Accountability Featured Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Former JROTC cadet at North High in Torrance says he was sodomized in hazing ritual

Rob Kuznia

 August 13, 2013 

In a legal battle that has quietly dragged on for three years, a former member of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at North High School is accusing the Torrance Unified School District of failing to take action after he reportedly was sodomized during a hazing ritual.

The plaintiff says that the JROTC instructor in charge found out about the alleged incident but, after a brief investigation, neglected to report the case to the police or his superiors at Torrance Unified.

The teen’s family decided to contact the Daily Breeze earlier this month because the former cadet turned 18 in late June.

“The story needs to be told,” said Ricardo Rodriguez, the accuser’s stepfather, who is acting as the family’s spokesman. “The teacher didn’t report it to the school principal, the campus police or anything. They are trying to make this thing hush-hush — under the table.”

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Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Torrance Daily Breeze wins two first and two second place awards from California Newspaper Publishers Association

Torrance Daily Breeze wins two first and two second place awards from California Newspaper Publishers Association

PUBLISHED: May 3, 2014 at 6:26 pm | UPDATED: September 6, 2017 at 6:28 am
The Los Angeles News Group, which includes the Daily Breeze, captured 10 first place and 11 second place awards announced at the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s annual awards banquet in San Jose on Saturday.

The Daily Breeze in Torrance won two first and two second place awards.

The annual journalism contest honors the best work in the state for 2013. LANG received 37 awards over the four circulation categories in which it competed.

“The journalists of the Los Angeles News Group are deeply committed to serving our communities, and having such a broad array of work recognized is a testament of how seriously that mission is undertaken each day,” said Michael A. Anastasi, LANG’s vice president of news and executive editor.

“Both Publisher Ron Hasse and I are very proud of our colleagues.”

The Daily Breeze was honored in the large circulation category for the following stories:

•First place: Coverage of Local Government, Lennox School District dysfunction. Rob Kuznia.

•Second place: Agricultural Reporting, 48 Hours. Brian Sumers.

•Second place: Best Sports Story, 25 years since the Wayne Gretzky trade changed hockey forever. Elliott Teaford.

•First place: Graphic Illustration, Gang Injunctions. Paul Penzella.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Pay to Play Politics in Tiny School District

Pay to Play: Construction firm TELACU bankrolling Centinela Valley school board campaigns, receiving millions in contracts


Feb. 19, 2014

For a couple of moms from working-class families hoping to retain their seats on the Centinela Valley school board, it was a stark lesson in machine politics.

In a small room at the Proud Bird restaurant near LAX, a group of maybe 15 had gathered to support board members Sandra Suarez and Gloria Ramos. Nearly everyone sharing finger foods that day was connected to a community development corporation called TELACU, which bills itself as the fifth largest Latino-owned business in California.

There were architects, lawyers, consultants. And high-powered figures from TELACU itself. Everyone in attendance wrote out two checks for $99 — the highest amount that can go unreported in campaign filings — one for Suarez, one for Ramos.

Donors included President and CEO David Lizarraga, who at the time was chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and has since been appointed by President Barack Obama to a key administrative post in the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Also included was John Clem, the TELACU executive who heads up all the construction projects in the Centinela district, as well as the wives of both men.

All for two women in a tiny district that oversees just three comprehensive high schools in Lawndale and Hawthorne.

“It was kind of odd,” Suarez said. “They were giving us money — I’m not used to any of that. … To tell you the truth, I didn’t even realize they were giving for us at first.”

The event was a window into the political machine that has been picking leaders in the tiny district since 2008. In the two past contested elections, TELACU has poured large amounts of money into campaigns to elect their favored candidates who almost always win.

TELACU won, too. Since 2008, the TELACU-backed Centinela Valley school board has put two construction bond measures on the ballot totaling nearly $200 million. Voters approved both, and TELACU was awarded contracts to manage the construction projects.

Clem, president of TELACU Construction Management, did not return calls from the Daily Breeze on Tuesday and Wednesday. But Centinela Valley officials have pointed out that as a result of the two successful bond measures — one in 2008, another in 2010 — major face-lifts have occurred or are in the pipeline for all three campuses. The projects have replaced old, sometimes crumbling facilities with state-of-the-art classroom wings, media centers, offices and commons areas.

Critics, on the other hand, say the whole thing smacks of a money grab for the interested parties at the expense of the taxpayers.

