Students Divided on Prayer Issue : Education: Some in rundown schools wonder if priorities are skewed. Others say contemplation might help their peers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In city schools where peeling paint, random gun checks and outdated textbooks greet students each morning, renewed national proposals to restore school prayer symbolize hope for some students and misplaced priorities for others.

As the newly empowered Republicans wrangle with Democrats over the politically charged issue, those who will be most affected by their proposals are engaged in their own debates.

And to hear the students tell it, the answers are no easier to come by in the seventh or 12th grade than they are in Congress.

"In a way it's kind of good, maybe it will start people's day off better; but in a way it's kind of bad because some people don't have a religion and you can't force it on people," said 17-year-old Akila Baskin, a senior at North Hollywood High School. "Tell the Congress to come see what the real problems are, then see if prayer is the answer."

At Walter Reed Middle School, also in North Hollywood, a group of friends pondered the issue and concluded it was rife with thorny questions.

"You could make wishes!" said 12-year-old Portia Reddy, thinking aloud about what students could do during prayer time.

Her friend, Lana Keshishian, crinkled her brow and offered a retort. "You could do that on your own time," she said. Portia nodded grudgingly.

Will Garcia, 11, had another concern. "Say your best friend is in a religion and you're not, maybe he'd think bad things about you."

"It could cause a lot of problems," Will concluded.

As it stands, official Los Angeles Unified School District policy prohibits organized prayer at any district activity, including commencement exercises or the start of the school day. But in accordance with a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the district allows students to have religious clubs and prayer groups as extracurricular activities.

Other districts have similar policies. In the Las Virgenes Unified School District, Supt. Albert Marley said prayer is allowed only when it is "student initiated, student-led," at graduation and as an extracurricular activity. A similar policy exists in the Pasadena Unified School District.

In Los Angeles high schools, some students spoke hopefully about a welcome opportunity to pray or collect thoughts at the beginning of a hectic day. Others were indignant about what they said was an infringement upon the separation of church and state mandated by the Constitution. Still others wanted to know what practical results school prayer could have.

"They should talk to us and see what we want," said Akila, the North Hollywood senior, who said she is a Christian. "I would tell them I want better protection, a clean school, better teachers. Prayer is not my main concern."

At Taft High School in Woodland Hills, students recalled that twice in their school years they have been asked to participate in a moment of silence--both in times of tragedy. In 1992, they silently honored 15-year-old Taft student Lamoun Thames who had been stabbed to death across the street from school. At another time, they remembered a student who had committed suicide.

President Bill Clinton has said he would consider legislation calling for a moment of silence, but not for organized prayer.

But even during such somber moments, the Taft students said, some classmates used the time to goof around and laugh with friends, prompting questions about how seriously their classmates would take even a daily silent ritual.

"Everything is a big joke to kids and this would be a bigger joke," said 17-year-old Jessica Elbaum.

Monica Carrillo, 17, said a moment of silence could help hard-pressed students. "After a while maybe people would take it seriously," she said. "Maybe a moment of silence would do; everyone can pray to their own God and say whatever they have to say," Monica added.

Brad Jacoby, 15, tried another argument. "Who would an atheist pray to?" he asked. "They also pay tax dollars and it isn't fair."

Joe Ben-David walked away from the group, shaking his head at what he thought was a moot point. "Everyone carries a dollar bill--it says 'In God We Trust,' " he said. "Everyone says the Pledge of Allegiance--God is in that. Maybe it's not right, but we already do it anyways."

Students also talked about how their religious backgrounds influenced their opinions. Johnny Lee, a 16-year-old junior at North Hollywood, said he is a Christian. But he added that he considers his religion part of his private life. "I think that's where it should be," he said.

And Jessica Kim, 14, a member of the New Life Christian Club at Fairfax High School, said her religious convictions make voluntary prayer time unnecessary. "If some people have a problem with that moment of silence, then you don't need it," she said. "People like me will pray any time they need to."

Nicole Kamm, a 16-year-old North Hollywood student who is Jewish, said she would feel uncomfortable while other students prayed.

Echoing the fears of some religious leaders in the national debate, Nicole said she is wary of minutes-a-day school prayer at her desk because she thinks such an idea is rooted in Christian traditions. "Jewish people don't tend to pray in that manner," she said.

Back at Taft, student-body president Andrea Gryczman, 17, took a break from cleaning up after a school food fair to say she understood why people would want to introduce prayer as an antidote to student woes. But she added that she is unconvinced prayer alone would do her school much good.

"I don't think they're going to make religion mean something to people who aren't interested," Andrea said. "They're hoping it will make a difference, but I think it will cause more upheaval."

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