Every weekend school officials open the doors to Santa Monica High School and allow several tough, street-smart students to put their mark on the graffiti-covered walls of the high school bathrooms.
Dressed in paint-smeared overalls, the students make their mark by painting out the various tags and messages scrawled on bathroom ceilings and walls by various campus factions--from Malibu surfers to Santa Monica street gangs.
Since January, the student volunteers have worked to remove graffiti from five campus bathrooms as part of an effort to encourage campus pride.
And school officials say they are having more success keeping the graffiti out by using student volunteers than by having district painters remove it.
“We are finding out that it is not just a process of painting out bathrooms, but changing attitudes,” said Mike Escalante, a vice principal at Santa Monica High School. “Kids listen to other kids, and peer pressure is a much stronger tool to change attitudes. If they don’t write on their bedroom walls, they shouldn’t write on their school walls.”
There are no figures on the exact cost of graffiti at Santa Monica High School, but Escalante estimates that it takes hundreds of hours to remove it from the campus.
As part of the program, the student volunteers remove the graffiti and encourage friends and other students not to put it back.
Pablo Garcia, a 17-year-old junior, said that part of the problem is that students don’t show the same respect when district employees remove paint from the bathrooms.
“When they paint the bathrooms, the graffiti is back before the paint dries,” he said. “That doesn’t happen with us. When I paint, I feel like it’s my work and to paint over it would be to disrespect me. I would have to talk to them.”
Garcia said he understands why many students write graffiti on walls, because he once did it himself.
“I was never a heavy writer,” he explained. “It is something that is easy to get into, especially if your friends are doing it. You see something your friend wrote and you want to write something too. It goes on from there.”
Garcia said he hopes that by volunteering his time the cycle will be broken. “People need to learn that it is destructive,” he said.
Thus far, the program has received paint from the city and about $300 from the PTA for lunches and work clothes for the students.
Initially, the union representing the district’s painters complained that the student volunteers were infringing on its turf, but it refused to press the issue.
“If you ask me if the painting of the schools should be done by our unit, I would say yes, but I do not hear any opposition to it,” said Lacy Goode, chief spokesman for the classified employees union.
Besides, he said, the district only has two full-time painters and they are usually swamped.
And school officials seem more than willing to appeal to students to resolve the problem.
“When it comes to an issue like graffiti, the students run the school,” said Frank Estrada, a high school custodian who helped organize the program.
And the program has benefits for the students too. “Some of the students would not be going to school if it were not for this program,” Escalante said. “They are giving up their time, but the sense of pride and respect they get back is tremendous. It is a first step for many of them. And before you can develop all the tools to be successful, you have to have pride in yourself. That is where we are at.”
The students say it has not been easy explaining their volunteer jobs to their friends.
“The first question is how much do we get paid,” said Michael McKenna, an 18-year-old senior. “This is not something we do for money, this is something we started and we want to make sure that we finish it.”