Venice High students accuse otherwise popular principal of racial bias and trying to quash dissent
By Gary Walker and Arielle Brumfield
Graduation is usually a time of reflection, relief, hope and new beginnings. But for a group of disenchanted Venice High School students, it was also about standing up to someone they feel has sought to divide their school along racial lines: their principal.
Just days before the class of 2017 took their final bows, about 60 students protested outside the school to accuse Venice High School Principal Oryla Wiedoeft of a pattern of discriminatory behavior toward minority students.
But the student protesters’ biggest complaint appeared to be losing college counselor Guy Cerda, who leaders of the June 5 student demonstration credit as instrumental to their academic growth at Venice High. Cerda, who could not be reached for comment, is African-American.
Los Angeles Unified School District officials say they cannot discuss Cerda’s situation because it is a personnel matter, but insist that he was not fired. Wiedoeft did not return calls, and others at the school and in the community — including the Venice Chamber of Commerce — have spoken out in her defense.
But the situation with Cerda was “pretty much the last straw for us,” said senior Ingrid Hernandez, who is involved with the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano a de Aztlán (MEChA).
“We thought that it was really outrageous because [Wiedoeft] didn’t give an explanation for it, and [Cerda] doesn’t necessarily know the reason for it,” Hernandez said. “He has done a lot for students of color here on campus.”
Black Student Union Vice President Mauriah Duffey, a graduating senior, suspects Cerda’s departure was racially motivated.
“We just felt that it was unfair because he has raised our AP [advanced placement] scores and a lot of students’ test scores and the number of people going to college and getting college credit in high school,” Duffey said during the protest. “He really understood our generation.”
Mokonen Tesfom, who teaches mathematics and computer science at Venice High and until last week cosponsored the Black Student Union, said his encounters with Wiedoeft are the opposite of what students are claiming.
“Others might have a different experience, but in my interactions with the principal I’ve never experienced her being racist towards me. From my point of view I don’t believe that she’s racist,” said Tesfom.
LAUSD representatives said that since Wiedoeft became principal in 2015, she’s hired an African-American assistant principal and a Latina guidance counselor.
In response to questions about the students’ complaints, district officials provided a brief statement enumerating Venice High School’s accomplishments under Wiedoeft. Those included lowering the student suspension rate, increasing the number of students taking advanced placement courses, boosting enrollment 1,800 to 2,100, and improving standardized test scores to the degree that Venice High is the most-improved school in LAUSD.
“With continued collaboration and leadership, Venice High School is the pride of the Westside,” LAUSD Local District Superintendent Cheryl Hildreth wrote in a statement to The Argonaut.
The Venice High student leaders said they met with Hildreth, LAUSD Supt. Michelle King, LAUSD Instructional Director Jaime Morales and Wiedoeft on June 7 but complained that no one from the district offered any real solutions.
“We explained that there were a lot of insensitive comments made on [Wiedoeft’s] part, and that made people not like her,” Duffey said. “They said they wanted to help, but I thought they were kind of dismissive.”
One of the protest’s organizers, junior Joey Mustul, discussed an incident with Wiedoeft earlier this year when he was meeting with a teacher and a group of Latino and African-American students to discuss organizing a campus protest against the Trump administration.
“I remember [Wiedoeft] walked in, peeked in and then left. Then a couple of minutes later a [LAUSD] policeman came in and asked, ‘Is everything okay?’” recalled Mustul, who is white. “A couple of students questioned the principal and she said, ‘It didn’t look like a good group.’ Like, what is that supposed to mean?”
Student demonstrators also believe that LAUSD is trying to write them off as pawns for teachers who are angry that Cerda will not be returning to Venice High.
“That’s not true. This is all student organized,” Duffey asserted.
“The administration has been pinning student-led events on teachers who they think are too radical or just people who aren’t even involved but have had a prior incident with them,” added Associated Student Body President Alexandra Radilalah. “It’s pretty bad right now.”
The protest’s organizers say Wiedoeft attempted to stop them from demonstrating by threating to prevent them from participating in commencement activities, which LAUSD officials deny. Students also claim the principal had the senior class sign on to a campus code of conduct and then tried to rewrite that contract to stifle protest.
“They wanted to add something that said ‘no disruptions,’ but didn’t explain what that meant,” Duffey said.
On June 9, Venice Chamber of Commerce President Donna Lasman issued a statement of “enthusiastic support” for Wiedoeft and “tremendous, positive changes” at Venice High during her tenure.
“I have personally observed the dramatic improvements that have occurred under her leadership. … She has the energy and ‘can-do’ attitude that motivates, bringing out the best in others — students, staff and community,” wrote Lasman, who was a member of Venice High’s school-based management team and whose son graduated from Venice High in 2013.
Venice High students have a long history of student activism. Students walked out of class for a civil rights protest in 1968, and in 2009 more than 200 students staged a sit-in supporting teachers facing layoffs due to LAUSD budget shortfalls.
Public education advocate Karen Wolfe, whose son graduated from Venice High last week, is troubled by the students’ allegations but is heartened at their level of consciousness.
“I think it’s very disturbing. We moved to Venice because of the diversity, and Venice High School is a direct reflection of the community and the history of this community,” Wolfe said. But, “For [student demonstrators] to be pondering some of these deeper identity issues, it could be perfectly timed for where they are right now.”