Two dozen parents are challenging a stringent tardy policy at Crenshaw High School, saying students who are already struggling academically are being punished unfairly and ineffectively.
Jacinto Rhines, a 54-year-old writer and youth lecturer, is leading the effort to change the policy, under which students may be locked out of class and sent to a tardy room for counseling. The group, Parents for Power, says children wind up with staggering numbers of tardies and absences, are made to pick up trash when they should be learning, and sometimes are incorrectly marked absent by teachers.
"How can my child get an education like this?" said Rhines, waving a copy of three report cards for his child that show 66 tardies and absences. His 14-year-old daughter, Megan, is a special education student who recently transferred to Crenshaw from a Compton school.
Said Rhines: "They're making no exceptions for a child who had to adjust to six classes a day versus one. They're practicing miseducation."
Principal Yvonne Noble said that while there are "bunches and bunches" of students with serious tardy problems, none are treated unfairly or deliberately marked absent.
"Tardies are a major problem, but Mr. Rhines' accusations just aren't true," she said. "The fact is, his daughter has been absent and he won't accept that."
Crenshaw assistant principal Yolanda Anderson said the school routinely keeps students out of class who are tardy for first period, but not other periods. The dean's office contacts parents when students accumulate five tardies and tries to resolve the problem, she said. Although tardies and absences do not automatically affect grades, classroom performance is usually affected by inconsistent attendance, she said. But Anderson stressed that students are not marked absent when they are merely tardy.
"We have the greatest problem with first-period tardies, so we crack down on that," said Anderson, who said that the detained students receive counseling. She added that the policy was adopted by the school's shared decision-making council a year ago, and has resulted in far fewer tardies. Figures were not available.
Three weeks ago, Rhines enlisted the help of attorney Phillip Higgins to prepare a lawsuit against the school.
"The absences are just not being properly monitored," said Higgins. "Students are doing things like picking up trash that are not specific to education. And black kids are disproportionately suffering."
Rhines and the other parents, all African American, say that while they understand the need for discipline, their children are the ones who can least afford to stay out of class.
"My son is trying to bring up his work, bring in current events and things, but his teacher says he's going to fail anyway because of absences," said Mae Dean Easter, whose 15-year-old son Eli Rhodes has been credited with 124 absences this year, though she insists he has been in school and has been marked absent when he was actually tardy.
"I've talked to people at the school," she said. "I've sent notes about a few absences he had because of deaths in the family. But they say if he's marked absent he's marked absent, and that's it."
Richard Browning, director of the senior high schools division for Los Angeles Unified School District, says that tardy policies are made at each school by the decision-making council, comprised of school personnel, parents and community leaders. But he said that students who are tardy should not be be marked absent.
"The main idea is to counsel students and then send them back to class," said Browning. "And those are mostly kids who are five to 10 minutes late, who are disruptive to teachers."
Rhines and other parents say that they were not alerted to the problem early enough. Last month Rhines met with Noble about the tardy issue, complaining that his daughter was routinely made to collect trash.
"First we would pick up trash with the plastic bags they gave us, and then we got a note to go back to class," said Megan, who is staying home from Crenshaw High until the school changes its policy. "But by then, class was almost over."
Anderson said tardy students assigned to trash-collecting do so for about 15 minutes, then are sent back to class.
Rhines said that while seeking out other parents with his concerns, he found that many had been aware their children were having problems, but were at a loss how to address it. "A lot of times parents are ignorant of what they can do, or are just scared to get involved," said Rhines.
"I didn't really know the impact of all this until I met Jacinto," said Willie Mae Bradley, who said she only found out last week that her granddaughter Tanicha may not graduate because of absences she believes are tardy-related. "For too long, people have just been going along with the program."