By Jennifer Velez, 16, Venice HS
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Although I did not know Agustin Contreras, his death at the hands of a gangbanger’s gun on June 5, 2006 has affected me in many ways. It made me wonder whether I was safe at school, but mostly it changed my school’s reputation from all right to ghetto.

I was used to Venice being a school were violence was not a huge deal. Yes, fights did break out once in a while and people did get in trouble for things they weren’t suppose to do, like ditching, but it was not as bad as other schools. After the shooting occurred in the faculty parking lot people were acting like Venice was one of the worst schools in Los Angeles. My friends, who didn’t attend Venice, were asking me if things like that occurred every day. My friend also told me that someone on a radio station even said Venice was a very bad area. I was upset that such a thing could happen at my school and how fast Venice gained its old reputation of being gang infested. I thought that this reputation had died down.

I like Venice because it offers classes—like six different languages—that the schools I live by, Manual Arts and Jefferson, don’t. But what I like most about Venice is that it’s not gated. This gives the students a sense of freedom. I also liked Venice because it was never in the news for having fights, and before enrolling many people told me that I had chosen a great school. Maybe I felt this way because I was in the magnet. Still, nothing as serious as a shooting had occurred at Venice.

I found out about the shooting a few minutes after it occurred. My brother’s friend hurried onto my school bus and said, “They shot a cholo.” (Cholo means gangster in Spanish.) I looked at my brother, who was behind him and he said it was true. They told me that it occurred in the parking lot next to Cunningham Hall. They heard that there had been a rumble and that someone took out a gun.

We all stayed on the bus. As the driver took us home I thought about why someone would get shot on our campus. Everyone else was quiet, unlike the normal loud bus ride home. I just hoped no one was killed.

Out of nowhere I saw ambulances and heard loud sirens and cop cars racing toward the school. I knew that whatever happened was serious. I followed the cop cars with my eyes. The shooting was all I thought about on what felt like the longest ride home. Would everything be running normally tomorrow?

The shooting scared my parents

When I arrived at my house in L.A., I already had a few missed calls on my cell phone from a friend who attended a different school. I figured it was about the shooting, but I did not listen to my voicemails. I did not want to deal with questions I didn’t have answers to. Putting the phone down on the desk beside my bed, I decided to start my homework and wait until my parents got home to see what they would say.

Later that afternoon, when both my mom and dad were home, I brought up the subject. At first I was nervous, because I didn’t want them to say something like, “I don’t want you to go to that bad public school anymore.” Incidents like the shooting at Venice were one of the reasons why for many years my parents did not want me to move from my old school St. Cecilia, a Catholic school, to Venice, a public high school.

My mom’s immediate reaction was “What? How could that happen? Why?”    

“Isn’t there any security there?” my dad added.

I explained that there wasn’t much since nothing really dangerous ever occurred.

“Well they gotta do something now,” my dad said. “They must get more security or add a gate.”

I didn’t like the last idea. I did not want to feel like a prisoner at school. We talked about it and all agreed that whatever the reason, it was very unfortunate that a person had been shot. My parents tried to put themselves in the victim’s parents’ position and thought about how inconsolable they must have been. At night my sister and I talked about how Venice would change. My sister agreed with me.

“I really don’t want them to put up a fence,” she said. “It costs too much money anyways.”

The next day I woke up and heard a news reporter on TV talking about the shooting. The reporter said the shooting was gang related. The victim was 17-year-old Agustin Contreras, who had been fatally shot. I saw his picture and heard his name for the first time. As I tried to remember whether I had ever seen him, my sister yelled “Oh my God! I knew that guy. He was in a class with me first semester with Mr. Elliot!”

I was shocked at first but then figured that it made sense since they were the same age. Still it must have been weird to have seen him alive and then not see him for a while and then hear that he’s dead. He was a junior at Venice and was supposed to graduate next year.

The news reporter said Agustin had gotten into an argument with an unknown black male who had gotten onto campus. The shooter, who was not a student at Venice High, entered the campus with another member of his gang. They happened to see the chain Alejo, Agustin’s brother, was wearing and they wanted it. Alejo refused to give them the silver cross chain and a fight broke out between them, the news reporter said. The two guys who came on campus ended up cutting Alejo in the face, which infuriated Agustin when he found out. Enraged, Agustin ran to the two guys and began screaming at them. As he approached, one of the guys turned around and shot him in the chest, the reporter said.

I felt extremely sad hearing about his death. He had his whole life ahead of him and it was taken away so fast for a worthless reason. What really got to me was when I heard about his youngest brother, an elementary school student. It was his birthday and all he wanted was for his brother’s killer to be caught. I couldn’t imagine what the little boy was going through. Seeing the news report made me want to cry. It was the saddest thing seeing the little boy plead to anyone who had seen anything to testify. Standing there in my room in front of the television next to my sister made me realize how lucky I was to still have all my brothers and sisters. I realized how much I took them for granted.

Classmates mourned

On the bus to school Agustin’s little brother was all I thought about. When I got to school there were more than 50 people gathered around a memorial that had already been created in the parking lot. Some of them were crying. My sister and I went to see it. Approaching it I began to get teary eyed. It was overwhelming seeing all those people crying and wanting him back. The memorial had pictures, flowers, and lit candles. People who didn’t know him were even leaving flowers. It was nice to see that he was very loved.

At school I learned much more about Agustin than what I had seen on the news. People who knew him told me he was known as “Bugs.” A girl in one of my classes told me that Agustin was a very nice person with a lot of artistic talent. He was particularly into graffiti art. He would do it in his art book and was even doing a mural for one of his teachers. She also told me that he was not a gangbanger. I remembered what the news reporter had said about the shooting being “gang-related” and was upset. The media always has to portray something as racial, especially in parts of the city where there is a lot of diversity. I believe that because Agustin was Latino and the murderer was black, the media assumed it was racially motivated. On campus there is not a lot of racial tension among Latinos and blacks. Some of them even become close friends.

There were cameras everywhere all day. I didn’t like that they came only when something bad happened. Why couldn’t they come film something positive? For example, I have a friend who has done more than 100 community service hours, way past what is required at Venice. She does it to make a difference in the community and to help out the kids in the camp she works at. I don’t see much of that on the news. Security was also everywhere, about 10-20 police officers, some guarding his memorial. This was a huge difference; usually there are about only two cops and a few other security guards looking over the huge gateless campus. 

The whole school mourned a terrible loss. During the morning announcements, the principal told the school what had happened and asked for a moment of silence. She said there would be grief counselors for anybody who needed them. Teachers were also getting involved and some offered to talk about the incident during class. Most of the school was shaken. Some students were scared and didn’t even come to school. They were scared Latino gangs would retaliate since the media portrayed the murder as “racial.” There were a few who were immature and joked about it, saying things like “Don’t do that you don’t wanna get shot.” It disappointed me how immature and disrespectful people could be.

I didn’t blame people for being scared. What happened at Venice was very traumatic. But if anything bad were going to happen, it would happen whether it was here or Beverly Hills High School. Unfortunately, it occurred at my school.

One positive emerged from the tragedy

This experience has made Venice stronger as a school because it has brought us closer together. Some students organized car washes and collected donations to help out with Agustin’s funeral. I helped out by donating money. I felt extremely proud of the students who helped out Agustin’s family.

Three months later, I still see Venice as I did before the shooting. There is not much talk in the media about Venice anymore. But the people who were most directly affected will not forget. Unfortunately, from now on Venice will be known as "another school where a guy got shot."