Stun Guns, Albert Camus Mix at Muir High

Times Staff Writer

There are few visible signs that John Muir High School is simmering in the stew of troubles that some critics have recently described--including classroom assaults, a "stun-gun" attack and a death threat against a teacher.

During the morning session on Tuesday, members of the 2,060-member student body walked purposefully between classes scattered through the dozen beige buildings on the school's 47-acre campus in northwest Pasadena, with a crew of walkie-talkie carrying security guards there to prod the dawdlers along.

Then, with moderate hubbub, the students got down to class business.

While English teacher Terry Moore's class of college-bound seniors wrestled with an exam on Albert Camus' "The Stranger" that would have challenged a graduate student, a youth in a special education class in another classroom in the same building, defined "constitution" as "a place where they put people."

Pattern of Violence

But there's a lot more going on at Muir these days than school work, according to the critics. A group calling itself Concerned Parents and Teachers of Muir last week talked about a pattern of recent violence, accidents and thefts at the school, to which, they said, Principal Jimmie L. Charles and his administrators had generally responded with shoulder-shrugging indifference.

Charles has defended security at Muir and said that the problems there are common at almost every high school.

Among the recent incidents that members of the group described were an assault on a boy in his classroom by 18 members of the school's drum corps, the use of a stun-gun in another student-to-student attack that was a part of a gang initiation rite and a death threat by a student against a substitute teacher. They charged as well that criminal violations that occur in the school are seldom reported to the police and that a classroom intercom system seldom works, leaving teachers unable to report emergencies in their classrooms.

The group also said the school had been experiencing a series of costly burglaries and thefts from the cafeteria.

The situation, said parent Linda Griffith, explaining the formation of Concerned Parents and Teachers of Muir, had been "handled in a manner that troubled us," adding, however, that there were some "new signs" that the administration was ready to take decisive action. She spoke at a meeting of about 80 parents and teachers on Feb. 4 at the Board of Education.

Face-to-Face Meetings

Griffith mentioned specifically some face-to-face meetings between Charles and his faculty critics.

Most of the critics acknowledged that Muir's problems were similar to those of other high schools. "It's not just a failure to bring in the police," contended social studies teacher Bob Barnes. "It's a lack of dialogue. There's no one to provide moral leadership at our school."

Although Charles did not attend the meeting, Board of Education President Noel Hatch and Supt. Phillip Jordan did. Both spoke in a conciliatory fashion. Hatch said, "The positive thing is that we're here to share our concerns."

In an interview, Charles responded to the critics with a sweeping endorsement of security arrangements at the school and a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges.

"This is a safe school," insisted Charles, a husky, irascible man, who bristles at some of the criticisms directed against the school. "There's no question about that. That doesn't mean that things don't happen on a day-to-day basis that need to be handled."

He added that all of the incidents referred to by the parent-teacher group had been addressed by the school administration, with suspensions and police reports doled out in most cases. "We have the best security staff in the district," he said. "When things happen at other schools, they send for us."

Drum Corps Suspended

He said the drum corps had been suspended for two weeks because of its attack; the stun-gun perpetrator had been suspended for five days and referred to the police for court action, and the student threatening the substitute teacher had also been suspended for five days and sent to court. He said he could not confirm the extent of thefts from the school cafeteria, although he acknowledged that at least one microwave oven had been stolen.

Police records show that Muir has a substantially higher number of incidents requiring police response than Pasadena's two other high schools. According to Sgt. Frank Wills, there were 127 such incidents at Muir between Jan. 1, 1986, and Feb. 2, 1987, contrasted with 80 at Pasadena High School and 55 at Blair High School.

But the discrepancy stems from the large number of "commercial burglaries"--break-ins occurring during non-school hours--that Muir has experienced in the past year, police said. There were 33 such burglaries at Muir, five at Pasadena and four at Blair, Wills said. Unlike the other two schools, Muir is located in northwest Pasadena, the focus of the city's drug activity and much of the city's crime.

Wills added that police had not received any complaints about unreported criminal activity at the school.

"Until a couple of weeks ago, we never received a specific complaint from a teacher or a student that they had been dissuaded from reporting something to the police," Wills said. He said the first such allegation had come from the Concerned Parents and Teachers of Muir.

No Direct Contact

He said that such charges had not been made directly to the department but had arrived through the group's circulars. "Whether incidents like those should be handled administratively or by the police, we still don't know," Wills said.

Despite some recent problems, Muir still prides itself on its high level of academic performance. Parents and teachers routinely refer to the school as "the best in Pasadena."

Muir has five National Merit semifinalists this year, as well as a National Achievement finalist. The school's Academic Decathlon team scored 25th out of 63 schools in the countywide competition last November. "This was only our second year of competition," said John Zweers, the team's coach. "We're very proud, though we're not gloating."

According to school counselors, about 60% of the school's 360 graduates last year went on to either two- or four-year colleges. At least five went to Stanford University and from 10 to 15 others went to such prestige schools as Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

"Parents know this," said Charles. "A lot of them shop to get into Muir." He said that many parents make special efforts to locate in Muir's district so that their children will be assigned to the school.

Class Activity Told

Typical of the kind of college-level instruction that goes on at the school, said Muir administrators, was Jean Toh's Tuesday morning class on F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." Students drew parallels between that novel's narrator and the narrator of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," talked about the "disillusionment" of soldiers returning from World War I and analyzed the backgrounds of characters who were "nouveau riche" and "old money."

Toh said the class will eventually become so steeped in the ambiance of the novel that students will hold a Roaring '20s party. "They'll research the clothes, the food and the music; they'll learn to do the Charleston and they'll get together in period outfits," she said.

Charles has held two meetings in the last two weeks with his 161-member faculty to discuss security, and he has scheduled a joint meeting with parents and teachers on Wednesday.

Even his strongest critics acknowledge that things have improved since the critics have "gone public."

"The kinds of things that have happened at Muir happen at every high school in the United States," said social studies teacher Barnes. "It's what happens afterwards that's important."

"Before, things were sporadic," added Toh. "You never knew what the outcome of an incident was. If there was an assault, the administration would say, 'We'll take care of it,' but you'd never get any further word." Now, teachers reported, the principal and his administrative staff are informing a special faculty committee about disciplinary actions that have been taken.

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