At Last Thursday’s Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board of Education meeting, Santa Monica Deputy Police Chief Phil Sanchez read excerpts from a letter written by Police Chief James T. Butts, Jr. that criticized School Board member Oscar de la Torre for bringing two adult Latino suspected gang members, one of whom Butts characterized as a “person of interest” to the Santa Monica Police Department, on to the campus of Santa Monica High School during school hours.
The campus was locked down on April 15 after fighting erupted between Latino and African American students during the school’s lunch period. Approximately 2 to 3 dozen students were engaged in the fight, and according to eyewitnesses, up to 200 hundred students watched as it happened. Since then, Santa Monica police officers have been deployed on the campus to discourage further outbreaks of violence.
According to Butts’ letter “the presence of these adults [all Latino males] caused angst among some of the African-American students, who voiced their concerns in light of the recent tensions at the school between African-American students and Latino students.” When the police asked de la Torre to “remove his guests from the campus,” Butts stated, “de la Torre was rude and disrespectful to the officers in the presence of several students who were close by and observing. According to the officers, de la Torre did not leave until he was informed that he could be arrested, and even then mocked the officers by laughing, then turning around with his hands behind his back.”
Butts’ letter also stated “When an elected official representing the SMMUSD behaves in this manner, in front of students, it makes our job immensely difficult. When a School Board member decides to bring adult gang members onto campus without prior communication to the police assigned there, it deprives us the opportunity to give meaningful input as it relates to our responsibility to keep the peace, and protect our students, in both the immediate and long term.”
At the meeting, de la Torre, who runs the Pico Youth and Family Center, defended his actions by noting, “Youth violence is a complex social problem that stems from marginalization and disenfranchisement,” adding that students at the high school had talked about such problems with him.
He then said, “That letter the Police Chief wrote is a political attack disguised as a safety concern. The individuals I brought on campus are businessmen. These are people who have changed their lives around. They have been victims and perpetrators of violence. They have a lot to say about peace. Like ex-drug addicts working with students on drug addiction, people who have been perpetrators and victims of violence have legitimacy on the issue and they can have a powerful role in helping our community move from violence towards peace. We can’t judge people based on their pasts. We must come from a place of trust, not mistrust.”
Many of the students who spoke to the Board agreed with de la Torre’s approach. Sophomore Michael Brewster said, “De la Torre and his friends are needed by all of us … they took the time to get to know us.” Other students told the Board that de la Torre, “is a role model to us.”
Michael Jackson, a Samohi graduate who now works with young people, said, “Certain people who want answers don’t have them. We all have to participate in the solution. Whether it’s people who became sober, whether it’s people who are ex-gang members who have turned their life around or grandma who wants to participate. That should be invited not put down.”
Parent Norma Perez emphasized to the Board that, “We saw [last Friday’s fight on campus] coming. There’s no excuse. We’re not here to place blame on anyone. Let’s be part of the solution. One of the concerns that I have is our children are not important enough to be listened to. Let the parents be part of the solution, too. It’s not going away. It’s not just Blacks and Latinos. It’s also every single child in the school who can become victim to this.”
Samohi Student Board representative Naomi Vasquez told the Board that the “students weren’t surprised the event took place because they could see the problems were growing.” She said campus student leaders who were called together to meet with the school’s administration after the incident asked, “Why are we meeting after the incident rather than before?”
The District’s Bilingual Committee Co-President, Conseulo Perez, stated, “In the 12 years since I’ve been a Samohi parent, I’ve seen deterioration little by little and what recently happened is the worst I’ve seen. Since the redesign came to the high school, things have worsened, because there are 40 percent minority students at the high school and they don’t have representation. There is no diversity among the administrations and the counselors … so the minority students don’t feel connected. I have heard there is the opinion there are no minority candidates for these positions, but there are minority candidates out there that are well qualified.”
Others, like Samohi junior Madeline Moore, had a different view. To her “the issue is not a racial problem … it’s a problem with the administration and other groups not having a presence on campus. The biggest problem at Samohi is the disconnect between the administration and students. The ‘house’ system has not addressed it. We need more student input on issues.”
Parent Tiiu Luke noted that she and others were “not reassured by administrators that no weapons were found on students that were fighting.” She requested the administration identify students “who are inflicting violence on their peers and remove them from the high school permanently,” adding, “I understand the school’s reluctance to install video cameras and institute the use of metal detectors, fearing it will create a prison-like atmosphere. However, we already have a prison-like atmosphere with warring students fighting, mobs of students joining in to settle scores, police surrounding the school and parents communicating with students via cell phone while they are locked down for hours. It’s your job to see that a child is safe, the school grounds are secure and that violent children are removed permanently if they can’t control themselves.”
The Board could not respond directly to comments the community made, as the Brown Act forbids discussion of items that are not agendized, and the Board of Education had chosen not to place discussion of the April 15 fighting at Samohi on the meeting’s agenda. However, Board members did briefly discuss how the District should respond in the aftermath of the melee.Board member Maria Leon-Vasquez proposed that a community meeting, including students, be held as soon as possible “to clear the air,” but the other Board members didn’t support the proposal. Instead, the Board called for a report to be made by Samohi administrators at the May 5 Board meeting to give the results of the high school’s investigation of what exactly happened that day, along with what decisions were made in the wake of the fighting, and what long term actions would be taken to prevent a recurrence of violence at the school.