Even though police immediately began looking for evidence of a shooting on or near Hollenbeck Middle School in Boyle Heights in late August, it took two weeks for school officials to acknowledge that a bullet had struck a student on campus, raising concerns Wednesday about the notification process among some parents.
A bullet that Los Angeles police say appeared to have been fired from off campus lodged in the jaw of a boy as he stood in the lunch line on Aug. 27. On Sept. 10 school district officials clearly conveyed to parents that he was wounded on campus and that he'd been hit by a bullet.
The information was released after a police union leader disclosed it first at a public school board meeting earlier in the day.
The student, who was not identified, is recovering and back in school. But that has not resolved the matter for some parents who question the district's handling of the incident.
"They don't need to hide the truth," said Abigail Rodriguez, whose son is in eighth grade at the school. "I don't know why it took two weeks to say what really happened."
District officials insist that they acted reasonably and responsibly. They noted many unknowns at the time of the incident. The student, who was bleeding from the neck and jaw area, did not know what had hit him, and neither did anyone else.
Los Angeles police were immediately called to campus.
"We canvassed the area and queried calls for service on that day without any verification of [a] shots-fired incident occurring," said LAPD Assistant Chief Robert Arcos.
Los Angeles police took the lead in the investigation with assistance from the L.A. School Police, a separate department under the control of the L.A. Unified School District. School police Chief Steven Zipperman said Wednesday that his department and the district had been operating with limited information.
"Since we initially had no confirmed evidence of any shooting on campus or discharge of a firearm on campus, coupled with no confirmation at the time of what may have struck the student, it would have been premature to suggest to families that a shooting on or off campus took place," Zipperman wrote in a letter to The Times. "We can only report on the facts we have at the time."
Principal Elsa Bolado did get a message out to parents via phone and email the same day. "There was an incident outside the school that caused a student at Hollenbeck to be injured," she said. "Be assured that the student is well and all of our students are safe."
That message could be read as suggesting that the student was injured while off campus — and that's how some parents said they understood it.
The injured boy first went to the school nurse, who, according to the district, did not identify the injury as a bullet wound. The student's mother took him to a local hospital, which did find the bullet.
Arcos, of the LAPD, said that official confirmation of a shooting came "several days" after the incident, when surgeons removed the bullet. It was not until Sept. 5 that Zipperman said he "had personally confirmed with LAPD" that the boy had been struck by a small caliber bullet.
At that point, he said, with "vetted and confirmed information" the district began working on what to say to parents, keeping in mind the privacy rights of the boy and that an investigation was still in progress. He said the district notification to parents had been planned for Tuesday.
That second notification went out to parents at about 3:30 p.m. Sept. 10, about two hours after Gil Gamez, head of the school police officers union, publicly disclosed the shooting at a school board meeting as evidence of the need for more school police officers.
The Times immediately questioned district officials about what had happened at Hollenbeck. In response, Zipperman quickly prepared a written briefing for the school board, which he then released to The Times.
In the second notification, Hollenbeck Principal Bolado reported, "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 added: "As previously mentioned, the injured student is recovering and has been receiving the necessary support."
Some parents took issue with this second explanation as still being too vague and arriving later than it should have.
Parent Felipa Martinez said that, based on the school's first explanation, she had assumed a student was injured off campus after school. She was unhappy to learn the new details two weeks later. 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."
Los Angeles police are still investigating.
"From all that we have gathered it appears off-campus," Arcos said of the origin of the bullet. "Unfortunately [it] will be hard to determine exact trajectory from off campus."
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.