Student sex crime scandal has adults wanting discipline review, more guidance counselors

By Gary Walker

LAUSD board member  Steve Zimmer

LAUSD board member
Steve Zimmer

In the wake of last month’s allegations that a dozen male students repeatedly committed sex crimes against two female students on and off the Venice High School campus, Los Angeles Unified School District board member Steve Zimmer is calling attention to a less-than-obvious deficiency in student security — a dearth of guidance counselors, and not just at Venice High but throughout LAUSD.

Zimmer, who represents Westside schools, says increasing student access to guidance counselors would encourage kids to report problems to a trained professional before situations get out of hand.

“We shouldn’t need events like what has occurred at Venice High School to make this kind of investment in our students,” said Zimmer, who worked as a high school guidance counselor for 17 years.

According to news reports, some of the sexual activity at Venice High may have been consensual. A senior school district official who declined to be identified told the Los Angeles Times that the sex crime allegations came to light only after other students reported concerns to adults at the school.

LAUSD board members voted unanimously in 2011 to support a Zimmer-authored resolution for the school district to contract with an L.A.-based child abuse prevention center for counseling and other services specifically related to teen dating. Former LAUSD Supt. John Deasy did not disburse funding for that program, however, and the board denied funding when Zimmer raised the issue again in December.

The accused students have been cited by police and are now attending alternative or continuation schools, an LAUSD official said.

LAUSD currently has a ratio of one guidance counselor for every 412 students — the highest disproportionality in the state, Zimmer said.

“Having a ratio that size is the antithesis of personal relations that a counselor needs to have with a student,” Zimmer said.

The California Association of Counselors recommends a ratio of 250 to one.

There were 2,139 students enrolled at Venice High School during the 2013-14 academic year.

The school’s website lists five staff members with a counselor title — an academic counselor, a pupil services and attendance counselor, a college counselor, a world languages magnet counselor and one guidance counselor. There is also a school psychologist. Representatives of the school did not return calls about how often they are on campus.

During a March 18 campus meeting with Venice High School parents, district and school police officials heard concerns about discipline at the school and police response to the sex crime allegations.

LAUSD Police Chief Steven Zipperman denied rumors that police had “swooped down on the campus, with uniformed officers everywhere and students being pulled out of their classes and paraded around handcuffed,” he said. “That did not occur.”

A number of parents called for increased adult supervision on the Venice High campus and a review of recent adjustments to LAUSD’s student suspension policy. In May 2013, the LAUSD board voted to ban suspensions for “willful defiance,” a loosely defined and largely subjective offense that had been applied disproportionately to African-American students.

“One of the biggest problems is there are no repercussions for the kids who behave badly. The district has changed their policy so that students know that there are no consequences, and I think it can give opportunities to more emboldened actions,” said David Kent, father of two sons at Venice High and president of the Friends of Venice Magnet fundraising group.

Venice High School suspended 302 students in the 2008-09 school year but only 33 in 2012-13, according to LAUSD records.

“I have come to campus during the day and seen kids in the hallways and I’ve smelled pot. My boys tell me that they smell pot all the time and they hate it but it just seems to be tolerated,” Kent said.

Zimmer said he would support a review of LAUSD disciplinary procedures but rejects the notion that LAUSD’s suspension policies have made students more vulnerable.

“The previous suspension policy was disparate and unequal in its application. There’s nothing that has shown me that suspension as a disciplinary tool is an effective way to improve student behavior,” he said.

Stephanie Mihalas, a West Los Angeles psychologist in private practice and a nationally certified school psychologist, said Zimmer is right to focus on student access to trained guidance counselors.

“It’s really unfortunate that there is a paucity of mental health professionals in public school districts,” she said.

At many public schools counselors have only sporadic contact with students, which isn’t enough time to forge personal connections and build trust, she said.

“One of the most critical issues for counselors is visibility. Most kids who I’ve talked to don’t know that there’s someone at school who they can talk to about their mental and social needs,” Mihalas said. “It’s hard for kids to share feelings or confide in someone when you don’t see them often and don’t trust them,” she said.