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Awkward Goal: Keeping Pupils Out of Schools : Education: Torrance seeks to root out students who give false addresses to enroll in its district.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Patricia looks like any other Torrance teen-ager as she leaves school each afternoon, lugging her textbooks and talking with friends.

But then she heads for a nearby bus stop, where, unbeknown to her teachers and Torrance Unified School District officials, she boards a city bus for the ride to another South Bay city.

Patricia, not her real name, is one of an unknown number of students from outside the Torrance district who supply false addresses so they can attend the city’s highly rated schools.

Her parents installed a telephone line in a home of a Torrance friend so the family would have a Torrance phone number. The line has become Patricia’s link to a Torrance education, which she and her parents believe is far superior to what is available in her home district.

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“It was a real moral dilemma for us,” said Patricia’s mother. “It caused us to do a lot of lying. A lot of untruths. But we think that safety and education is worth it.”

It is a story echoed by other students who travel daily to suburban Torrance from more urban districts in search of safe schools and a sound education.

And in the 20,000-student Torrance Unified district, the influx is starting to create a stir.

District officials are now grappling with the issue of students from outside the district--both those who obtain permission to attend Torrance schools and those such as Patricia who provide false information to show city residency.

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The district’s teachers union claims that “outside students” may be to blame for what it calls an increase in discipline and vandalism problems, particularly at the district’s four high schools.

Officials are counting how many students have obtained legal permits, and the school board on Dec. 9 plans to review the figures and discuss whether to modify the conditions under which permits are granted. The district has also stepped up enforcement efforts to ferret out students who have falsified residency information, 29 of whom were discovered this fall.

“An awful lot of people want to get their kids into Torrance schools,” said district Supt. Edward J. Richardson. “But if you don’t live in town and you don’t have a legitimate permit, you shouldn’t be going to Torrance schools. It’s the law.”

Other South Bay school districts are also facing the problem. After an exhaustive summer-long investigation, the Centinela Valley Union High School District this fall removed more than 375 students’ names from the attendance rolls at Leuzinger High School. Many were believed to have provided false addresses.

Inglewood Unified School District officials suspect that Los Angeles Unified students are attending their schools. “We are aware that there are a number of students who are using false addresses; we just can’t prove it because we don’t have the manpower,” said Maurice Wiley, assistant to the superintendent.

In Torrance, the district grants interdistrict permits for specific reasons, frequently to students whose after-school child care is in Torrance. The student’s home district and the Torrance district must both approve the permit.

But other parents choose a different route, sometimes after being turned down for permits. Many of these parents worry that violence and gang problems are increasing in their home districts--primarily the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Centinela Valley Union High School District.

So they arrange for their children to commute to Torrance, a largely white, middle-class suburb that is wedged between urban areas to the north and east and the prosperous Palos Verdes Peninsula to the south.

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One center of activity appears to be Torrance High School, where at least 14 students have been struck from the rolls since September for falsifying addresses. Meanwhile, for those youths who remain undercover, the recent events are unsettling.

“We walk on eggs,” said Patricia’s mother.

Patricia and other undercover students agreed to interviews last week if their real names were not used.

All said they are avoiding their district schools because they doubt the quality of education there or fear violence and gang problems. All had the support of their parents in changing districts.

In Torrance, they say, they have found more up-to-date textbooks, better equipped science laboratories and an atmosphere more conducive to learning. And the district’s test scores are well above the state average, particularly in math.

"(Teachers) don’t have to worry as much about discipline, so they have more of a chance to teach,” Patricia said.

Another student, Lisa, says she came to Torrance to get away from her neighborhood school, Hawthorne’s Leuzinger High School.

Lisa’s mother says Torrance schools provide “a lot more homework--which can’t hurt--and a lot less time for them to be out on the streets.”

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Lisa’s mother feared Lisa would end up quitting school if she went to Leuzinger because of gang activity and violence there. And although she continues to look for an apartment or house in Torrance, she has been discouraged by rents as high as $1,000 a month.

Devising a fail-safe false address is a challenge.

Torrance officials ask students for proof of residency, such as telephone bills or car registration, that shows an address in the city.

But that has not stopped some families. Officials have heard stories of phones installed in garages for the sole purpose of establishing residency.

Torrance stepped up its own screening this year with the hiring of retired Torrance Elementary School Principal Darold Kusch to work part-time to check student addresses.

So far this fall, Kusch has investigated 65 students and determined that 29 had falsified residency.

He rings doorbells at the students’ purported addresses and talks to neighbors and landlords. Once he went to an address at 7 a.m. to see if the student was there; he wasn’t. And he has parked near Western Avenue to see if a student was crossing westward into the district.

Kusch seems an unlikely investigator. Genial and outspoken, he admits he has mixed feelings about his new role.

“I feel like a detective,” he said. “I don’t like the feeling. It’s not a satisfying job.”

And he says he can sympathize with parents who have falsified addresses.

“I understand why they do it. They think they’re sending their kid to a better situation,” Kusch said. “But, I don’t agree with the lying part. . . . What they’re doing is giving their kids mixed signals.”

Supt. Richardson says the district lacks the staff to investigate every student. Undercover students are most often discovered if they have problems at school or if the district receives a tip, he said.

Those students are included in the district’s average daily attendance figures that determine funding from the state. Even so, Richardson said, “we’re not supposed to be getting (average daily attendance) for them. If we find out, by law, we are obligated to send them back to the other districts.”

At Torrance High, the recent ouster of students for false addresses has made other students angry or uneasy.

“Every day, I hear about someone else getting kicked out,” said a 17-year-old permit student from Harbor City.

Three youths interviewed last week said they were ordered to leave Torrance High this fall because they live outside the district. Two of the youths say they have not re-enrolled in any school.

“I haven’t been in school in three months,” said a 16-year-old who says he used to live in Compton. Now his mother has moved into a relative’s home in Torrance, but school officials are asking for elaborate proof of residency, he said.

The three youths, who are Latino, question the district’s racial motivation of the residency review.

“We’re the only ones who got caught--us Mexicans,” one youth said.

“They’re kicking out the blacks and Mexicans,” another girl said.

Kusch adamantly rejects student claims that the district is targeting Latino and black students. “That is absolutely, positively, not a policy of this school district,” he said, adding that he has found that students who falsify residency come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

He checked his records, reporting that as of Friday, the Torrance High School dean’s office has given him the names of 32 students to investigate. Of those, 17 have Latino surnames, he said. Six were found to live outside the district.

Torrance High was 61% Anglo, 21% Asian 14% Latino and 1.9% black in the fall of 1990, according to state figures. The district was 57.6% Anglo.

County and state education officials say they have no way of knowing how many students are using false addresses.

“It’s a clandestine phenomenon. As a result, no one does a straight-up survey,” said John Gilroy, field representative at the state Department of Education.

One Los Angeles school official recalls the 1984 furor when white parents in the Hamilton High School neighborhood were found to be illegally enrolling their children at University High School.

Now, some wonder if covert enrollment is on the upswing nationwide.

August Steinhilber, general counsel at the National School Boards Assn. in Alexandria, Va., has seen an increase in school district inquiries about the subject in the last two years.

Some cases have involved black parents seeking to send their children to suburban districts, he said. “If you’re asking me if this is ‘white flight'--no,” he said.

Torrance officials acknowledge that despite stepped-up enforcement efforts, they do not expect the undercover students to disappear. The same officials say they can understand the motivation of parents who want the best for their children.

“I sympathize with them,” Richardson said. “I really do.”


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