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School Called ‘Out of Control’

Times Staff Writers

Students and teachers on Wednesday described Washington Prep High School as a place where youngsters are regularly beaten and robbed, students have sex and use drugs in corridors, and pleas for discipline go unheeded by administrators.

The problems have escalated at the campus to the point that teachers filed a written complaint to their union earlier this month that the school east of Hollywood Park is “OUT OF CONTROL.” In response, district Supt. Roy Romer vowed Wednesday to restore order within 30 days. He and his staff pledged to beef up security and increase the number of parent volunteers to monitor hallways and bathrooms.

“There are serious challenges. We need to change the atmosphere fairly quickly,” Romer said. “We’re simply not going to tolerate conditions in which we are not making improvement.”

Washington Prep, like a handful of other troubled high schools in Los Angeles, has struggled for years to maintain order and more recently to improve its test scores, which are among the lowest in the state. District officials appointed a new principal two years ago, and although he is credited with improving achievement, he has fallen short on matters of discipline, Romer said.

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Some parents said Wednesday that they fear for their children’s safety.

“I tell my daughter ... ‘Protect yourself however you can. Pack a knife if you have to,’ ” said Patricia Pruitt, whose 14-year-old daughter is a freshman. “I’ve visited the school and I’ve seen fights and people smoking weed on the second floor.”

Several students said they avoid parts of campus -- especially upper floor corridors -- for fear they will encounter their peers using drugs or engaging in sex.

One third-floor alcove has become notorious for illicit activity because its doors can be locked from the inside on either end, students said.

“You never know what you’re going to see on the third floor,” said Brandi Welch, the student body vice president whose Advance Placement psychology class is on that floor. “I didn’t know what marijuana smelled like until I came to Washington.”

Principal James Noble on Wednesday acknowledged some of the misbehavior.

“Students have been caught having sex from time to time, not just on the third floor but in other places,” he said.

After teachers’ concerns surfaced, Noble met at the school Tuesday night with about 300 parents to discuss the problems.

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“I fear for their safety,” said Jaffar Smith-El, whose 16-year-old daughter attends Washington. “It’s getting worse.”

Washington sits in one of Los Angeles Unified’s poorest communities, midway between Watts and Inglewood’s Hollywood Park. Nearly two-thirds of its 3,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches.

It is also one of L.A. Unified’s lowest performing campuses academically. Although its test scores improved last year, the school still ranks in the lowest band of schools on the state’s accountability system.

The disorder on campus is reflected in its suspension rate, one of the highest in L.A. Unified: Thirty-five percent of its students were suspended in the 2000-01 school year, compared with 13% for high schools districtwide. Washington is among a small group of Los Angeles high schools that have struggled with discipline and academics, and where district officials have pledged in recent years to make changes.

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Over the last two years, the district has replaced the principals at Washington and several of its neighbors, including Locke High, Manual Arts, Fremont, Dorsey and Crenshaw high schools.

Two of these campuses -- Fremont and Locke -- have faced extensive scrutiny and media coverage. They also have seen dramatic improvements after the district replaced administrators, stepped up discipline and introduced other measures to improve atmosphere. Officials hope to duplicate that success at Washington.

“We are really working at trying to change these schools,” Romer said. “It is not easy.”

Even as they acknowledged Washington’s many problems, Romer and others said it is unfair to hold the school responsible for crime and other difficulties that spill from the community onto campus.

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Noble, the principal, said that seven gangs operate in the immediate area and that rivalries have intensified lately. He said that some of Washington’s most recent troubles reflect this upsurge in activity.

“The outsider influence has grown,” Noble said. “We have people hopping the fence and coming in. There are a number of individuals who don’t belong on this campus.”

District officials said that parents themselves bear some responsibility for failing to ensure that their children arrive at school ready to learn.

“There is a lot more complexity to these things than this knee-jerk reaction to beat up on the principal, the administrators, the teachers and the school,” said Los Angeles school board member Genethia Hudley Hayes, who represents the area that includes Washington Prep.

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“The community has a piece of this. The students have a piece of this.”

In fact, Washington teachers have long complained about unruly hallways and classroom disruptions, but the problems came to a head earlier this month when their union, United Teachers-Los Angeles, received the anonymous letter outlining their concerns. The letter said that students are robbed and beaten daily, and that the campus is unsafe.

Last week, the union sent a letter to the district demanding increased security and other steps to halt “students roaming in packs and wreaking havoc” on the campus.

Union leaders, who met with teachers at the school Friday, said they witnessed fighting in the quad after lunch and dozens of students milling around after the bell had rung. “I saw at least three fights break out,” said union Vice President Bev Cook. “I didn’t think the students or the teachers were safe.”

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Washington staff members said in interviews Wednesday that the school lacks the administrative staff to handle discipline problems. The school’s assistant principal in charge of discipline transferred in September and was replaced only two weeks ago.

“This is like a lawless school,” said English teacher Genevieve Johnson. “Kids feel they can get away with things. There’s no real punishment for students.”

Some teachers blame Noble, now in his second year at Washington, for failing to maintain order. Several depicted him as a nice person with a soft touch.

Too soft, some students said Wednesday. They complained that Noble and his staff have not taken their concerns seriously.

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“It started to get out of control when Mr. Noble came in last year,” said Marvelette Calbert, 17. “We need much more discipline.”

District officials expressed confidence in Noble, saying that he has improved academics and that he will get help from district administrators to better oversee school operations.

Teachers and students said they only hope that the district’s sudden focus on maintaining order on campus lasts.

“If this school was like this every day,” said teachers union representative Annette Harrison, referring to the large-scale official presence on campus Wednesday, “we never would have had to raise the issue.”

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