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No charges filed yet in South Whittier school threat

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County prosecutors have asked the sheriff’s department to conduct additional investigation before a decision is made on whether to file a criminal case against a 17-year-old student accused of making a shooting threat at El Camino High School in South Whittier it was reported Feb. 22.

“This is not unusual for prosecutors to ask for additional information before pursuing next steps in the legal process,” a Sheriff’s Department statement said. “We will continue to work with the D.A. to facilitate further investigation and let the facts take us wherever they lead.”

Authorities said the threat involving El Camino High was made Feb. 16, two days after a former student at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, went on a campus shooting rampage that left 17 people dead.

The El Camino student — whose name has not been released because of his age — was reportedly upset with one of his teachers over a set of earphones and allegedly threatened to “shoot up the campus,” leading to a search of his home and the discovery of a cache of weapons, authorities said.

The boy remains held in a juvenile detention facility, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

In a related action, the county Board of Supervisors voted Feb. 27 to bolster a program geared toward identifying troubled kids in order to prevent school shootings and other violence.

Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger championed the plan to enhance the School Threat Assessment Response Team, which was established in 2009.

“It’s been almost two weeks since 17 people were killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida,” Hahn said. “Our own schools in L.A. County are not immune.”

In addition to foiling the shooting plot at El Camino High School in South Whittier, authorities have responded to threats in Long Beach, Santa Clarita, Inglewood, Bellflower and Cerritos since the Florida shooting, Hahn said.

The START team received 63 threats last week, but has only 10 mental health professionals to respond to those threats, she said.

“In a county of 10 million people, I think we need more than 10 people working on this case,” Hahn said.

Barger said she agreed with proposals to increase the legal age for gun ownership, but also hopes to see more focus on the root causes of gun violence in schools.

Barger said she listened to 911 calls made by 19-year-old alleged Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz, a former student at the school.

“His mother had died and he was crying out for help. … Nothing was done,” Barger said.

Parents need to know where to seek mental health care for their children and others who can help must step in to take action, Barger told her colleagues.

After receiving a credible threat, START team members visit the school, evaluate the student and go to the student’s home. In most cases, they can recommend counseling. However, in more serious cases, a student may be put in a locked psychiatric ward for 72 hours for observation and treatment — or arrested, if a crime has been committed.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s Chief Steve Johnson said the value of the START program is “you don’t have to wait for a 911 call.”

The program differs from other mental health teams that partner with sheriff’s deputies to respond to calls on the street in that START’s primary focus is prevention and intervention.

During the last year, the START team worked with 127 students referred by school faculty, law enforcement and other professionals, aiming to prevent not just school violence but other potential tragedies.

Elaine Williams, school safety chief for the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District — which includes El Camino High School — told the board that the district had two student suicides this school year.

Sheriff’s Chief Warren Asmus said a “potentially devastating” tragedy was prevented at El Camino High School in part because a longtime school security officer alerted authorities. He argued that it showed the value of having sheriff’s deputies and other security on school campuses.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl agreed with expanding START, but said gun control legislation was also critical.

Kuehl cited a post she saw online by a mother who wrote, “If my son hits someone with a stick, I don’t blame the stick, but I still take the stick away.”

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said limiting the availability of high-powered rifles and handguns is the key.

“Someone said it’s the price of freedom. That price is way too high,” Ridley-Thomas said. “The bottom line is that we have to confront the gun lobby like never before.”