“The problem with Centinela Valley, and so many school districts and community colleges, is that they have become bond-passing machines that milk the public to pay for lavish construction projects, outrageous salaries and terrible loans,” said Mariano Vasquez, the plaintiff in a lawsuit opposing a recently passed parcel tax floated by Centinela Valley and four feeder elementary school districts.

“This causes a very harmful misallocation of scarce resources and capital that slowly brings ruin to the town.”

In recent weeks, Superintendent Jose Fernandez — who took the helm roughly at the same time that TELACU began exerting its influence in Centinela — has said publicly that the district intends to try for a third construction bond. This announcement came just days before a Feb. 9 story in the Daily Breeze revealed that Fernandez amassed more than $663,000 in total compensation last year. At least $215,000 of that came from a one-time expense, but Fernandez — in exercising another generous provision of his contract — also has taken a $910,000 loan from the school district to purchase a home in Ladera Heights. He has 40 years to pay it off, at 2 percent interest — an unusually favorable set of terms.

TELACU first demonstrated its ability to influence the outcomes of Centinela Valley school board elections in 2009. The company donated $28,000 to a political action committee called Citizens for Better Schools, according to campaign finance reports obtained from the Los Angeles County Register-Recorder’s Office. Citizens For Better Schools, in turn, dished out $55,000 to purchase mailers and other promotional materials touting three candidates: Rocio Pizano, Hugo Rojas and Maritza Molina.

(By comparison, Pizano’s election committee raised $5,000, according to the documents. Rojas and Molina apparently raised no money.)

Pizano was an incumbent. But Rojas, a karate instructor and former Hawthorne school board member with at least two DUIs on his record — and Molina — then a 23-year-old recent college graduate — ousted two incumbents with education credentials. One of them, Rudy Salas, is the principal at Hawthorne Middle School. The other, Frank Talavera, is an educator who at the time was teaching at Gardena High School. Both opposed an effort to put a bond measure on the ballot in 2008.

Sources say those two board members were controversial as well and had a vindictive streak. Salas declined to be interviewed; Talavera couldn’t be reached.

In his ballot statement that year, Talavera wrote that his experience “will help me guide the district in a more positive direction where students are the PRIORITY and not buildings or superficial fix-ups.”

TELACU’s preferred candidates were triumphant. In December 2009 — a month after the election — the new school board unanimously approved Fernandez’s generous employment contract. Not long after, the board voted to put another $98 million bond measure on the ballot. In November 2010, the voting public gave its assent.

The initiative raised eyebrows on the Lawndale City Council.

“I think it’s outrageous they do this in low-income communities,” Councilman Larry Rudolph said. “What are we getting for it? I don’t see anything except for these big fancy buildings. I don’t see how they are going to make the kids any smarter.”

Rudolph added that in his own elections, he does not accept campaign contributions. “I wouldn’t want to be in debt to anybody,” he said. “I don’t have to do anything but vote my conscience.”

Although it is common for big construction companies to make financial contributions for the passage of bond measures, it is rare for them to put up money for individual school board candidates — at least in the South Bay.

“In our case, I doubt anybody got a dime,” said Jane Diehl, a former longtime school board member in the Redondo Beach Unified School District. Diehl was on the board when voters in the district approved a $145 million construction bond measure in 2008. That project has been managed by the company Balfour Beatty.

“Most of the school board elections in Redondo are pretty sparse,” she added, saying candidates there generally raise around $8,000. “If you want to win, you gotta walk” and knock on doors.

Mark Steffen, president of the Torrance school board, said he believes the same is true in Torrance Unified, where voters approved a $355 million pair of bond measures in 2008.

Balfour Beatty manages those projects as well.

“They’ve never offered, nor have I sought out dollars from them,” Steffen said.

In the Centinela Valley school district — which oversees Lawndale, Leuzinger and Hawthorne high schools — TELACU hasn’t been the only heavy contributor to election campaigns.

In 2011, the investment firm Piper Jaffray of Minneapolis contributed $25,000 to Citizens for Better Schools, donating much of that to TELACU’s favored candidates. The two firms have combined forces elsewhere in support of school bond measures, including a 2010 bid in Claremont. Piper Jaffray contributed $25,000 to that campaign, and TELACU $20,000.

Also contributing to Centinela’s 2010 effort to get a construction bond measure passed were law firms such as Dannis, Woliver, Kelley — which has a lucrative contract with the school district. (It donated $7,500.) Another law firm gave $5,000.

The event at the Proud Bird back in the summer of 2010 was a campaign fundraiser for the 2011 school board race. It was early in the game, and things wound up taking an unexpected twist — both Suarez and Ramos fell out of favor.

