Arriving at Chatsworth Elementary School after a three-week winter break, students and parents were greeted early Monday by LAPD Lt. Cory Palka, who shook the kids' hands, chatted up the moms and dads and - despite his easygoing demeanor - brought a feeling of security to those entering the campus gates.
"I think it's great that they're here," said Charlie Butler, escorting daughters Juliana and Veronica onto the school grounds. "I know that the LAPD is understaffed, so it's a big deal to me that they're here to deter bad people."
Officers with the Los Angeles Police Department and other law-enforcement agencies fanned out across Los Angeles Unified during the first day of a beefed-up patrol operation dubbed Operation Embrace. Planned in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Connecticut, police will spend an hour each day on K-8 campuses - a half-hour every morning and afternoon - as a way to reassure the public that school safety is a top priority.
Los Angeles Unified police already are stationed full time at the district's high schools, and the agency's officers also patrol K-8 schools on a daily basis.
"We want to reaffirm, re-establish and engage with the youth in our community," said Palka, who works out of the LAPD's Valley Division and helped create the Operation Embrace deployment plan for the region's 452 elementary and middle schools.
Over the next several weeks - no one knows yet how long the operation will last - patrol officers, detectives and administrators will add walk-and-talk school visits to their everyday duties. Chatsworth Elementary will get its regular visits from Officer Lou Medrano, who usually spends his mornings looking for speeders and other traffic violators in the Northwest Valley.
"It's safer, and creates an ambiance of certainty," said Evelyn Revel, who took a photo of her 9-year-old daughter Isabella shaking hands with Palka so she could post it online. "It's good, any way you look at it."
Dad Dino Dinielli had to reassure 6-year-old Emily that all was well, despite the presence of a uniformed officer at school. The youngster had cried when she'd heard about the 20 students and six adults killed at Sandy Hook and was frightened that something similar could happen at her school.
"The police are here to make sure that you stay safe," he told her.
Other youngsters were thrilled at the chance to get an up-close look at a police officer, much less to actually talk to one.
"I've always wanted to be a policeman," 9-year-old Jason Rodriguez told Palka, who encouraged him to volunteer with one of the many youth programs sponsored by the LAPD.
The additional patrols were announced on Dec. 17 by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and school Superintendent John Deasy, who said they wanted to reassure parents that school is the most secure place their kids can be during the day.
During an assembly to welcome students back after winter break, Principal Esther Leon told the kids "your safety is my No. 1 job," as she encouraged them to tell her or a teacher if they see someone on campus who they think doesn't belong.
"When you're safe, then you can do your job, and that is to learn," she said.
Law enforcement also offered the patrols to charter and private schools, and dozens of campuses signed up.
Mary Beth Lutz, principal at St.
Parents and students alike, Lutz said, were "excited and very happy" to have the LAPD at school.
However, the grass-roots Community Rights Campaign decried the armed campus patrols, raising concerns about the civil rights and emotional well-being of students and their families.
"The best response to the Connecticut tragedy would consist of nonviolent short- and long-term interventions that make profound shifts in education, culture and school climate, that are restorative, preventative and that allocate resources to holistic and mental health services tailored to the specific needs of LAUSD's school communities," the group said in a statement.