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Samohi Parents Demand Action

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

February 20 -- Shaken by hate-filled graffiti that defaced Santa Monica High School earlier this month, distraught black, Latino and white parents demanded immediate action from the School Board last week.

While police and school officials have not identified the vandals who broke into the campus sometime during the night before Friday, February 3, the more than a dozen parents and community members who spoke agreed that the crime was part of a much larger picture.

Reacting to the fighting words that seemed designed to incite violence against African Americans, parent Marjorie Allen told the board last Thursday her child has been threatened twice since the incident.

“I’m tired of hearing graffiti,” Allen said. “It’s a crime. It’s a hate crime.” Calling it graffiti is “disrespectful to us. It’s not fair.”

Like some, she blamed Samohi’s administration; unlike most, she named Principal Ilene Straus specifically.

But many speakers felt that blaming educators was unfair.

“Obviously we have a tremendous problem,” Samohi parent Richard Strauss said. “I am concerned for the safety of my own daughter.”

But “to blame a dedicated educator who’s spent 20 years of her life to improve the quality of education for all of our children is not the responsible way to address this.

“There are systemic issues in our culture that are driving this problem,” Strauss said. “This problem is in the prisons, this problem is on the streets, this problem is everywhere in our society.”

Principles Over Politics Coalition founder Jules Bagneris, who got the issue added to Thursday’s agenda, seemed to take the high road.

His organization’s demands for accountability addressed what many speakers saw as institutional racism. All the same, his letter to the board did focus in on the Samohi administration’s response to ongoing racial turmoil on the campus.

Bagneris’ organization asked the board to:

  • Revisit the Ten Point Plan (see article) proposed by minority groups after last spring’s lunchtime melee placed Samohi on lockdown,
  • Request police records and declarations documenting the April 15 fights and the school administration’s response,
  • Request a report from the Samohi administration on its response to this month’s hate crime,
  • Reconsider the “zero-tolerance” policy and how it applies in cases of self-defense, and
  • Provide campus security with protective vests.

But personal testimonies, not written manifestoes, were at the heart of Thursday night’s emotional encounter.

One Samohi mother said that her son, who is white, is forced to choose between his friends who are Latino and his friends who are black.

“I don’t want my son to have to choose his friends based on race and pressure from one race against another,” she said, her voice breaking with tension. “I don’t want him to be threatened at school… and I feel that this is like a dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about.”

Parents of all races in the audience responded with murmurs of agreement.

Emotion ran high on the dais as well.

Board member Maria Leon-Vasquez wept openly as she recalled the idealism of the 1970s that drove her to try to right the wrongs of the past.

She remembered how she had taken advantage of affirmative action so she could become a leader in the community, “thinking we would make a difference.

“It really is hard when you know things have not changed in the last 30 plus years,” Leon-Vasquez said.

“We’ve had these conversations already,” she said. “We have to maybe get to the nitty gritty of this…there’s something underlying there.”

There seemed to be a consensus that a more frank, more inclusive community dialogue was needed.

Board member Jose Escarce proposed founding an ongoing multiracial parent group to get to the bottom of the misunderstandings and mistrust that drive their children apart.

School officials agreed to do their best to meet those of Bagneris’ demands that lie within the district’s powers.

They also agreed to give the public a clearer picture of school discipline, mediation and safety procedures and to look into starting talks between City Manager Lamont Ewell and the district about police protocol when law enforcement is called onto campus.

The board will revisit the issue at the next regularly scheduled board meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 2. The meeting, which was originally to be held in Malibu, will instead be held at the district offices at 1651 16th Street in Santa Monica.

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