It so happens that Suarez is big on historic preservation. When it came to her attention that the bond measure called for knocking down much of Leuzinger High, she began to have doubts. By October 2010 — a few months after the fundraiser — she was fully opposed, and speaking out publicly.

It’s less clear why the construction company ended its support of Ramos. But she — unlike the other three members — was generally known for occasionally voicing dissent on district matters.

In any event, Citizens for Better Schools found two new candidates to support: banking executive Lorena Gonzalez, who was challenging Suarez; and Ugo Felizzola II, a 24-year-old financial analyst who was trying to unseat Ramos.

This time, the political action committee spent $82,000 on its campaign favoring those candidates. Once again, TELACU made a sizable donation; records show it contributed at least $10,000. (This was the race in which Piper Jaffray pitched in $25,000.)

Because none of that money went to the candidates directly, they did not have to report the support. The committee spent at least $26,486 on each candidate. The money paid for slate mailers, door hangers, brochures and campaign signs, among other things, according to documents.

A political consultant closely aligned with TELACU met with leaders of the teachers union to request that they endorse the two political newcomers. The union declined, opting instead to endorse nobody.

The effort to oust Suarez was a success; Ramos managed to eke out a victory over the young Felizzola.

Suarez says that prior to the election, Fernandez sometimes took her and other board members to fancy restaurants such as Houston’s in Manhattan Beach. The tab, she said, was often picked up by a law firm or by TELACU.

She later took her husband to Houston’s, not knowing the prices.

“When we looked at the menu, we realized what they were, and we looked at each other,” she said.

They ordered an appetizer, ate it quickly and left.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

Home school no longer just for the deeply religious, enters mainstream

Home school no longer just for the deeply religious, enters mainstream

Published Sept. 27, 2013


When he was a toddler, Joseph Biner of Westchester was shy and withdrawn. And yet he couldn’t sit still in a chair for any length of time.

His mother, Patty Biner, began to dread the prospect of sending him off to kindergarten.

“I wanted to find a more constructive way to teach him,” she said. “I didn’t want to just throw him to the wolves.”

Kids might bully him. Counselors might label him.

“I’m sure they would want to say he has ADHD and put him on medication,” she said. “I think most ADHDs are just boys being boys.”

Patty and her husband, George, decided to home-school their child. In doing so, they joined a rapidly expanding movement.

Once primarily the domain of the Christian right or the far left, home schooling is increasingly appealing to families that don’t consider themselves deeply religious or ideological.

The practice instead appears to be entering a new phase of mainstream attention, attracting greater numbers of people who are most concerned about subjecting their kids to the pitfalls of the traditional school environment: standardized testing, peer pressure, bullying and even violence.

Related story: Home-schooling families take play seriously

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released its five-year report on home schooling. Among its findings: the number of home-schooled students ages 5 to 17 in the United States has jumped 17 percent since the last study in 2007 — to a record 1.77 million students. That represents about 3.4 percent of all the nation’s K-12 students.

Meanwhile, the proportion of K-12 students who are attending private schools has shrunk in a decade, from 12 percent to 10 percent.

Pam Sorooshian, who co-founded a group for home-schoolers in Long Beach called Dragon Tree, said the home-schooling option is no longer perceived as bizarre in the way it was when she was home-schooling her three daughters, now all in their 20s. (Two are college graduates and the third is a senior at Cal State Northridge.)

“When we first started home schooling, people would kind of look at us blankly,” said Sorooshian, an economics professor at Cypress College in Orange County. “They’d say, ‘What? Can you do that?’ Now, they say, ‘Oh yes, my niece home-schools,’ or ‘my nephew home-schools.’ Everybody knows somebody who does it.”

As home schooling enters the mainstream, it is also becoming more secular, according to the survey.

Every five years, the Department of Education asks respondents to cite the most important reason driving their decision to home-school. In 2007, the one cited by the highest proportion of parents — more than a third — was “a desire to provide religious or moral instruction.” But the share of those parents has shrunk since then, from 36 percent to 21 percent.

Now, the plurality belongs to the 25 percent who say their chief reason for home schooling is a concern about the traditional school environment, specifically as it relates to “safety, drugs and negative peer pressure.”

To be sure, a large share of families still home-school for religious or moral reasons. By the study’s count, nearly two-thirds of the families included “a desire to provide religious instruction” among their three top reasons for home schooling. But even here, that figure is eclipsed by the 91 percent of families who selected “school environment” among their top three reasons.

By the survey’s reckoning, the growth of the home-school movement has been meteoric, doubling since 1999.

