Safety measures under scrutiny
on October 27, 2009
Richmond High School students are hearing a lot more warnings this week about safety measures after the rape of a 15-year-old student who was attacked on campus following a homecoming dance on Saturday.
News media have been waiting outside the school for the last two days, and a team of psychologists has been making the rounds at Richmond High classes after the incident, which made headlines around the Bay Area and the country. What attracts attention is not just the brutality of the assault, but the indifference of on-lookers, who failed to intervene and allowed the rape to continue as long as two hours.
Some students are asking whether greater safety measures around the campus might have prevented the attack or shortened its duration. One student is asking whether something like better lighting around the campus might have allowed the attack to be discovered sooner.
This student, who did not want to be named, said she also attended the homecoming dance Saturday night, got bored and left a little after 9:30 p.m. Like the victim, she said she also walked away with friends through a dark area where the only thing separating her from the rape scene was a fence.
“I saw them and I knew they were drinking, but I couldn’t see what else they were doing,” the student said. “When I found out, I was shocked because I could have stopped it so much earlier.”
On Saturday night, a campus perimeter check was also done by a member of the homecoming dance security team–made up of four police officers, three campus administrators and volunteer chaperones–a little after the dance ended at 11 p.m., said Marin Trujillo, spokesperson for West Contra Costa Unified School District. That check discovered nothing amiss, even though the sexual assault reportedly lasted two hours.
The unconscious rape victim was not found until police responded to a tip at 11:48 p.m. The victim was then airlifted in critical condition to John Muir Medical Center.
The school district has publicized plans for a security camera system that should be in operation by “early spring,” according to Trujillo, but not for improved lighting. Trujillo said he assumes a camera will at some point be placed near the rape scene.
Luis Munoz, 14, a freshman at Richmond High, said he does not think his school is any less safe than before.
“How safe you are depends on you and how you act,” Munoz said. “It was terrible that happened and I hope it doesn’t happen again, but sometimes it just depends on what you are doing.”
Another student said the incident reflected more of what is bad about a small number of people in the surrounding neighborhood, not the student body itself.
“The school isn’t bad, it’s just some of the kids. Like 90 percent of the students here are good and doing their work,” said Michael Garcia, also 14. “The rapists may not even be students here.”
His friend Monica Ochoa, 14, thought of it differently.
“We need more cops here. My mom wants to take me out of the school now,” Ochoa said. “I want to stay, though, because this is where all my friends are.”
Trujillo said the four police officers at the dance concentrated mostly on the safety of the gym, the area surrounding the gym and the school parking lot.
“Our assumption is that parents arrange for a safe drop-off and pick-up,” Trujillo said. “An incident like this has never happened here so–up until now–we never saw a reason [to patrol the entire campus].
“The bigger priority after the dance is to make sure everyone is picked-up in the parking lot and [security] stays until everyone is gone.”
Because the district can understand why students may be frightened and upset, a crisis intervention team was brought on campus for this week and will stay as long as needed, Trujillo said.
But student Ochoa was critical of the counseling methods psychologists were bringing to classrooms this week.
“I feel like they’re just talking about the rape and not talking about how we feel about the rape,” Ochoa said.
The idea of bringing more education about preventing sexual assault is being explored by the district, Trujillo said. If the program were to be launched, it would start at Richmond High, he said.
The 15-year-old victim, according to police reports, apparently walked off with a friend to the dark area before the dance ended. The assault began after she had consumed a large amount of alcohol, according to police.
So far, Manuel Ortega, 19, a 21-year-old man, a 16-year-old male and a 15-year-old male, who is a Richmond High student, have been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the rape.
Investigators are still searching for more suspects. The reported number of onlookers who did not intervene continues to grow past the initial dozen, said Lt. Mark Gagan of the Richmond Police Department.
Asked if the attackers were members of a street gang, Gagan said he had no evidence at this point that they were.
“Obviously, all parties had a level of comfort between each other, so we’re still looking into that,” Gagan said.
Gagan said a fear of coming forward with information is making it hard to get as many witness accounts as investigators would like.
“Unfortunately, that’s a problem with a lot of the cases we investigate here in Richmond.”
Gagan said anonymous tips about Saturday’s incident can be called in at (510) 232-TIPS. There is a $20,000 reward for information leading the conviction of more suspects.
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