A lot of press releases come across the desk, but there’s rarely been one quite as upsetting as a recent handout from a member of the Compton school board.
Michael L. Hopwood, believe it or not, objected to two of his colleagues awarding an honorary diploma to the late Corie Williams, 17, a graduation-bound senior who was mistakenly shot to death while riding home from school on an MTA bus. The killer, police say, is a kid with a bad aim who was trying to mow down a gang rival on the bus.
The incident would not be worthy of mention except for the fact that this sort of vicious, small-time political feuding has helped drive the Compton district to academic and financial disaster.
Classes are held without books. Many of the schools are literally falling apart. The state had to take over the bankrupt district three years ago.
Yet Hopwood found time and energy to send out a news release declaring that the board members, who are his political rivals, “acted illegally, fraudulently and irresponsibly by taking public action--without a vote of the board--to grant a diploma on behalf of the board and Centennial High without approval of the board at a legally required public meeting. . . .” He also used his news release to pose a series of questions about the dead girl, including saying, “Was it true that she did not have enough credits to graduate?”
This unseemly chapter began when the two school board members, President Saul Lankster and Basil Kimbrew, decided to pay tribute to Corie and her family by awarding her posthumously an honorary diploma declaring that Williams “was completing the course of study prescribed by the Board of Education.”
“I am a parent before I am a school board member, and it felt as though it was the right thing to do,” Lankster said. “‘I looked at Corie’s transcript. It reaffirmed she was on the track to graduation.”
I called Hopwood and asked him how he could possibly object to that.
He turned out to be a former Compton High School student body president who attended Arizona State University on an athletic scholarship, played professional basketball in Europe and is presently vice principal at Los Angeles’ Gompers Middle School.
He sounded like a well-intentioned man who can’t step away from the political feuding that has gripped the board and the city of Compton for many years.
“Every year, we have students in our district who die tragically, but to be fair to them and to all of the other students, I think we have to adhere to a higher standard, and that standard shouldn’t change because two board members want to seize the opportunity to profit in the media,” Hopwood said.
Hopwood is right about the death toll. And he’s correct when he says the district shouldn’t indiscriminately give certificates without discussion by the full board.
But, since his colleagues already rushed ahead to bestow the honor, why is he wasting time--at this crucial period in the district’s history--tangling with them and further tearing down the image of his beleaguered district? And why, in his press release, does he try to exploit Corie’s memory to attack his political rivals?
I talked about this with Corie’s mother, Loretta Thomas-Davis.
“Anyone who says anything negative about my child or anything she accomplished while she was on this earth is the lowest on earth,” she said.
“The diploma does not say she has completed anything. It says she was in the process of completing. I am really sick about this.
“What difference does it make?” she asked. “My child can’t use a diploma, can she? Even if they gave her one saying she completed all the courses, she couldn’t use it.”
Thomas-Davis felt bad that I was writing about the incident. She didn’t want her late daughter’s name involved in controversy. I told her that I felt Hopwood’s press release, which was distributed to L.A. area media, should be answered.
She said she understood. Ignoring the press release, she said, would be like seeing a crime and not doing anything about it.
Rather than inflicting more misery on Corie Williams’ family, Hopwood should join with the rest of the school board and pay tribute to every kid who is innocently killed going to and from a Compton school.
Going to most of those schools is an act of courage. It’s an act of faith for parents to send their children off to school each day.
And for what? To spend their days in ramshackle buildings that are cold and wet in winter and hot in summer? To try to learn without minimal supplies? To attend school from kindergarten through the 12th grade for a diploma blighted by the school district’s bad reputation?
Hopwood should join with the others and spend their time figuring out how to give the Compton diploma real worth.
That would be a real tribute to Corie Williams.