Joseph Murphy, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee — and a leading expert on home schooling — believes the growth will soon level off.

“Most home-schooled households have a mom who stays at home,” he said. “There are only so many people in the country that can afford to take a breadwinner out of the box.”

Data hard to track

In any case, reliable statistics on home schooling can be difficult to find.

The U.S. Department of Education’s figures must be viewed with a careful eye because the methodology changed from conducting random surveys by land-line telephone — which fewer and fewer people have — to sending them out randomly via mail.

In California, the statistics are even fuzzier. That’s because, technically, there is no such thing as home schooling in California. Here, it is done in several ways. Families that go it alone must establish what amounts to a miniature private school. They can hire a credentialed teacher to tutor their child. Or they can home-school through an independent study or online program sponsored by a public school.

While the California Department of Education keeps a tally of private schools in the state, it omits from the count any private school with fewer than six students — and in so doing neglects to track the number of home-schoolers.

As is required of private-school operators, home-school families that opt to become mini private schools need only fill out an online form every October. This is called a “private school affidavit,” and amounts to a notification to the state that the school exists. The affidavit includes a verbal pledge, agreed to under penalty of perjury, to offer the same general branches of instruction that students get in traditional public schools.

“You can’t be teaching basketball all day, or dance,” Sorooshian said. “To be honest, there is nobody who is authorized to check on that. We don’t report to anybody. We have a lot of freedom to do things the way we want to.”

Though K-12 home schooling is becoming more mainstream, it isn’t being treated as such by all four-year universities.

Some advocates single out the University of California as especially unfriendly to the home-school movement.

“I have people who talk to me about getting into college after high school, and I always have to warn them about UC,” said Wes Beach, a home-school advocate in Santa Cruz County who serves as a kind of guidance counselor for home-schoolers. “There just isn’t a way unless you get really high test scores.”

Beach said he’s worked with only one home-schooled student who went straight to a UC campus (Santa Cruz) as a freshman.

The reason: The UC system has strict guidelines on the coursework that must be completed before students are eligible to apply. Those courses — known in education circles as the “A through G requirements” — in essence need UC’s stamp of approval.

Conversely, home-schoolers often don’t draw a bright line between subject areas, instead favoring an approach that allows the interests of the child to drive instruction.

Julian Sharisi, who grew up in Long Beach but is now a student at the private Sarah Lawrence College in New York, remembers a typical school day during his high school years. He would wake up between 9 and 11 a.m., eat breakfast and then read whatever interested him. Class for that day might include a private piano or cello lesson, a dance or acting class, or a trip to a museum or play.

“I never really liked math or algebra; I didn’t see the point — I wasn’t particularly good at it,” Sharisi said. Then he got into music theory and computer science. “Suddenly, I have a passion for math and physics,” he said.

Beach says the one exception to the UC system’s impenetrability is UC Riverside. About five years ago at that campus, a group of professors whose children were home-schooled lobbied the administration to create a separate set of guidelines for such students. To this day, the campus has a committee of professors — many of them current or former home-school parents — that vets home-school applicants.

Many home-schoolers skirt the point-of-entry challenge by taking two years’ worth of community college credits, thereby rendering their high school transcript moot — and enabling them to transfer into four-year universities as juniors.

That’s what Sorooshian’s daughters did. All three went to Cal State schools. One is working as an adjunct professor at Cal State Long Beach.

Sorooshian isn’t really among the wave of more mainstream families. A statistician by trade, she’s a self-described hippie at heart.

Sorooshian subscribes to a form of home schooling called “un-schooling,” which some view to be radical, though she believes the method is widely misunderstood. The idea is to let the child’s interests or real-world applications drive instruction, rather than textbooks and curriculum.

When one of her daughters was 5, for instance, rather than make her fill out worksheets that teach the concept of counting money and making change, Sorooshian might instead have taken her to a bakery, given her a $20 bill to purchase a cookie, and then asked her how much money she should expect to get back.

The Biners, meanwhile, lean toward the libertarian end of the political spectrum. Their concerns had less to do with countering the establishment and more to do with the school environment. In a sense, their trail was blazed by Patty Biner’s brother, who pulled his son out of school long before Patty’s eldest child was of school age. The reason? The boy had been held at knife-point in a middle-school bathroom.

“The principal did nothing,” she said. “The teachers did nothing.”

Patty’s oldest son, Joseph, is 14, and now attends Da Vinci Science charter high school, which has no home-school component.

