Centered in the heart of Lodi’s gang territory, Heritage Elementary School shows scars of the area’s epidemic. Campus custodians regularly clean up broken beer bottles and paint over gang-related graffiti on the campus that serves roughly 600 students. Gunshots are routinely heard in the blocks surrounding the school.
Heritage’s location in the most violent part of Lodi was highlighted when employees of an afterschool program locked down the campus Friday afternoon because of a drive-by shooting in the area.
Alicia Montantes, leader of Heritage’s Bridge Program, heard several gunshots in a four-way stop across the street from the school’s main office and rushed students into the cafeteria shortly before 5 p.m.
Although the situation could have been lethal, the students did not panic, she said.
“They practice lockdown drills quarterly at the school and (the Bridge Program conducts) them monthly,” she said. “Even though they knew there was a shooting, they handled it well.”
More than 100 children participate in Heritage’s afterschool program, and roughly 50 were at the school at the time of the shooting, Montantes said.
The Bridge Program is an afterschool enrichment program funded by Proposition 49 grant funds.
After informing other employees on campus of the lockdown with a walkie-talkie, Montantes and others directed children into the cafeteria or classrooms and had them hide under tables. The children remained there until police came to the school and informed them it was safe.
On Monday, the school’s principal lauded the quick reactions of the Bridge workers, but said the situation is the symbol of larger problems in the area.
“Every school in the district has an action plan for how it handles a lockdown,” said Maria Cervantes. “Our staff did an excellent job Friday. But the violence in the area is starting to become overwhelming.”
Friday’s incident took place around 4:45 p.m. as teenagers standing at the southwest corner of Eden and Garfield streets were fired at from a vehicle heading north, police said. Several vehicles were struck with bullets, but no one was injured in the shooting, police said.
After workers received news of the shooting and rushed the students to safety, employees began calling parents to inform them of the situation and have them pick up their children. All students were collected by their parents before 6 p.m., said Kevin Harkin, vice principal of the district’s Bridge Program.
Friday’s lockdown was the first in several years for the school, but Cervantes said the incidents of violence and vandalism in and around the school have exploded over the past year.
“Every Monday when we come here, there is new graffiti on the walls and gang symbols etched into the windows,” she said.
The last time Heritage experienced a lockdown with police involvement was when juveniles were firing Airsoft guns at street signs near the school in 2009, Cervantes said.
Unlike Friday’s lockdown, the 2009 event took place during school hours.
When do lockdowns take place?
Lodi Unified School District schools may experience a lockdown for a number of reasons, according to Catherine Pennington, assistant superintendent of primary education.
Typically, the lockdown includes locking all doors, closing the blinds and keeping students and staff inside. In serious situations, students might be directed to shelter under their desks, according to Pennington.
Most often when lockdowns occur, the police notify district staff that something is occurring in the neighborhood.
It can range from gunfire in proximity to the school, as occurred Friday at Heritage, to police exploring a domestic dispute in a home two blocks from the school, Pennington said.
The site administrator or person in charge gives direction to staff on the lockdown and then informs their supervisor.
The district’s Connect-Ed system can also be used to notify parents. Depending on the situation, parents may receive special direction to wait until the all-clear has been given and to pick up their students, as they did Friday.
Launched in 2006, Connect-Ed is a phone system that sends recorded messages to student’s homes.
Pennington did not have the date of the last lockdown at a district school.
“There are usually several a year, but most often for things not directly affecting the schools,” she said in an email Monday.
Officer Jim Pendegrast is the school resource officer for Heritage. He handles six other schools in addition to Heritage and routinely checks the campus as part of his patrol, said Cpl. Val Chaban of the Lodi Police Department.
What can citizens do?
In an effort to curb crime in the area, the department could crack down on trespassing at Heritage during the evening, Chaban said. The campus has a no trespassing ordinance, and adults are required to sign in and out during school hours if they are visiting a classroom, Cervantes said.
A “zero tolerance” enforcement on trespassing could cut down on some of the vandalism, Cervantes said, but people will still find a way to enter the campus late at night.
“Unless you put 10-foot high walls all the way around the campus, trespassers are going to get in,” she said. “If someone wants to get in badly enough, they will.”
The department has increased its patrols in the areas receiving the highest concentration of violent crime, but residents in those areas must remain vigilant and assist police, Chaban said.
“We need them to be our eyes and ears,” he said. “We rely on them to help us because we can’t be everywhere at once.”
A meeting between campus employees, district officials and police was held Monday afternoon at Heritage. The forum focused on discussions on how to improve communication between the entities, said Grover Davis, Bridge supervisor for the district.
While he wouldn’t offer specifics about what was discussed at the meeting, Davis said the meeting was productive.