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School Board Hears Plans to Calm Samohi:

Last Thursday, School District officials and the newly formed Unity Coalition presented members of the Board of Education with plans to eliminate the conflicts that sparked the melee and subsequent lockdown at Santa Monica High School on April 15.

The campus was locked down after a fight erupted between Latino and African American students during the school’s lunch period.  Approximately two or three dozen students were involved in the fight, and, according to eyewitnesses, as many as 200 students looked on. Since then, Santa Monica police officers have been deployed on the campus.

Dr. Ilene Straus, Chief Education Officer/Principal of Samohi, said in her report about the incident to the Board that “six students were suspended for fighting, and one of those was intoxicated” while “six other students were suspended for defiance, including defiance towards staff, police” as well as climbing out of a classroom window during the lockdown.  All of the suspended students were back on campus by April 25.

Straus also outlined steps that were taken immediately after the incident and long range plans for preventing problems in the future that were also contained in a 12-page report included in the Board’s meeting packet.

After the incident, she reported, “a strict student ID requirement was implemented, requiring all students to present a Samohi ID when entering or leaving the campus.”  In addition, all “students are required to have an ID at all times while on campus.  Security personnel assignments were also modified to ensure that all student entrances have a security staff member present, beginning at 7 a.m. so that all student IDs can be verified.”

The population of the 33-acre campus currently includes  3,500 students, 250 staff members and six security officers.  Straus and Superintendent John Deasy plan to hire two more security officers.

The number of entrances to the campus that are used by  students and guests has been reduced to three: 6th and Pico Boulevard, 7th and Michigan and the North Parking Lot.  “Parents and all visitors to campus are now required to leave their ID at the gate while they are on campus.”  Security officers now radio a visitor’s destination ahead  and when he or she arrives at the destination, school staff must inform the security officer.

The police deployment will gradually be reduced on the campus “to only the regular school resource officers,” as well as “a trained cadre of parents to be present during the school day and be highly visible at lunch.”

Other plans include adding cultural studies and human relations components to the required Samohi freshman seminar.

Students are also being given more opportunities to talk about “what happened, what’s been happening and what’s a problem.”  Comments are also being sought from student leaders through focus groups and house-based student dialogues.  Straus told the Board I “deeply regret I haven’t done this earlier.”

“Professional development” will now include “culturally responsive instruction, bias-free assessment, and developing a culturally welcoming classroom experience.” 

When new staff members are recruited, recruiters will make an effort “to hire and retain staff that has a similar balance with respect to race and ethnicity as our highly diverse student population.”

Before the start of the 2005-2006 academic year, the formal Peer Mediation program will return to Samohi with an adult facilitator/trainer.  Finally, in-school suspensions, which had been dropped due to budget cutbacks, “will be returned and will include mediation, campus service, and academic work during days of suspension.”

One of the founders of the Unity Coalition, Ana Jara told the Board “violence amongst our children will not be tolerated” and then read the 10-point plan the Coalition unveiled at its press conference on April 29 (see last week’s Mirror at smmirror.com )

The Unity Coalition formed last month following  the lockdown, and is made up of African American and Latino students, representing Samohi’s Black Student Union and M.E.Ch.A., their parents and other black and Latino leaders. Their goal is “to provide solutions to address the root cause of the disconnection that leads to poor academic performance and youth violence.”

Board members also heard from Samohi parents and community members.  Many spoke in favor of the Unity Coalition’s Plan.

The Co-President of the school’s Bilingual Committee, Marlene Huerra said, “for several years we have expressed our concerns and asked for solutions to improve communications between the school, parents, students and the district but we were not listened to. Our families and parents deserve respect and they do not deserve to be used in an irresponsible manner for other goals.  There are many taking advantage of this situation. There is no excuse for the administration to say they did not know what was going on at Samohi.  They were well informed.  They did not listen to our voices.”

Former Samohi parent Pat Kramer criticized both plans by noting “I do not hear a clear statement that violence will not be tolerated at Samohi.  I do not hear a clear statement that there will be consequences for additional violence.  I do not see a focus on education.  I do see a focus on diversity.”  He then presented an analogy by stating, “You have a bank robbery so the solution would be to change the diversity of the tellers.”

Another Samohi parent said, “It’s time to change the leadership at Samohi. Ilene Straus should step down.”

Board President Emily Bloomfield summed up the Board consensus when she observed that there was “tremendous amount of overlap and consistency” between the Unit Coalition’s plan, other suggestions from the community and the administration’s plan, adding that it would be helpful to “synthesize these plans” into goals and measure progress towards those goals.

Board member Oscar de la Torre echoed Bloomfield by stating, “I think if we really sit down and have a dialogue about what’s in the 10-point plan and what the Superintendent has proposed I think a lot of good can be implemented and real change can happen…[but] I’m really disturbed when I hear the terms ‘lockdown, race riots.’  These are terms that are used in prisons.  I am very disturbed when as educators we acquiesce our rights and responsibilities to keep our campuses safe to police.  This problem of Latino and African American conflict is something that’s happening countywide.  It’s not just something that’s happening in our community.  Here we have an opportunity to lead.  The way we implement policies and programmatic change to address this problem head on will be an example to the rest of the country.  People are looking for solutions.  We have a lot of good solutions on the table right now.”

At the last Board meeting, a letter from Santa Monica Police  Chief James T. Butts, Jr. was read into the record that criticized de la Torre for bringing two adult Latinos on campus, one of whom Butts characterized as a “person of interest to the Santa Monica Police Department,” during school hours on April 20 without consulting either the school’s administration or the police.

At that time, de la Torre defended his actions by stating the men were businessmen who “have changed their lives around.  They have been victims and perpetrators of violence.  They have a lot to say about peace” and he brought them on campus so they “could have a powerful role in helping the Samohi community move from violence to peace.”

Because of the controversy, the Board decided to review “all policies governing Board member behavior on school sites and activities by members.”  The District staff report noted that “No update or review has been conducted for a considerable period of time.”At last Thursday’s meeting, de la Torre acknowledged there are policies and rules and he “must take responsibility for the miscommunication and the lack of coordination when inviting outside peace mediators on to the campus of Samohi on April 20.  I plan to follow the appropriate protocols to ensure that we’re coordinating all our efforts to keep the campus safe” in the future.

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