Nearly two weeks after graffiti apparently painted by Latinos that targeted African Americans appeared in several places on the Santa Monica High School campus, members of the African American community have told the Mirror that the District’s administration is not handling the issue effectively.At a meeting last Friday, members of Samohi’s African American Parent/ Student/Staff Support Group (AAPSSSG) unanimously passed a resolution stating, “We request the termination of employment of Dr. Ilene Straus CEO/Principal of Samohi and that she not remain in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District because she is a clear and present danger to our children.”Lori Williams, a member of AAPSSSG, told the Mirror that neither Straus nor SMMUSD Superintendent John Deasy has returned repeated calls from African American parents on the subject. She also noted that Straus wasn’t on campus on the Monday following the Friday graffiti incident rather than “coming in with a plan” in response to the concerns of the community.Williams feels Straus is “failing to protect [the students though she] knows they are in danger. She’s not doing anything about it.” In Williams’ view, a new principal who understands “the brand of children that are out there now is needed. It’s just a matter of time before [these problems] become a crisis. Straus needs to go.” Another AAPSSSG member, Vienna Hayes, sees the heightened racial tension at Samohi as “the direct result of policies that have emanated from [Straus]. The various cultures [at the school] are not being embraced. There is no Black History being taught. Of the 40 hires of staff [at Samohi] over the summer only two were black. There’s no commitment to hiring more Afro-American staff.” She went on to say that she believes her perspective on the school is “not confined to the Black community [and] the District needs someone as principal who can effectively deal with a multi-cultural educational community.”Jules Bagneris, moderator of the Unity Coalition, a group of Afro-Americans and Latinos that was formed after the race-elated disturbance on the campus last April, has requested that the Board of Education discuss the escalation of tension at Samohi at its Thursday night meeting (5:30 p.m. in the City Council Chambers) In his request he stated, “The dynamics that currently exist on the Santa Monica Campus can be characterized as high risk, racially charged, potentially explosive and dangerous. The momentum of a situation with these ‘particular’ characteristics will escalate with increasingly frequent potential bursts of violence. Therefore, the failure to respond appropriately, intentionally masking the true situation, failure to recognize the gravity of the situation and/or denial of the situation endangers specific groups of students.” He also asked that the District evaluate the effectiveness of the portions of the “10 Point Plan” that were recommended by his group and are now part of District programs, and asked the Board to “reconsider how zero-tolerance for violence on campus should be implemented… [as it currently does] not allow for a person clearly acting in self defense to escape its onerous punishment and consequences.”The “zero tolerance” policy has been questioned in the wake of an incident that took place following the appearance of the graffiti. According to information delivered to the Board by Bagneris, “On Friday after lunch, February 3, 2006, a group of Latino and Black students convened at the stage of Barnum Hall as part of a mediation effort to understand the reason for the profane and derogatory graffiti and the impact on the students. A Black student in attendance commented in a positive way regarding accepting all Black students within a predominantly Latino group. A Latino student, apparently offended by the remark, confronted and provoked a physical fight on at least two occasions, leading to a final encounter where a physical fight occurred resulting in a five-day suspension for both students under the District’s “zero-tolerance” policy, though the Black student seemed to have acted in self-defense. A request was made to the A House Principal, Wendy Wax Gellis, to reconsider and end the suspension for the Black student, as he had been been stalked by the other student and was forced to defend himself. The request was denied, though the Black student appropriately informed faculty members of what was occurring and was said to have displayed superlative conduct in the classroom and as a leader on the Varsity Football team. Samohi parent Carol Zeitlin appealed the decision to CEO/Principal Straus. At a meeting on Friday, February 10, following a review of the facts that took place prior to the meeting, the suspension was ended and a statement was made to the effect that the Black student had acted in self-defense and had demonstrated remarkable restraint in avoiding a physical fight during the first two provocations. Straus asked to see the Black student on Monday morning before 9:00 a.m. so she could “commend him for his behavior and the restraint that he showed while provoked and punished without justification.”Bagneris attended the meeting and told the Mirror that rather than commending the Black student the “meeting was like an interrogation scene on T.V. where the person is peppered with rapid fire questions meant to confuse and entrap. The administration is woefully inept in their disciplinary procedure.” He was also concerned that there was to be “no enhanced security for the student upon his return to campus.”Zeitlin told the Mirror, “Black athletes are being targeted by Santa Monica gangs” and several have had their lives threatened. She went on to say that “the administration has just shut their eyes. The gangs don’t feel threatened. We don’t have the leadership that is necessary to change the school climate. We need someone who is passionate about civil rights, education and the safety of children to be in charge of that school. This is definitely connected to what’s going on in the prisons” [fights between Black and Latino inmates]. She also believes the current administration is “totally insensitive to how the students feel…[and events have] “escalated to the point where Black students are becoming alienated and see themselves as underdogs…Let’s do something before someone gets killed.” At a PTA meeting last Tuesday night, Straus said the graffiti incident had been reported to the Santa Monica Police as a hate crime. She also said that six outreach specialists had been hired four weeks ago to help deal with racial tension and other conflicts, and that additional police officers were on campus the day the graffiti was discovered, and police cars have been patrolling the campus perimeter. During the meeting, one parent exclaimed to Straus, “You’re painting over us just like you painted over the wall.”Other parents asked the administration to hold a town hall meeting to address the escalating tensions and give parents a chance to meet the outreach specialists.Santa Monica Police Lieutenant Frank Fabrega told the Mirror that there is a “stepped up presence on campus. That presence will continue until the Chief of Police, Straus and Superintendent John Deasy decide that it is no longer necessary.” The graffiti incident is still under investigation and he stressed that police need students’ help in identifying the people who are responsible for the graffiti. Students who wish to remain anonymous can call the We-tip line at 800-78-CRIME. If a call leads to an arrest and conviction, the caller may receive up to a $1,000 reward.Fabrega believes that any link between the problems at Samohi and what’s going on in the county prisons is “pure speculation.”The only member of the Latino community who returned Mirror phone calls was community activist xAna Jara, who stated: “ It pains me to see this continue. We need to have all the leaders starting with the Superintendent, the Principal and the House Principals and the student leaders take action. The people in the community need to take their own responsibility and start to hold others accountable.” Another member of the AAPSSSG, Chesney Marks told the Mirror that she called ABC News to come to last week’s PTSA meeting because of the administration’s lack of response to calls from parents. In her view, the administration should not just “paint over the racial slurs. It’s about preventing them…the parents and kids not of color don’t know what the big deal is. They don’t understand it. They don’t know the difference between a hate crime and graffiti.”Repeated calls to Straus, Deasy and School Board member Oscar de la Torre were not returned.(See related story on pg. 9)
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