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Mayor to the schools: Can’t this be easier?

Times Staff Writer

The saga of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the high school tagger continued to unfold Thursday as the mayor voiced frustration about school district regulations he must follow if he wants to mentor the teenager.

Villaraigosa had offered to help the Santee High School student who scrawled graffiti on a bus that he and Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. David L. Brewer were riding earlier this week near the South L.A. campus. A photo of the incident appeared on the front page of The Times.

But before Villaraigosa can don his mentor cap, he must complete a one-page application, undergo a tuberculosis test, and submit to fingerprinting and an interview by the school’s principal -- procedures that can take as long as a month.

Villaraigosa, who has waged a fight to gain sway over the district, sees the procedures as yet more proof that L.A. Unified’s rules thwart even the best intentions.

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“It’s another example of a school district that does everything it can to refuse the assistance it needs to make our schools good,” Villaraigosa said.

Santee Principal Vince Carbino and his supervisors at district headquarters said the mayor -- no matter how responsible he may be -- must follow rules that are intended to ensure the safety of students.

“This is not about bureaucracy. This is not about politics. This is protecting kids,” said Donald L. Davis, Brewer’s chief of staff.

The dust-up provided fresh theatrics for one of Los Angeles’ most compelling story lines over the last year: the wrangling between Villaraigosa and school district leaders in the Legislature and the courts over his involvement in the district.

But one political analyst warned not to make too much of the minor tensions raised by the Santee tagging incident and Villaraigosa’s response.

“I would play this more as comedy than a true metaphor for their relationship,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor from Cal State Fullerton who has written extensively about the city. “It’s one of these moments when public life breaks down.”

Villaraigosa would join 2,000 mentors in the Los Angeles public schools if he were to follow through on his pledge to take the tagger known as Zoner under his wing. The volunteer corps includes movie stars and celebrities who have abided by the application rules with barely a peep, officials say.

Still, the head of the district’s School Volunteer Program offered to speed Villaraigosa’s application.

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“He really should go through the procedures, [but] I’m sure we can fast-track it if he were really interested,” said director Susan Snelgrove. “If he wants to serve, I would personally help him get through the steps as fast as possible.”

Villaraigosa offered no further details Thursday about his offer to mentor the Santee student, but he may have to wait a while to make good on it.

Carbino said the school’s psychiatric social worker would first spend several weeks working with the student. Then the student and his family must decide whether they want Villaraigosa in their lives.

“We have to listen to the child,” Carbino said. “We have to listen to the family.”

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Villaraigosa’s mentoring offer apparently received a cool reception Thursday from other Santee students.

Carbino said several approached him and voiced a common view that the mayor could do more good by making their neighborhoods safer and cleaner than by intervening in one teenager’s life.

Santee already has 40 to 50 mentors on campus any given week. Some with finance backgrounds give students lessons in financial planning and business skills. Health professionals focus on nutrition; others give drama or dance lessons.

Carbino said he was responsible for every adult who came on his campus. And he refused to back down on his demand that Villaraigosa undergo the same thorough assessment as others who work closely with Santee students.

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“Our charge is to help this student, educate him and change his behavior so he can graduate and become a successful adult,” Carbino said.

“That means following rules and best practices,” he said. “If we allow ourselves to be influenced by adult agendas, then we lower our ability to successfully serve our students.”

duke.helfand@latimes.com


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