An enthusiastic crowd of cheering Venice High School students staged a sit-in demonstration in support of Los Angeles Unified School District teachers on Friday, May 15th.
More than 200 students waved handmade banners and chanted slogans in front of Venice High School, where Principal Lonnie Wallace and several members of the LAUSD Police Department kept a watchful eye on them.
“I wish that they were in class, but as long as it’s peaceful, they will not (be reprimanded),” Wallace said.
The demonstration was organized by several student leaders in response to a restraining order issued by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge on May 12th that prohibited a planned one-day strike by United Teachers Los Angeles that was scheduled to take place the same day, May 15th. The teachers union had hoped that its civil planned disobedience would draw attention to the proposed layoffs of nearly 5,000 teachers and school district employees that were authorized in March by the LAUSD Board of Education by a 4-3 vote.
LAUSD officials filed a grievance with a state employees agency against the union to stop the strike, and then sought a court order barring the teachers from walking out of the classroom.
Many of the demonstrating students expressed support for their teachers and were outraged at LAUSD officials for authorizing the issuance of pink slips to district employees last month. The cuts in administrators and educators will increase classroom size in many schools that already have large student populations, said Christian Jimenez, a junior at Venice High.
“I don’t want to be in a classroom that’s overcrowded,” the student said as he watched the demonstration. “Our teachers need our support, and that’s why were here.”
The students also exhorted school district officials to use funding from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to maintain the current level of teachers at LAUSD. School board members and representatives of the district have stated that they would prefer to use the federal money to plug holes in the $718 million budget deficit over the next two years and thereby avoid as many teacher layoffs as possible.
LAUSD will receive a federal allotment of $312 million in Title I funding and $151 million in IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) funding over a two— year period.
“They should use the stimulus money now so that they won’t need to lay off teachers next year,” Venice High senior Elliott Goldstein told The Argonaut on the day of the sit-in. “That’s what they should do if they are on the side of smaller classrooms.”
Freshman William Black, one of the student leaders who helped organize the protest, also wants to see the federal money used to save teacher positions.
“I don’t agree with the way that LAUSD is handling the situation,” he said while his fellow students cheered in the background. “We need that money right now for the teachers.”
While the students were demonstrating outside their school, approximately 45 teachers were arrested during protest outside LAUSD headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.
“What we do here today we do for the students,” said UTLA President A.J. Duffy, who was among those arrested. “Only dramatic means will communicate the dramatic damage that will be done to our schools if the layoffs go through and class sizes go up.”
Despite Wallace’s claim that no one would be reprimanded, Goldstein, one of the principal organizers of the protest, said that LAUSD officials asked Wallace to suspend the students who led the protest.
Monica Carazo, a LAUSD spokeswoman, said suspending students for engaging in protests was not typically a district policy.
“In the past, it’s not something that we usually do,” she said.
School board member Marlene Canter, whose area includes Venice, told The Argonaut that she was aware of the discontent among students and teachers, but feels that the school board is faced with some very difficult choices.
“We’re in a severe economic crisis,” Canter, who voted to authorize employee termination letters, said in a telephone interview from Washington D.C. on the day of the student protests. “The decision that I made was to save money for next year.”
Canter did not run for reelection and will be replaced by Steve Zimmer later this year.
The students at Venice High used the first two periods of school to participate in the demonstration and then attended the rest of their classes. Goldstein said that the vast majority of students that he talked to in and out of class vigorously supported the student action, and that he was surprised at the turnout at the demonstration.
“It grew really fast,” said the Venice High senior, who added that the protest came together in less than 24 hours. “We talked to a lot of students on Facebook on Thursday about our plans and from there it really grew.”
Senior Alyssa Wood, 17, was also amazed at how quickly the demonstration expanded as the first class period ended.
“We did this not knowing how many people would actually participate. We went into this with a cause and came out with a revolution,” said Wood, another of the student organizers.
Westside students have become more visibly active in the budget battle in the wake of the school board vote. Seniors at Westchester High School organized a signature gathering campaign last month to request that Canter change her vote at the upcoming board meeting in June.
“We are students from Westchester High School and are deeply concerned that you voted to raise class sizes and lay off 5,300 school employees, over half of whom will be teachers. We urge you to reconsider your decision and stand on the side of students and our education by reversing your vote,” the petition stated.
Lisa Adler, the coordinator of Voices of Students Taking Action, an after-school organization of Westchester High students, was pleased to hear about the Venice High protest.
“I think it’s great news that students at Venice High are demonstrating,” said Adler, an organizer for the Labor/Community Strategy Center. “There has been a rise in activism among students and I hope that activism will continue.”
Canter says that her vote was not meant to terminate educators and other school district personnel.
“I voted for a budget that we can all live with,” she explained. “We’re doing the best that we can for the students, the teachers, the parents and the school district.”
While the student protest was the main topic of discussion among his peers that day, Goldstein said that many teachers also commented on the demonstration.
“I think that the teachers have a newfound respect for the students,” he said.
Black added, “By supporting our teachers, we’re supporting ourselves.”
The student organizers called an impromptu assembly after the high school’s administration allowed them to use the auditorium to address their peers.
“A major event that was discussed at the assembly was the possibility of forming an independent student union that would interact with LAUSD,” said Goldstein.
Canter, like Supt. Ramon Cortines in past interviews, insisted that UTLA will be required to make some compromises in order to arrive at a favorable outcome for all involved.
“To date, they have not made any concessions at all,” said the school board member. “Everyone is going to have to participate in this shared sacrifice.”
Those who participated in the sit-in said they were pleased with the outcome.
“I’ve demonstrated countless times for various issues and this is the most grassroots demonstration I’ve been involved in,” Wood, who aspires to be a community organizer, asserted. “I couldn’t be happier with how this demonstration went.”