LOCAL

Racial tensions are rising at Watts middle school

African American parents say Latino school administrators are unfairly targeting their children
Markham Middle School's Latino assistant principal denies there is discrimination against African Americans
United Teachers Los Angeles official Ingrid Villeda: "It's extremely clear there is a racial thing going on"

Fanning racial tensions at a Watts middle school, several African American parents asserted Wednesday that Latino administrators are unfairly targeting their children and unofficially suspending them from classes.

One parent, Tyronda Farley, said her sixth-grade daughter was sent home from Markham Middle School in March after school officials told her to change into more appropriate pants. Farley said she was not called by the school — and her daughter, Toniakay Lascaries, showed up at home "hysterical and crying" because she was bumped by a car on her way home, causing bruising on her leg.

Marcelo Martinez, Markham's assistant principal, acknowledged the school's action in that case was a mistake but denied that administrators were sending children home without parental consent or discriminating against African Americans. He said, however, that students were at times sent home without being officially suspended because their behavior did not meet legal grounds for suspension.

"There are times when some kids, we need their parents to help them reinforce what the expectations are," Martinez said.

The practices at Markham Middle School, parents said, contradict directives by the Los Angeles Board of Education and L.A. schools chief John Deasy to seek alternative ways to discipline students in order to keep them in school. The school board last year banned defiance as grounds for suspension amid mounting national concern that removing students from school imperils their academic achievement and disproportionately harms minority students, particularly African Americans.

Markham is one of 17 schools run by the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit started by former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to turn around low-performing campuses. In a May 6 email to United Teachers Los Angeles representative Ingrid Villeda, partnership official Sofia Freire said there was no evidence Markham Principal Paul Hernandez was using off-the-books suspensions. She wrote that administrators were "working hard to find alternatives to suspensions."

Villeda disagreed. "It's extremely clear there is a racial thing going on," the union's South area chair said. "You have a Mexican principal suspending all African American kids. You can't lie about it."

At a protest at the school Wednesday and in earlier interviews with The Times this month, several parents described their experiences.

Shawnte Augustine said her son, sixth-grader Traeveon Cohen, was sent home at least five times this school year after being told to "cool off." She said her son entered Markham with A's and Bs, but after missing many classes and constant bullying that she said school officials did nothing to stop, his grades plunged. He also got so frustrated with his tormentor, she said, that he hit him with marbles in a sock and was officially suspended.

Since switching to nearby New Designs Charter School in March, Augustine said, Traeveon's grades are back up and a tense relationship with another boy was effectively defused by administrators there.

"If [Markham administrators] had listened to my son, this all could have been nipped in the bud," she said. "But they didn't do anything."

Talia Slone said her daughter, Aaniyah, was also bullied at Markham and sent home at least three times in February and March for what school officials called "protection." But Slone said it was unfair that her daughter was forced to miss class and others weren't. Aaniyah's absences contributed to a drop in her grades.

She said she believed African Americans were being mistreated at Markham. "When it's Hispanic kids, [administrators] take the time and call parents but do not take the time with African Americans," Slone said.

Another mother, Keshia Wilson, said administrators sent her daughter, Robin-Nae Johnson, home a few times without calling her. In one case, Wilson said, Robin-Nae was officially suspended for fighting and was brought home by a friend's parent without her prior consent or knowledge. Another time, her daughter was sent home only because of rumors of a fight, Wilson said.

"Why are they sending them home?" Wilson said. "Their grades drop. These kids need to be in school. They get into a lot of trouble by being sent home early for nothing."

Martinez said he did not personally recall most of the incidents described by parents. But he said he would be "more than happy to sit down and talk" with parents about their complaints.

"I work with a lot of students, both African Americans and Latinos," he said. "One thing we like to do is have dialogue with parents."

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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