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Michael Jackson’s name to remain on L.A. school auditorium despite sex abuse claims

Michael Jackson’s name to remain on L.A. school auditorium despite sex abuse claims
Michael Jackson is fourth from the left in the front row in his sixth-grade class picture at Gardner Street Elementary. (Collection of Ken Urbina)

A Los Angeles elementary school that briefly counted pop star Michael Jackson as a student before he skyrocketed to fame has voted to keep his name on the auditorium in a decision that generated worldwide interest.

School district officials announced the result Saturday after a vote by parents and staff members at Gardner Street Elementary in Hollywood, where about 400 students are enrolled. A vote tally wasn’t immediately available.

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The vote took place in the wake of the March broadcast of the documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which aired on HBO and portrays Jackson through the eyes of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men who allege Jackson sexually abused them when they were children. Jackson was never charged with abusing either.

The broadcast was deeply unsettling for many at Gardner, and a group of parents told Principal Karen Hollis that they wanted Jackson’s name taken down. There also were parents who felt otherwise, noting that Jackson was never convicted of wrongdoing and cannot defend himself.

Jackson died in 2009 from an accidental drug overdose.

A spokesman for Jackson’s estate, which represents the interests of Jackson’s children, had urged the school community to respect the right of Jackson — like anyone else — to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Officials decided to put the matter to a vote of the school community in balloting that ended Thursday.

“A majority of those who participated voted to maintain the current name as the Michael Jackson Auditorium,” according to a statement issued by the Los Angeles Unified School District. “School leaders, teachers and support staff will focus on preventing any further disruptions to the school and further impact to classroom instruction, student learning and safety.”

News about the school’s decision spread rapidly over the weekend.

Gabrielle Dea, 30, a youth pastor in Atlanta, recalled visiting L.A. and overhearing other tourists talking about the auditorium.

“I found the school and the stranger I asked to take my picture would later go on to become my husband,” she said in an email.

“Quite honestly, there should be a world holiday celebrating this man,” said Dea, referring to Jackson’s charitable work. “What are we going to do? Dig up the body of a dead innocent black man and try him? This is a slippery slope that we dare not go down as a society. What lessons do our kids learn from this?”

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In a twist, Robson — one of Jackson’s accusers — told The Times this week that he, too, had attended Gardner. That was in the early 1990s, not long before Jackson was accused of improper conduct with another boy. Jackson settled that case out of court.

“We lived in Hollywood close to Gardner Street School, which is why I went there,” said Robson, whose family came from Australia to the United States so he could pursue a career as a child performer. “This was right after Michael Jackson sponsored me to the U.S. and while he was still sexually abusing me.”

Jackson was charged and acquitted in 2005 in a separate sexual abuse case involving another boy. During the criminal trial, Robson testified in Jackson’s defense that the singer had never been sexually inappropriate with him. He came forward with a different account after Jackson’s death, claiming he’d been sexually abused by Jackson as a boy.

“I commend Gardner Street School for allowing the parents to decide whether or not Michael Jackson’s name should remain on the auditorium,” Robson said before the results were announced.

Jackson attended Gardner as a sixth-grader after his family moved to Los Angeles from Gary, Ind., in 1969. Reports vary on how long he remained at the school. A former Gardner principal, Ken Urbina, who is retired, said his research indicates that Jackson was enrolled at the school for the entire year or close to it.

The Jackson 5 — comprising Michael and his four older brothers — scored a hit single not long after arriving in Los Angeles. Jackson did not return to public school after leaving Gardner.

The auditorium was named in his honor in 1989, a point at which Jackson’s public reputation was still essentially intact.

The invitation to Jackson came on something of a whim, from a group of parents who had worked hard to address substandard conditions at Gardner during a botched and long-delayed modernization project.

“On a Friday night, celebrating what we had accomplished, I said that we need to reward ourselves for all of our work,” said Judith Drury Mulryan. “We knew that Gardner Street was the last formal education Michael Jackson had, and as I recall, we decided to dedicate the auditorium to Michael. My ex-husband got in touch with Michael’s manager, who said Michael was thrilled.”

For more than a year during the mismanaged project, students had endured a lack of heat, closed bathrooms and an inaccessible library. But the district made sure the school was in tip-top shape for the ceremony.

Jackson was gracious, expressing his love for his 6th-grade teacher and autographing a chalkboard before he left.

Urbina was principal in 2003, when Jackson was charged with sexual abuse — and the school system covered Jackson’s name with plywood. Urbina was still at the school in 2010 — a year after Jackson’s death — when L.A. school district officials authorized displaying the foot-high letters of Jackson’s name once more.

“It’s important for the district to value the artistic impact and humanitarian contribution that will be the lasting legacy of Michael Jackson,” school board member Steve Zimmer said at the time. “I’m happy that we will be recognizing and appreciating Michael’s LAUSD moment.”

The school had converted its chalkboards to whiteboards, but Urbina saved the one Jackson had written on, trimming it to a smaller size “framed like a replica chalkboard for our 100-year celebration,” Urbina recalled this week.

During that period, Jackson’s supporters also contributed funds to create a music lab at the school — in the musician’s honor — where students could learn to play instruments and use software to compose. A subsequent principal quietly dismantled the lab.

Los Angeles Unified officials this week could not think of another elementary school auditorium that was named in honor of someone.

At least two Los Angeles high school auditoriums are named after donors who contributed to their renovation. But that was not the situation with Jackson and Gardner.

Over his career, Jackson donated millions of dollars to charity, although school district officials say they have no record of him making contributions to Gardner or other local public schools.

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A 1995 article referred to rose bushes that Jackson had provided to Gardner. Urbina remembers coming across framed pictures of Jackson that Jackson or his team had sent to the school.

L.A. Unified used to have a “naming” policy that was calculated to avoid embarrassment — it basically focused on honoring figures who already were dead and had well-established positive reputations. But the district frequently has strayed from the policy in recent years, sometimes exposing the school system to potential embarrassment regarding the names on its buildings.

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