A Positive Lesson From Ugly Graffiti : Education: Mayall Elementary School holds an assembly to discuss vandalism and to encourage racial understanding.


In the auditorium of Mayall Elementary School, surrounded by a sea of excited kids, Deputy Police Chief Mark Kroeker made understanding racial tolerance as simple as A-B-C.

With one arm around a second-grade girl, and the other on a fifth-grade boy, Kroeker explained difficult concepts in terms even the youngest in the crowd could understand.

"This is Melissa Garcia," Kroeker said. "This is Brandon Glickman. Brandon likes baseball. Melissa likes basketball. . . . Does that make Brandon better than Melissa?"

"No!" shouted the audience, in unison with Kroeker.

"In our world, everyone is different," said Kroeker, who commands the LAPD's operations in the Valley.

For police, parents and faculty at Mayall, Tuesday's assembly was an effort to turn a negative incident into a positive lesson about tolerance and understanding.

Twice vandals have scrawled swastikas, satanic symbols and the Star of David on school walls, lunch benches and on the sidewalk in front of the school in North Hills.

The first incident occurred in December on the day of the annual winter holiday program, a joint celebration of Christmas and Hanukkah.

"It was particularly upsetting because here we had all these parents coming and all this ugliness on the school," said Lisa Keating, the school's PTA president.

Although some students saw the vandalism, custodians covered it up early in the day before parents arrived.

When the school was vandalized in the same way on Sept. 21, principal Barbara Fuller took a different approach.

Rather than simply cover up the graffiti, Fuller decided to use the incident to educate students. Fuller instructed teachers to allow the students to view the graffiti.

"I wanted them to see how ugly it was and how disgusting," she said. " . . . and to see how people could ruin our beautiful school. We take a real pride in our school."

Fuller sent a letter home appealing to the community to help "keep the school safe and beautiful."

The idea for Tuesday's presentation came during discussions of the incident with teachers.

During the hourlong, upbeat assembly put on by the Anti-Defamation League and the LAPD, adult speakers used creative ways to explain terms such as civil rights, tolerance and racism to children, some of whom have yet to master reading, writing and arithmetic.

Mary Krasn, director of the San Fernando Valley branch of the Anti-Defamation League, used a poster of Koko the gorilla and her kitten in her presentation. She offered free posters to anyone who could explain prejudice--prompting a chorus of "I know! I know!" and waving hands from the audience of second- through fifth-grade students.

"If a big gorilla can get along with a kitten, we believe all kinds of people should be able to get along," Krasn told the audience.

Deputy District Atty. B. Kay Schafer, who handles hate crimes, defined the swastika as a symbol of hate and described the pain it causes and instructed students to tell teachers, parents or police if they encounter it.

Though the symbols and their meanings were not always clear to the students, the fact that someone had defaced their school was painfully evident.

Vandals defaced the school mural--a depiction of an ocean scene, a rainbow and animals--painted by students.

"When I saw it I just felt so disgusted," Pamela Macias, 10, said through her sign-language interpreter after the assembly. "I cherish my school and I don't like that."

Cheryl Doyle, a red-headed third-grader who learned about swastikas from watching movies, said she was "very, very sad," when she saw the graffiti.

"If people destroy the school, kids won't be able to learn and they won't be able to grow up and be what they want to be. . . . When you aren't able to learn and have fun, your life isn't very happy."

The school's 400 students have a very positive attitude toward each other, Fuller said, a quality she hopes to help them maintain.

"I really want kids to respect each other," she said. "They're really a nice group of kids, I want them to be able to keep this going."

The lessons about respect were not lost on students such as Cheryl, Pamela, and 7-year-old Min Min Chow.

"I learned that you are not supposed to hate. . . . " Min Min said through her sign-language interpreter.

The vandals who painted on Mayall were by no means skilled.

"It's crude," Kroeker said, flipping through photographs of the graffiti. "This is some child."

But the amateur nature of the act does not lessen the need for education and awareness, he said.

"I'm hoping the things that the students hear will stay with them at this impressionable age," Kroeker said. "I think young kids can understand a lot more than we give them credit for."

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