or another? When is no, no?”

She added that these questions become harder when juveniles are involved. “I believe its more challenging,” she said.

Zipperman said despite the publicity, the arrests Friday were handled discreetly in a coordinated effort among administrators, school police and the L.A.P.D. He said administrators pulled students from classrooms and handed them over to plainclothes officers.

He added that police carried out the arrests during school “to ensure the safety of victims and possible witnesses, and to ensure the sanctity of the investigation as far as any possible evidence.” Zipperman did not elaborate.

Despite administrators' promises that the campus is safe, some parents remained worried.

“How exactly are they going to have a safety plan and why hasn’t it already been put in place,” said Tammy McClanahan, whose daughter is a sophomore. “I think that there was a breakdown in the adult supervision system.

“My first reaction to the arrests was ‘I don’t want her going to the bathroom alone," McClanahan added. "You need the buddy system.”

Her daughter scoffed.

“Her response was: ‘mom, you are an idiot',” McClanahan said.

Crisis counselors have been on campus since the arrests, administrators said. One counselor who attended the meeting urged parents to talk to their kids about the arrests and the issue of sexual assault.

“This is a time to really listen to our children and be curious about what they are doing,” said Pia Escudero, Director of School Mental Health, Crisis Counseling and Intervention Services for the school district. She also urged parents and students to avoid spreading rumors about the students involved in the case.

Bermudez, the parent who complained about drug use on campus, agreed.

“As parents, we have to take responsibility,” she said.

But she said she didn't feel like all her questions answered about school safety were addressed during the meeting.

"I wanted to know more about possibly having cameras in the school," Bermudez said, "since they  are saying they don’t have the budget for more people."