Fanning racial tensions at a Watts middle school, several African American parents say 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 in an interview 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 Latino 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 did say, however, that students were at times sent home without being officially suspended because the behavior does 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 in interviews, contradict policies by the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education and L.A. schools chief John Deasy to seek alternative ways to discipline students so as 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 is imperiling their academic achievement and disproportionately harming 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 that Markham Principal Paul Hernandez was using off-the-books suspensions. She wrote that administrators were "working hard to find alternatives to suspensions."
Villeda, however, disagreed.
"It's extremely clear there is a racial thing going on," said Villeda, the union's south area chairwoman. "You have a Mexican principal suspending all African American kids. You can't lie about it."
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 As and Bs, but after missing so many classes and constant bullying she alleged school officials did nothing to stop, his grades plunged. He also got so frustrated with his tormenter, 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 has been 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, which contributed to driving down 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, also 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.
"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."
The parents were slated to air their complaints at a protest at the school Wednesday afternoon.
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.