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School refuses to open its door on Halloween

It’s Halloween, but I can tell from a block away that the buffed-out gents guarding the door of Dominguez Elementary School aren’t in costume. Nope, they’re wearing real L.A. School Police uniforms, complete with handguns and cuffs.

Officers Ross and Steward politely tell me they were dispatched to keep me off campus at the request of the Los Angeles Unified School District. I politely remind them that I have every right to be on the public school campus and back up my assertion with a memo from outgoing Supt. Roy Romer.

They ask me to please wait for representatives from the local district office to arrive.

I nod, and watch as parents and children in fairy and superhero outfits shuffle through the door.

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Romer seems to have understood that transparency is a benchmark of good government and an absolute requisite for reform. He made inroads in educating his subordinates about the law. But as I stand chatting with the friendly cops, I’m reminded of something school critic David Abel says when he wants to send district mucky-mucks into conniptions. L.A. Unified, he declares, is East Germany before the Iron Curtain fell.

I suspect that this latest outbreak of petty bureaucratic power-tripping may stem from something I wrote last week. In that column, I chided the principals’ union, Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, for reflexively coming to the defense of a principal about whom I’d heard (and keep hearing) a chorus of complaints. Union President Mike O’Sullivan and administrator Dan Basalone told their colleagues to shun me.

As it happens, a few days before the column ran, a teachers union leader at Dominguez had invited me to the school to talk with his colleagues at an after-school meeting. He suggested I attend the annual Halloween parade as a way to get a look at the Carson campus. But someone from the district told Dominguez’s pleasant assistant principal, Amita Dave, not to let me on campus.

My children have put in a total of 32.5 years with this school district. I’ve probably attended more Pumpkin Fests and Harvest Carnivals than first-run movies. I loved them. But not so much that I’d subject myself to billy-clubbing or -- worse -- bureaucratic browbeating to attend another.

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On the other hand, I don’t think most parents, teachers and Times readers expect journalists to let themselves be bullied by public servants in need of a remedial civics course. Public access is critically important to any democratic institution. And public schools? These are the places we entrust with our children. Any teacher, principal, lunchroom aide or self-proclaimed Big Shot who thinks we’re going to send our kids through those gates without plenty of public scrutiny should be fitted for a dunce cap.

Aside from parents’ narrow experience with their own children, reporters are the only eyes, ears and noses people have to alert them when something smells -- which may be why the urge to keep journalists in the dark runs so deep.

Bad rules, for example, allow bureaucrats to protect stinko employees and hide their own incompetence with the phrase “that’s a personnel matter.”

And plenty of educators think they have the authority to decide what people are entitled to know about public schools. Charlene Hirotsu, at Thomas Starr King Middle School, for instance, is just one of the administrators who have told me I’m welcome on campus so long as my reportage is “positive.”

Meanwhile, the fact that administrators migrate from the school district to union jobs and back encourages cronyism. And cronyism breeds swaggering tyrants prone to delusions that they are above the law. Who knows? Some may even imagine they can blackball journalists who don’t toe the line.

Fortunately, the California Penal Code and the California Evidence Code are clear in stating that reporters have a statutory right of access to public schools. As the California Newspaper Assn.'s handbook on public access notes: “The Legislature expressly recognized the right of certain individuals, including journalists, to visit school grounds for ‘legitimate’ purposes and mandated that the legitimate exercise of constitutionally protected rights of free speech and expression not be infringed.”

Soon after arriving in the district six years ago, Romer showed that he understood the direct link between openness and reform by issuing a memo pointedly reminding everyone that a principal cannot keep a reporter off campus unless there is “reasonable and credible justification” for thinking the journalist’s presence will disrupt or threaten campus safety. Merely worrying that educational activities could be threatened by a reporter’s presence does not give a principal the right to say no, the memo says.

Of course, the district is notorious for not always getting word out to the troops, which may explain why Karen Saunders, one of two administrators who show up to try to keep me out of Dominguez, is unaware of the law or of Romer’s memo.

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What’s ironic is that spending time on a campus usually softens one’s view of public education. When the district’s emissaries finally “allow” me on campus -- did they really think those embarrassed-looking law enforcement pros were going to bust me for exercising my right to attend a Halloween parade? -- what I saw was swell. Although I question the fiscal responsibility of assigning district handlers to ride herd on a reporter at an event featuring the tune “Purple People Eater,” the three of us did have fun watching Supermen, scarecrows, Barbies and one dashing young Sherlock Holmes parade across the blacktop.

The incoming superintendent is good at firing up students with motivational chants. Maybe he can take a similar approach with the people who work for him.

Vince Carbino, principal of the Santee Education Complex in South L.A., has a slogan that might help folks understand the importance of public access and scrutiny.

Carbino strikes me as an effective educator (though I’m not done reporting yet).

Wouldn’t it be great if the new superintendent asked every employee to chant the motto Carbino’s mother impressed upon her boy: “Excellence fears no observation.”

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To discuss this column or the question “Does your school welcome public scrutiny?” visit latimes.com/schoolme. Bob Sipchen can be reached at bob.sipchen@latimes.com


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