L.A. Events Seen Touching Schools 'for Years'
As children returned to Los Angeles classrooms last week, educators were buoyed by the fact that schools were all but spared in the wave of violence that swept over large chunks of the city in the wake of the Rodney G. King verdict.
"To me, that says that people see our schools as our hope and our vehicle to move out of that sense of frustration,'' said Leticia Quezada, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District board.
Moving quickly to respond to the unrest, district officials mobilized a wide-scale effort to comfort children and announced that they plan to take a lead role in promoting peace and justice in the city.
"The events of the past week will have dramatic implications as to what we do in our classrooms today and for years to come,'' William R. Anton, the district's superintendent, said at a press conference last week.
First and foremost, Mr. Anton said, teachers must "reaffirm the classroom and the school site as a caring and supportive place'' and be "the caring adults that our students can connect with in this critical time.''
Mr. Anton announced that he had joined with leaders of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, and other unions in the district in requesting that each school devise a plan to help rebuild the community.
The superintendent instructed principals to put previously established emergency-response plans into effect and to activate "crisis teams'' of counselors and other personnel.
In addition, Mr. Anton sent a memo to school administrators urging that they review sections of the district's crisis-intervention handbook that describe how to identify students who are under psychological stress and provide them with aid.
More than 200 social workers, 350 psychologists, and 1,000 counselors employed by the district took part in the counseling effort in the district's 854 schools and centers. They were joined by volunteer counselors from throughout the community.
The district also distributed to schools, ahead of schedule, a section of its newly developed framework for multicultural education that includes a list of community resources to draw on when dealing with issues related to racial and ethnic diversity.
The teachers' union and administrators' association also distributed materials to help their members.
Over all, the city's schools were reported to be calm last week as local police officers and members of the National Guard continued to maintain a highly visible presence throughout much of the city.
Several school officials attributed the lack of damage to schools and the calm that prevailed in them last week to the fact that the district has worked hard to promote the idea of the school as "neutral ground.''
Several schools, meanwhile, were used to house National Guard troops or as Red Cross shelters for people left homeless by the fires.
Educators also reported that many students were participating in cleanup efforts, and, at some schools, students staged rallies to call for unity and the rebuilding of their neighborhoods.
At least eight of the more than 50 people believed to have died in riot-related incidents were age 18 or younger, although school officials did not know last week where they had attended school or whether memorial services would be held. (See related story, page 1.)
Attendance in the city's schools was about 5 percent below normal Monday, the first day schools re-opened, with schools in the most riot-stricken areas reporting especially low attendance rates.
To help ensure safety in the schools, the district put its force of about 300 armed, state-trained police officers on 12-hour shifts to patrol the schools.
The district also dispatched the rest of its security force: about 80 security guards, 360 campus aides, and 200 special officers charged with maintaining security at adult-education classes.
Diana Munatones, the district's director of communications, said last week that no violence had been reported in schools in the aftermath of the rioting.
But some principals, who spoke on the condition that their names not be used, said some fighting had broken out at their schools as students argued about the riots and the verdict.
"The level of frustration for everyone in Los Angeles right now is very high,'' said James G. Berk, the principal of the Alexander Hamilton High Schools Complex, whose campus was the site of one riot-related scuffle.
Suzanne Silverstein, the president of the Psychological Trauma Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said several school officials, worried that tensions on their campuses might snowball into racial violence, had called her.
"They haven't had fights,'' Ms. Silverstein said, "but they are hearing kids talk about black people versus white people versus Chinese people.''
Robert R. Barner, the principal of Manual Arts High School in the riot-torn area of South-Central Los Angeles, said he was encouraging teachers to leave the building by 4:30 P.M. each day.
"I am concerned about what is going to happen after the National Guard is pulled away,'' Mr. Barner said, noting that rumors are running rampant that violence may again break out in the community.
The mood in many schools was described as somber Monday, May 4, as students returned to class.
At Wilton Place School, an elementary school in the city's ravaged Koreatown neighborhood, twice as many children as normal were absent.
Jongpyo Grace Yoon, the school's principal, said many students had seen their family businesses looted or destroyed by arsonists.
'So Much Loss'
"The Korean community is suffering so much damage and loss through this situation,'' Ms. Yoon said.
Teachers at Wilton Place reported that some children seemed especially shy or fearful.
Charna E. Turner, the school's nurse, said many youngsters were complaining of headaches and stomachaches and asking to be sent home.
'Disconnection of Youth'
Educators said last week that their dealings with students were complicated by the fact that children and teenagers were among the riot's victimizers as well as its victims.
"One of the most alarming messages that the events of the last few days has communicated is the disconnection of the youth involved in these events,'' Superintendent Anton said at his press conference.
"A lot of kids came to school and showed the things that they had looted,'' noted Helen Bernstein, the president of the U.T.L.A. "How do you deal with that when you are a teacher? What do you say?''
Mr. Barner, the principal at Manual Arts High, said that, though he saw some of his students rioting in the neighborhood and getting arrested on television, he decided only to tell their parents, and not to suspend or otherwise discipline them, because it would be unfair to punish just a few students when "there were thousands of kids running up and down the streets.''
Keith H. Funk, a counselor at Susan M. Dorsey High School, noted that some students were saying they believed the attacks on police were justified.
"If you are African-American in this country for any length of time,'' Mr. Funk said, "you have had a negative experience with police.''
Meanwhile, Judge Ralph Nutter of the Los Angeles County Superior Court said the rioting prompted him to step up the pace of proceedings designed to reach a consent agreement between the district and minority advocates.
The agreement, formally signed by lawyers for the district and the plaintiffs last week, calls on the district to equalize funding among schools so that roughly the same amount is spent per student on books, supplies, and staffing.
Judge Nutter called the agreement a crucial piece of the district's response to the problems faced by minorities in the city.
Maureen DiMarco, Gov. Pete Wilson's secretary for child development and education, predicted that the rioting would serve to expedite state efforts to address the needs of children in Los Angeles and other urban areas.
"This kind of tragedy tends to bring ongoing chronic issues to a very painful focus,'' Ms. DiMarco said, calling those who believe that such rioting could only take place in Los Angeles "naive.''
In the meantime, State Controller Gray Davis announced last week that the riots had added at least $100 million in red ink to the state budget. A spokesman for Governor Wilson said the state is already facing a $9-billion budget deficit through the end of the 1992-93 fiscal year.
Los Angeles city officials estimated that their tab for the riot will be about $34 million, including more than $760,000 to repair damage to public libraries and more than $1.3 million to repair damage to public parks.
Ms. Bernstein of the U.T.L.A. said many of the district's teachers experienced tense moments during the riots as a result of the district's decision to leave about four-fifths of the schools open on Thursday, April 30, the day after the rioting began.
Teachers reported hearing gunfire and seeing fires near their schools, but few of the schools were allowed to close until the end of the day.
"Our phones were going off the hook,'' Ms. Bernstein said.
But, she added, few teachers could get calls through to the district's central office to report what was happening near them.
The district closed schools Friday, May 1.
Vol. 11, Issue 34, Pages 1, 12Published in Print: May 13, 1992, as L.A. Events Seen Touching Schools 'for Years'