“He tested very well,” said Biner, a stay-at-home mom with a master’s degree in engineering. (Her husband is an engineer.) “His advisory teacher was shocked to find out he was home schooling his whole life.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Schools Rein in Valedictorian Race


Schools Rein in Valedictorian Race

Hypercompetition has led some to scrap title or give it to all with a 4.0.

June 5, 2011


There was a time when selecting a high school valedictorian was a straightforward affair: He or she with the top GPA in the class was appropriately crowned, and tasked with delivering the Big Speech.

But these are hypercompetitive times, and while many high schools in the South Bay and beyond still abide by the old tradition, more and more are taking another approach.

At El Segundo High, for instance, administrators this year officially scrapped the valedictorian title, although a student will still give a valedictory address. Other schools – such as Palos Verdes Peninsula High, Palos Verdes High and Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach – confer the title on anyone with a 4.0 or better. At these schools – which have actually stuck by this policy for years – there will be 30, 32 and 11 valedictorians , respectively. That’s 73 valedictorians for three schools.

The race to the top of the class sometimes breeds a bottom-line approach to learning, with students emphasizing GPA over educational enrichment. The cutthroat competition can damage friendships, provoke back-biting and even lead to lawsuits.

Jim Garza, the longtime principal at El Segundo High, said it got to the point at his school where the valedictorian selection process was doing more harm than good. Students were edging each other out by one-one-thousandth of a point, and being strategic about which classes they took, often forgoing electives for classes that maximized GPA.

“Last year, there were students who stopped speaking to each other,” he said. “It hurt some feelings and created some disharmony. That’s not what this is supposed to be.”

Occasionally, it gets even more serious. Last year, the No. 2 student at a high school in Rio Grande City, Texas, sued the school district over the way in which the GPAs were calculated. (She later withdrew the lawsuit.) Several years ago in New Jersey, a valedictorian sued after the high school tried to take away her sole honors amid complaints that she’d benefited from accommodations as a special education student. She won.

The competition for the title isn’t just about bragging rights – real resources are at stake. At UCLA, although earning the valedictorian title is not an official criterion in the admissions process, “evidence of achievement” is. And what is the valedictorian title if not evidence of achievement?

“I would say that it looks good,” said Rosa Pimentel, associate director of admissions at UCLA. But she added that the school takes a holistic approach to admissions, and being valedictorian is just one of many signs that a student is driven and successful. “We do turn down valedictorians , because there are so many.”

El Segundo High isn’t the only South Bay school to change its valedictorian policy in recent years.

Bishop Montgomery, a Catholic high school in Torrance, broke with tradition four years ago, bestowing the top title to all students who earn a weighted GPA of 4.5 or higher. (A weighted GPA is one that can go above a 4.0 because of exemplary performance in advanced courses.) This year, the school has 11 valedictorians .

Doug Mitchell, Bishop’s head guidance counselor, said the old way created an environment in which many high-achievers were afraid to experiment with courses that weren’t part of the advanced curriculum, for fear of tarnishing their flawless GPAs. For example, getting an A in art – which has no advanced placement component – could actually have the effect of dragging down a weighted GPA, perhaps from a 4.8 to a 4.7, he said.

“A’s weren’t good enough for some of these kids, and we don’t want that,” Mitchell said. “We don’t want kids to damage their educational experience just to compete for a prize.”

This year, Narbonne High in Harbor City eliminated the single- valedictorian tradition in favor of naming five valedictorians – one for each of Narbonne’s schools-within-a-school, also known as small learning communities. Before, the award invariably went to the top student in one of those communities: the math-science magnet. Top students in other communities – such as performing arts, health care studies and business – weren’t as celebrated.

“We thought this would give us a chance to diversify the type of student who gets the recognition,” said Bo Mee Kim, Narbonne’s college counselor.

At El Segundo High, all students who achieved a GPA of 4.0 or above could audition to give the speech. But officially, there is no valedictorian .

(In another sign of the times, the number of students with a 4.0 or better at El Segundo High has doubled in eight years, to around 40 – or 13 percent of the class, Garza said.)

Of the seven students who tried out, the winner – Cara de Freitas Bart – has many of the hallmarks of a valedictorian . She’s well spoken and driven, with an academic GPA of 4.7. (Officially, it’s 4.6897, she said.) Next year, Cara will attend Princeton, where she plans to major in math.

She learned she won the audition via email, while staying in the dorms at Stanford University, where she was visiting. She screamed for joy.

“Then the whole hall comes in and says, ‘Congratulations,”‘ she said. “It led into a discussion about how, at Stanford, half the students are valedictorians and the other half are salutatorians.”

