By Teresa Rochester
April 14 -- Sanctioned by school administrators and closely watched by dozens of police officers in riot gear, last week's student march on a local hotel embroiled in a unionizing battle has become mired in controversy.
School district officials are questioning the number of police deployed to cover the march celebrating Cesar Chavez's birthday, which began at Santa Monica High School, circled the Doubletree Guest Suits and ended back on campus, while some community leaders are accusing the union of using students to further its cause.
Approximately 37 police in riot gear stood at the ready as 120 students descended on a driveway at the back of the hotel last Thursday. Officers also stood sentry at the Doubletree's entrance and escorted marchers on motorcycle.
"I was surprised at the extensive police presence," said school Supt. John Deasy, who added that he is not an expert on policing. "I was surprised about their attire as well. It wasn't just police standing at the corner in motorcade, it was police in riot gear."
"It all played out very well," said Board of Education vice president Maria Leon Vazquez. "I was just very proud of the students despite the presence of the police, which can be intimidating when they are in riot gear.
"I don't know what the police were using in terms of their sources," Leon Vazquez continued. "I think the sources the police had said this was going to turn out to be a big hotel rally and something the hotel feared and it wasn't."
Rally organizers also questioned the large police present.
Kurt Petersen of Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees Local 814, who has staged numerous marches and rallies in the City and discussed the march with police, said that in the seven years he's organized rallies there has never been any violence.
"I think there were far more police officers than they needed out there," Petersen said. "I often wonder if it's to intimidate people I guess it's troubling that they'd do it with students as well. There's a tension between protecting freedom of speech and protecting property owners."
Police Chief James T. Butts, Jr. said Friday that it is standard procedure for officers to wear riot gear while policing demonstrations and to keep other officers "in reserve in case things happen that we don't anticipate."
The number of officers assigned to police a demonstration, Butts said, is based on the largest anticipated crowd. In this case, the estimate was about 300 marchers.
Butts met with Deasy on Wednesday to discuss the rally, according to a source. Butts declined to talk about the contents of the meeting, but Deasy said that he recalled discussing concerns about students participating in an event where police are required to be present to ensure order.
Deasy said he assured the police that adults would chaperone the students as they would at any other event.
Deasy and other district and school officials praised the students' behavior during the rally and wondered how this would impact a carefully nurtured relationship between the police department, students and schools. In the last two years, with the advent of the SMPD's Youth Services Division, there has been a concerted effort to build stronger bridges between students and police.
Leon Vazquez said the relationships with the police department would always exist, but she worried that the event may have strained the perceptions of law enforcement among the students of color who marched and who comprised the majority of the participants.
"It's the role of educators to go back and mend fences and say, 'No they were not pointing you out,'" she said.
"When you work to establish relationships between youth and police, that's an important process," Deasy said. "Seeing something like this, it certainly complicates it. Our response it to continue to build relations with our police department despite what happened."
While school officials focused their attention on the police, some civic leaders were focusing their criticism back on the school officials. Those critical of the union alleged that it was using students in its efforts to unionize the Hilton-owned Doubletree, which sits on school-owned property, and questioned why the school would sanction the event.
"I think it's inappropriate for the school to be participating in this," said anti-living wage leader Tom Larmore. "It's one thing for the students to be holding marches. I did it myself during Vietnam. So students are certainly entitled.
"But here it looks like the students were being used. When you have the union sending out press releases about issues they are involved in, they're using the school and the students."
Organizers, which included the Pico Youth and Family Center, decried the allegations and called them an insult to the teenagers who decided on their own to march after hearing guest speaker Dolores Huerta, co-founder and leader of the United Farm Workers, speak about her work with Chavez.
"There are 3,200 students at Samohi and 100 to 150 participated," said the center's executive director Oscar de la Torre. "One hundred and fifty were conscious, self-directed and organized individuals.
"To say they're being used is saying they're not able to be critical of the abuse they see at the hotel," de la Torre said. "To me, it's an insult someone would minimize the involvement of the students."
"This is Cesar Chavez for crying out loud," said Petersen of the union. "Does the school celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.? Yes, because he's a great man. I would hate for Tom Larmore to be anti-Cesar Chavez."
Councilman Robert Holbrook, a former School Board member, wondered if district officials who participated in the march on the hotel would allow other groups to use the school grounds to stage a demonstration, particularly if their causes was not politically correct.
"If you allow one group to march, you have to behave the same way when (another group) takes a position you don't like," said Holbrook, who added that he did not recall administrators ever sanctioning a demonstration. "This could be a precedent."
Samohi officials said that the rally, which took place after school and was preceded with lectures by Huerta, was properly sanctioned through an activity permitting process and that school officials were present as supervisors and not to endorse the unionizing battle.
School officials said the campus has been the site of several rallies and that they always try to work with and encourage students to have their voices heard.
"Our participation was about supervising our students and it went exactly how I expected it to go," said Samohi co-Principal Mark Kelly. "It didn't impact the school day. It was a learning experience for our students and a valuable one."Jorge Casuso contributed to this report.
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