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Gardena High School Shooting "Deja Vu" For One Mother

Tasbeeh Herwees |
February 4, 2011 | 11:05 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Demetrius Rice (Photo courtesy of Mildred Hunt)
Demetrius Rice (Photo courtesy of Mildred Hunt)

As Mildred Hillard Hunt watched news coverage of the shootings at Gardena High School on Jan. 17, she felt she’d seen it all before. 

“It was like deja vu,” she said, “it was like video rewind.”

She’s told this story so many times before, but 18 years after the shooting of her own son in a Fairfax High School classroom, it doesn’t get any easier to tell. 

“It’s still like it just happened yesterday,” she said, “I have good days, I have bad days.”

The Fairfax High School shooting that took her son’s life on Jan. 21, 1993 made national, even international headlines. Hunt’s son, 16-year-old Demetrius Rice, was shot and killed when the gun of a classmate, hidden inside a backpack, accidently went off in their English class. 

“[The shooter] was playing with the gun while he was sitting in class and the teacher was starting to pass out papers that he had graded,” Hunt said, “[the teacher] was coming down the aisle, approaching the student, and [the student] panicked.”

The gun went off, and the hollow-point bullet that it expelled went through the body of the student who sat in front of him--setting his sweater on fire. 

“And while everyone was focused on the bang, the kid in front of him and the fire, no one realized that the bullet had left his body and went to the front of the class where my son sat and it killed him instantly,” Hunt remembers the story she was told by the Hollywood Police Department, “It took out his entire chest ....so he never had a chance.”

Like most parents, it never crossed Hunt’s mind that her son would ever be the victim of a school shooting. 

“I never knew, or had any idea, of how dangerous the schools were,” said Hunt, “that kids were bringing guns and stuff like that to school. Never had any idea. Because he never said anything about it.”

Media and activist attention to gun violence in schools has been largely reactionary, says Hunt. No one talks about it until it happens. Rice’s death sparked a national debate about gun control and school safety--particularly about the installation of metal detectors in high schools-- similar to the ones being had right now in reaction to the Gardena High shooting that injured two students last month. 

“WHO REALLY KILLED DEMETRIUS RICE?” asked a Los Angeles Times article from 1993, “‘City of Angels’ gone to hell?” The article placed blame on several factors, including students who had known that the shooter had had the gun for at least a week before the shooting as well budget cuts made to the Los Angeles Unified School District that didn’t leave any room for the purchase of metal detectors. 

Los Angeles has been prevalent in the conversation about gun violence in schools. Just over a month after Rice’s shooting at Fairfax, 17-year-old Michael Shean Ensley was shot and killed by a classmate in a corridor of Reseda High School. 

Hunt went to express her condolences to Michael's mother, Margaret, and the two bonded over their grief, even joining forces to lobby the school district for metal detectors in all schools. Opponents argued that metal detectors would be too time-consuming and expensive. The district instead opted for handheld metal detector wands.

“But as we see, that's not working either,” said Hunt, “because if you have the wands and you're not using them on a daily basis, then what's the point in having them? If you're going to just let children walk through the doors with guns in their backpacks.”

And these were the thoughts she had watching the coverage of the Gardena High incident.

“I saw it as LAUSD doing business as usual,” she said, “meaning that they have not done anything since January 21st, 1993 to ensure that the children that walk through their gates are safe because if they had done something differently, then we wouldn't have had this incident to occur on that day.”

After the Gardena shooting, LAUSD said in a statement: "Providing a safe and healthy environment for our students is a top priority for the District, so we intend to learn as much as we can from the events to ensure that students are appropriately treated and cared for in emergency situations." The district now faces a potential lawsuit from the victims' families for failing to meet that safe environment standard. Incoming superintendent John Deasy has promised a comprehensive review of security measures.

It’s been awhile since Hunt has been an active participant in the fight for safer schools, but the Gardena High shooting has resuscitated her desire to return to it. Hunt believes it’s a combination of changes that will help prevent another incident like the one in Gardena, including encouraging students to speak up when they see someone with a gun. 

“They need to stop with that code of silence that they have, where the students know that the student has a weapon but they never tell anyone before it's too late and the life that they save may be their own,” she said. 

She’s hoping that metal detectors-- similar to those they use in LAX, she says-- will be considered once again as a legitimate solution. 

“The law requires these children to go to school and be in class on a daily basis,” she said. “The schools should be required to make sure that they are safe and conducive to learning. Because how can a child learn anything in school if they're fearful of sitting in class and wondering which one of these kids has a gun? That's not fair.”

Reach staff reporter Tasbeeh Herwees here.

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