At the age of 12, Cara ran her first marathon. Since then, she’s run 10 more, plus 11 half-marathons. As a freshman, Cara, like all students at El Segundo High, wrote herself a letter that she finally received a couple weeks ago. In hers, the younger Cara predicted that her older self, by the time she read the letter, would be valedictorian , and preparing to head to an Ivy League school.

Cara said she generally agrees with the new rules, noting how she herself got dinged for taking extracurricular activities like marching band. But she said there is at least one drawback: In prior years, the school’s marquee listed the names of the top 10 students. Now it bears only her name.

“I would like my fellow classmates who have worked similarly hard to be recognized,” she said.

Other local schools have hewed to the tradition of awarding the title to the top-ranked student. Among them is North High School in Torrance.

This year’s winner, Sarah Baik, said striving to maintain that top spot was a good motivator to keep up the intensity. But she said it has its down sides.

“It was kind of uncomfortable for me,” said Sarah, a chipper student who excels in science but also likes to write short stories. “After a while I just became a number. … It’s like I’m not a person anymore, just a robot.”

But even at North, the valedictory address is not necessarily delivered by the valedictorian . Instead, students audition for the honor. Sarah, who plans to study biochemistry at USC, gave it a shot, but lost out to the same student she edged out for the valedictorian title.

“It’s hard standing up and seeing all those people – I keep stuttering over my words,” said Sarah, who finished her high school career with a 4.72 GPA.

“My rival, he got it. Ahh!” she said, with a laugh.

rob. kuznia

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Active-shooter drills on the rise at K-12 schools in the wake of Sandy Hook massacre

Active-shooter drills on the rise at K-12 schools in the wake of Sandy Hook massacre

June 8, 2013


One morning in early April, on the grounds of Richard Gahr High School in Cerritos, the crack of at least 100 gunshots pierced the calm. A few explosions shook the ground.

A few weeks later, at a K-12 charter school in rural Oregon, two masked gunmen burst into a gathering of teachers during a staff-development day. They took aim at the unsuspecting faculty members and opened fire. Bam! Bam! Bam! The shots went off like firecrackers.

In both situations, the bullets were blanks, and the gunmen were law enforcement officers or volunteers conducting a drill.

Had they occurred on the prior side of Dec. 14, 2012, these events might have seemed excessive. It’s easy to imagine how the drill in Cerritos might have raised some eyebrows — the media spectacle involved, the use of not only simulated rounds and flash grenades, but also hundreds of people, including clergy members, local business leaders, community safety volunteers and even students drenched in fake blood. And it’s difficult to imagine that the Oregon drill — a complete surprise attack that left teachers terrified — would have happened at all.

But the landscape has shifted since those five awful minutes at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, when a heavily armed gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, rampaged through the halls, killing 20 students and six adults at point-blank range before turning a gun on himself.

Adding to the sense of heightened alert was Friday’s deadly school shooting at Santa Monica College, the latest scene of an all-too-familiar tableau: police running to and fro with guns, dazed students being interviewed, emergency vehicles racing around with lights flashing.

The news cycle after these bloody outbursts tends to go from hot to cold on short order, but their imprint on the way communities approach school safety has been steadily rippling outward — especially since the Sandy Hook tragedy six months ago.

That horrific piece of American history has cast a spotlight on a certain type of school-safety exercise that, until now, most K-12 schools didn’t really have the stomach to adopt: the active-shooter drill.

“It’s a hard thing because teachers are teachers — they want to teach,” said Kit Bobko, mayor of Hermosa Beach, where the Police Department may soon begin active-shooter drills in the schools. “They don’t want to have to think about, ‘Oh my gosh, if a guy with a shotgun comes into my room, what am I going to do?’ … But we need to have some sort of plan in place.”

Though colleges had been more apt to conduct elaborate versions of the shooter drills before Sandy Hook, the unthinkable carnage in Connecticut has spurred many K-12 schools in the Los Angeles Basin and beyond to follow suit.

Sandy Hook has given rise to other safety measures, too — such as doubling down on counselor hours, installing more cameras on campus or prohibiting parents and the general public from walking onto the premises. But the active-shooter drill could prove to be the tragedy’s most visible legacy.

Active-shooter drills — or intruder-on-campus exercises, as some officials prefer to call them — are similar to the lockdown drills that many schools have long practiced, wherein students and teachers hunker down in the classroom with the doors locked and blinds drawn.

The active-shooter drill is a variation on the theme, but with the creepy factor kicked up a notch.

