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STRAY BULLET HITS TEACHER AT L.A. GRADE SCHOOL

SHARE STRAY BULLET HITS TEACHER AT L.A. GRADE SCHOOL

A stray bullet fired in a gang dispute crashed through a school library window and critically injured a teacher as his fifth-grade students watched in horror.

The 23 terrified and crying children in the Figueroa Street Elementary School library dove for cover or made their way outside early Thursday morning as their teacher, Alfredo Perez, 30, fell to the floor."Everybody was screaming and running, and there was blood," said a somber 10-year-old Maria Ochoa as her baby sitter picked her up from the South Los Angeles school. "I was crying, and thinking he was dead."

A second bullet went through a window of a second-story classroom and also sent students diving for cover, but no one was injured.

"Our teacher yelled that it was a gunshot," said Blanca Torres, 10.

The gunfire erupted about 9 a.m. as a result of a gang dispute across the street from the school, said Los Angeles Police Sgt. Stephany Payne.

After interviewing more than 50 people, police Thursday said they are looking for four gang members.

"They were shooting at some other individuals, and the school unfortunately was the background. We believe that the people they were shooting at were other gang members," said homicide Detective Tal Terrell. "Mr. Perez was not the target."

As parents and crisis counselors rushed to aid the children, Perez's wife, Virginia, began a vigil at Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center, where the popular teacher was on life support and listed in extremely critical condition with a bullet in his head.

Students who had experienced the gunfire were taken to the auditorium to watch the movie "Beethoven." They were given lunch, then questioned by detectives and counseled by school psychologists.

"They told us not to be scared," said 10-year-old Pablo Dominguez. "I still feel sad about Mr. Perez. He's a good teacher, especially in math."

Perez, a bilingual teacher, has been at Figueroa since 1990 and is a resident of Tor-rance.

His 25-year-old wife is a teacher at Walnut Park Elementary School in Huntington Park.

Still, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Sid Thompson made assurances that the school remained a safe haven for students.

"People are asking if these kids should still be in school, but I would ask: Should they be in the street, or the mall?" Thompson said. "I don't think they're safe anywhere. The safest place is in Figueroa Street School."

But as helicopters buzzed and word of trouble spread, frantic parents arrived at the school to take their children home.

"I don't know how I can leave my daughter here again," said an anguished Maria Peres, whose daughter Blanca was in the upstairs classroom when one of the stray bullets shattered the glass.

"Those people doing battles on the street don't think about the damage they're doing to this community," she said.

Residents in the area said gang violence, crime and gunfire were a common occurrence in the neighborhood.