District Calms Campus

Times Staff Writers

Authorities restored an uneasy calm to Washington Prep High School on Friday with a series of student assemblies, a much larger police presence and warnings that 150 students with the worst discipline problems may be transferred or expelled soon.

Officials also said they will crack down on students loitering in hallways and shut off campus soda machines to stop daytime sales of the kind of plastic bottles that were thrown at police during Thursday's lunchtime brawl, in which several students were injured and 11 were arrested.

Emotions remained strong Friday at the 3,800-student South Los Angeles school, where faculty members complained four months ago about a campus that was out of control because of robberies and drug use.

Parents and teachers complained that the school district is not doing enough to improve Washington Prep, where standardized test scores, while rising, still rank among the bottom 10th among schools in the state. Administrators and a majority of students said they are angry that their campus' achievements, such as magnet programs for college-bound students, honor students, a jazz band, talent shows and sports teams, are overshadowed by a relatively small group of troublemakers.

"They're making a mockery of our school," said Monique Payton, 16. "It's depressing to see this. It brings me down. It makes us look so bad."

Principal James Nobel vented his frustration during meetings with students in the school auditorium aimed at calming the situation and warning students that their behavior will be monitored.

"I am extremely angry," he said. "Why? Because the acts of a few impact the rest of the school.

"Yesterday was an embarrassment, an embarrassment, man," he added, shaking his head. "Yesterday was a bad day. We're going to put that behind us."

Nobel said the campus on South Denker Avenue between Inglewood and Watts was going to identify 150 students with persistent discipline problems. Their parents will be called in for meetings. Students who don't change their ways will be sent to other schools and those involved in Thursday's melee may face other discipline, ranging up to expulsion.

"I'm tired of those kids keeping us in the news," Nobel said during one of the assemblies. "They are history. We are going to do whatever we can to get them out. Those 150 students are counting their moments here."

Several students applauded as Nobel spoke.

Authorities descended on Washington Prep for a second day Friday to make sure there was no repetition of Thursday's violence.

Nine Los Angeles Unified School District police officers, more than four times the usual number, were stationed inside the campus' front gates, and their ranks swelled to 40 at lunchtime. An additional 16 staffers from the local school district office were on campus to increase the adult presence.

Sheriff's authorities said they do not believe Thursday's fight was gang-related, although the neighborhoods around Washington Prep are troubled by gang violence.

"It appears to be a normal school fight that erupted into a brawl," said Lt. Charlie Araujo, watch commander in the sheriff's Lennox station, which sent deputies to quell the incident.

A crowd of as many as 500 students tossed rocks and bottles at school police as they tried to stop a lunchtime fight in the open-air quad.

Some students and parents contended that baton-wielding officers used too much force Thursday but authorities denied those allegations.

Surveillance video cameras caught some of Thursday's action and officials said they would review the tapes to identify students involved in the violence and to investigate charges that deputies had overreacted.

Besides keeping some extra school police at the school at least through the middle of next week, the school district is expected to keep several additional administrators at Washington indefinitely.

Among them is Bill Elkins, who oversees high schools in much of South Los Angeles.

Elkins joined Nobel onstage for the student assemblies Friday to announce several other changes at the school. Students will no longer be allowed in hallways unless they have passes. And the enrollment in the school's three tracks of students will be evened out, starting July 1, so that overcrowding in "A" track classes, which run September through June, will be eased.

Elkins had a frank message for the students.

"You need to really do some self-analysis," he told one group. "Which side of the fence are you going to be on."

Elkins and Nobel also told students that soda machines would be turned off during the school day. The announcement was met with angry shrugs.

At lunchtime, about 500 students tried to walk off campus to protest the ban but were stopped by campus police and the school staff without incident. They soon returned to class.

In response to the teachers' complaint in November, district officials said they took steps to ensure that Washington is under control.

The district sent extra additional safety officers and aides to the school, and installed surveillance cameras. On Friday, it promised to do more.

"Can we bring order to Washington High School? Yes, we have to," school district Supt. Roy Romer said in an interview. "That is my commitment to every school in this district."

Romer said he couldn't guarantee a fight would "never happen again. But I will muster every resource I can to bring order."

Washington Prep teachers were skeptical, saying the campus was still out of control despite the added security measures.

About 50 teachers crammed into a classroom Friday for a meeting with leaders of their union. Many expressed frustration, saying the school administration had not acted aggressively enough. "I don't think enough work went into looking at that campus," John Perez, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, said after the meeting. "Teachers are telling us that things have not improved ... at Washington High School."

But some teachers said the problems on campus are a reflection of crime and social problems outside the school gates and that Washington Prep can't solve all those issues.

"I really wish someone would deal with the ice cream trucks that are selling crack. I really wish someone would really deal with the neighborhood. Because this is what these kids are bringing to school, this emotional baggage," said teacher Steve Johnson, who runs an in-school discipline program.

Beyond boosting security, Johnson said the school needs to add more psychologists and counselors to help young people cope with stress at home and on the streets. He said he had to file three child abuse reports in the last three weeks. "That's extraordinary, but not for this school," he said.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday March 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction Washington Prep -- An article in Saturday's California section about the Los Angeles Unified School District's efforts to improve conditions at Washington Prep High School, one day after a lunchtime brawl between students and law enforcement officials, misspelled the last name of the campus' principal, James Noble, as Nobel.
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