To be sure, most K-12 schools don’t favor the showy version of the drill showcased this spring at Gahr High. But they often do incorporate the impersonation of a bad guy. Usually, this is a member of law enforcement who roams around campus, jiggling door handles and peering into windows.

Essentially, this new focus marks a shift in mindset, from keeping intruders off campus to dealing with an undesirable who is on campus.

Largely because state law doesn’t require such exercises — as is, schools are required only to conduct earthquake and fire drills — the methods of preparing for the nightmare scenario vary by district.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, administrators this summer will, for the first time, be required to attend training on how to handle an active-shooter situation. Heretofore, the training has been geared toward lockdowns, said Steve Zipperman, chief of the LAUSD police department.

“If an active shooter is on campus, perhaps a lockdown isn’t the best option,” he said, adding that the appropriate response “may involve quick relocations to different locations, either on or off campus.”

LAUSD also has beefed up security. In the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, the district allocated $4.2 million to hire 1,000-plus safety aides to guard elementary schools.

In Long Beach Unified, where all 90 schools are required to conduct a lockdown drill every fall, the tragedy prompted the district to compel each school to have another go at it. This time, though, law enforcement officials and administrators wandered the campuses, clipboards in hand, turning the door latches and checking the windows.

In Torrance Unified, schools this spring introduced new elements to the lockdown drills they’d long been practicing. For one, schools there now use the term “intruder on campus.” Also, the drills have introduced the novel concept of taking flight when necessary.

At the K-8 Hermosa Beach school district, officers may soon storm elementary school campuses toting guns loaded with paint-ball munitions, revealing who has been “shot.” The student body wouldn’t be involved in the paint-ball drills, which could begin this summer, but teachers might be, as well as selected students — perhaps members of a Boy Scout troop, Bobko said.

In addition, the city and school district could begin conducting age-appropriate, active-shooter drills for the entire student body in 2014.

At Cal State Northridge, the campus police department has been practicing active-shooter drills for nearly a decade, said Anne Glavin, the university’s chief of police.

The campus actually hosted a drill just a week after Sandy Hook, but it had been planned for months. The participating students were deaf — Cal State Northridge has a robust program for this population — which gave officers a sense of how to handle the potential curve ball of directing students who can’t communicate verbally.

Glavin also teaches a workplace violence program on campus that, among other things, instructs staff and faculty on how to spot potentially violent students.

“When we’re talking about red flags, one sign alone might not be a problem, but when you start getting two, three and four, that’s a concern,” she said.

Warning signs could include a person who has a fascination with weapons, or a student whose papers often involve murder and mayhem, she said.

Some officials believe public schools in California are way behind the curve when it comes to preparing for campus violence.

Manhattan Beach police Officer Stephanie Martin points out that while schools are required by law to conduct fire drills, the number of school-fire fatalities over the past 50 years is zero. (The last deadly school fire happened on Dec. 1, 1958, when a massive blaze claimed the lives of 92 students and three nuns at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago.)

“In California, schools aren’t mandated to do lockdown drills and that’s a travesty,” she said. “Fires aren’t killing our kids; violence is killing our kids.”

Indeed, Sandy Hook wasn’t the only school shooting in 2012. There were at least three others in the United States, as well as 13 other mass shootings. In all last year, 88 people died in the 16 shootings.

State Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Redondo Beach, has long been sounding the alarm on school-safety plans, noting that as late as 2009, roughly a third of all middle schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District didn’t even have one.

For years, he’s been trying to pass a bill to crack down on the inaction. Since 2007, he has introduced it four times, never successfully, Lieu’s aides say. The reasons? Too expensive. Too onerous.

In a sign that times have truly changed, Lieu introduced the bill for a fifth time after the Sandy Hook shooting, and it appears to be sailing through. Senate Bill 49 was unanimously approved in the Senate on May 29, and now must go before the Assembly.

The bill puts the California Department of Education in charge of ensuring that all schools have a safety plan. It also requires the plans themselves to include procedures related to active-shooter and terrorist events.

Some procedures for dealing with an armed lunatic on campus might sound obvious, but are easy to forget in the heat of a crisis, Lieu said.

“Say you have an active-shooter situation and you’re trying to keep your classroom quiet,” Lieu said. “With all the adrenaline pumping, you might not think to turn off the volume on your cellphone. Maybe you think to lock the door, but not to barricade it shut with your desk.”

School safety experts also recommend that, should an intruder barge in, office personnel get on the school intercom and use direct — even blunt — language about what is happening.

