The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board of education agreed Thursday, May 5th, to consider a “plan of action” developed by Santa Monica High School to address issues of campus safety and student discipline.

A variety of issues stem from an incident at the school Friday, April 15th, in which six students were suspended for fighting on campus and six other students were suspended for defiance during the subsequent lockdown.

“Samohi is rich in diversity and long in tradition, a community of amazing kids and hard-working staff,” said Ilene Straus, principal of the high school. “This incident has provided us a serious opportunity to look at our practice.

“We have been working together and I am optimistic about the plans that are ahead.”

Straus said high school administrators heard rumors of tensions on campus the morning of April 15th.

The Santa Monica Police Department was asked at 11:30 a.m. to be on campus during the lunch period that began at 12:35 p.m.

At 12:40 p.m., one fight started in the main quad of the campus and attracted large crowds of students.

Other fights started in the science quad and also attracted large crowds of students.

“We have had tensions on campus, which is a historical issue,” Straus said.

“The incident on the 15th was not racially motivated and the student who started the first fight was actually intoxicated,” she said.

Witnesses said only Hispanic and African-American students were fighting.

At 12:50 p.m., Straus made an intercom announcement that lunch had ended early and students were to go to their fifth period classes.

Few students followed the announcement.

Santa Monica Police, from their police cars, ordered students to leave the quads and go to their classrooms or be arrested for “unlawful assembly.”

Straus made another intercom announcement to repeat what police officers said.

Within 30 minutes, students were in their fifth period classes.

“There were a few bloody noses, no weapons and a lot of students on the science quad,” Straus said. “At the time, I was concerned that there might be people who did get hurt.

“In collaboration with the police, we made the decision to end lunch early.”

Straus put the campus in lockdown because students would be out again when fifth period was over in 30 minutes and sixth period classes were to start.

There is a seven-minute hallway passing time between fifth period and sixth period, and some students who do not have sixth period classes like to hang around campus, Straus said.

In the lockdown, students were not allowed to leave their fifth period classes.

School was then dismissed early in “orderly fashion” with classes closest to the exits dismissed first.

Police reinforcements from Beverly Hills and Culver City were called to help Santa Monica Police prevent incidents from occurring on Santa Monica streets after the early dismissal.

Of the students who were suspended for defiance during the lockdown, one student had climbed out of a classroom window and other students just walked out of class, Straus said.

The students who were suspended for fighting had mediation sessions to resolve their individual conflicts when they returned to school.

Long lists of other meetings with administrators, district staff, teachers, parents and students have been held since the incident occurred.

“The last few weeks have been very busy with 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. phone calls,” said John Deasy, district superintendent.

“People have worked really hard to manage the school, manage the safety issues and come up with ways to make things better, all at the same time.”

Some of the recommendations in the “plan of action” include:

– round-table discussions with students and high school staff;

– revising the required Freshman Seminar class to include cultural studies and human relations instruction;

– mediation and in-school suspension rather than requiring students to serve their suspensions at home.

Students who made public comments at the board meeting said suspended students who stay home are “just taking a vacation” and “the problems are still there” when students return to school;

– professional development for teachers and hiring a more diverse group of teachers to reflect the diverse student population; and

– safety decisions such as requiring all students to show identification cards, hiring more security guards and installing video cameras that the board previously approved.

Santa Monica High School is a 33-acre property with six security officers, 3,500 students and 250 teachers and staff members.

“Violence is a product and symptom of a much larger problem that cannot be solved simply by punishment or deterrence approaches,” said Oscar de la Torre, board of education member.

“Many of the students have talked about mediation, dialogue and teaching nonviolence. I believe these are the solutions,” he said.

The board of education also received numerous suggestions from parents and community organizations concerning Santa Monica High School.

Hispanic and African-American students, parents and community residents formed a Unity Coalition and presented their own ten-point plan to address the issues of school violence and academic achievement.

“The violence within this system will not be tolerated, nor will we stand by on the sidelines perpetuating it,” said Ana Maria Jara, of the Unity Coalition.

“If our children do not succeed in school today, they will not be able to continue their education and obtain good jobs to sustain themselves,” she said.

Board member Maria Leon-Vazquez said district staff would gather all of the recommendations from various sources and come back with comprehensive approaches and policies for the board of education to discuss at future meetings.

“There is a lot of organizational energy and a lot of excitement about senior proms, graduation and the new SATs [Scholastic Aptitude Test],” Deasy said.

“I know success is on the way,” he said.

Straus said student leaders at Santa Monica High School have been coming forward every day with new ideas and suggestions.

Students who generally have not participated in campus activities and dialogues have also been communicating more often with administrators and teachers, she said.

“The students have come together to say they don’t like the way people outside of Samohi are painting them,” Straus said. “They are the ones who want to mediate.

“They are a better group of students than people think.”

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