“Use simple language — no coded language,” said Susan Chaides, who, as the project director over the safe-schools division of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, trains school administrators on school safety. “Say: ‘There is an intruder — an armed intruder.’ It doesn’t matter if they (the intruder) can hear.”

(During the Sandy Hook massacre, a quick-thinking employee in the office flipped on the loudspeakers, capturing the horror but likely saving many lives.)

Also blurry is the line that separates adequate preparation on the part of school districts and hysteria.

The month after the Sandy Hook shooting, a school board in Montpelier, Ohio, approved a plan to arm the custodial staff with handguns. In April, a school district in Minnesota purchased bulletproof whiteboards that could be used as a shield to protect teachers.

Chris Bentley, the former president of the Hesperia Unified school board, the High Desert’s largest school district with 21,000 students, is skeptical of heavily armed school police forces and the now-popular, active-shooter drills.

Bentley cited the U.S. Secret Service’s 2002 Safe Schools Initiative report prepared in response to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. (

“There’s 10 key findings that they have,” he said. Among them: ” ‘Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention.’ ”

Bentley, a father of four school-age children and a former Marine, would rather have school faculty and staff trained on how to deal with these emergencies.

“When push comes to shove, I want somebody to have a cool head in the classroom, as we hear all the hero stories coming out of Sandy Hook and wherever,” he said. “Yes, the cavalry’s going to get there, but it’s going to take time.”

Fontana Unified made national headlines in January when the district bought 14 military-style rifles to arm the district’s police force. Bentley believes that was likely an expensive waste of their time.

“If you’re going to buy high-powered rifles, you need to be trained on them, on a pretty regular basis,” said Bentley, a former Marine. “It’s not just like your sidearm.”

The suspect in the Santa Monica shootings was ultimately confronted by two Santa Monica police officers, and one officer from Santa Monica College, who exchanged gunfire with him in the campus library, ultimately killing him.

Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks said the officers used their training, which had in part been developed through studying other mass shootings.

“The Santa Monica Police Department co-trains with the Santa Monica Community College Police Department and we engage in rapid response training, which is consistent with the lessons learned from many of these other mass shootings — unfortunately those that have happened both in college settings and elsewhere,” Seabrooks said. “That training was clearly utilized by the three responding officers who neutralized that suspect, as one would expect.”

One disconcerting aspect of not only Sandy Hook but also the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton Colo., is that both schools were actually pretty secure.

Columbine employed an armed guard, who exchanged gunfire with the killers. At Sandy Hook, Lanza was greeted by a locked glass door. He took aim with a rifle and shot through it.

“They had cameras everywhere, and buzzer systems,” said Mary Sue, superintendent of the ABC Unified School District in Cerritos. “Their staffs were pretty well prepared in lockdown systems.”

Sue noted that the very same day law enforcement officials were performing the dramatic practice raid at Gahr High, she was at a school leadership conference featuring the two district superintendents who were in charge during the Sandy Hook and Columbine tragedies. Interestingly, those leaders stressed a different kind of preparedness: making sure mental-health services are available for children who need it.

In keeping with this advice, the ABC district has — in addition to installing more security features on its campuses, such as cameras, better lighting and emergency call buttons — boosted its mental health programs. The district recently partnered with the USC School of Social Work to assign to every school social work interns who get to know the students on a personal level.

In Hermosa, the district increased its counselor hours after Sandy Hook, and expanded a program — called MindUP — that teaches students how to better manage their emotions.

“It’s teaching kids about how your brain works — how decision-making works,” said Patricia Escalante, the district’s superintendent. “You can choose to be an optimist. And you can control your feelings.”

In Redondo Beach, educators are trying to keep an eye out for kids who might feel marginalized.

Frank DeSena, assistant superintendent of student services in the Redondo Beach Unified School District, said, sometimes, the simple act of a principal saying hello to a wayward student by name can make a big difference.

“Let’s look at the type of person who has been a shooter,” he said. “The common thread (among school shooters) is most of the time they were the outlier type of young people. They weren’t connected to their school or their community.”

Making them feel more connected, he added, can start with a simple hello.

Staff writer Beau Yarbrough contributed to this report.

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Lennox school board member accused of pulling strings for daughter

Lennox school board member accused of pulling strings so credit-deficient daughter can walk stage at graduation

Commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., on June 8, 2013. School board members, including Mercedes Ybarra, are seated at the far right end of the front row. Photo by Jeff Gritchen / Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)
Commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy. Photo by Jeff Gritchen

This was the first in a series of stories about the dysfunction of a low-income school district whose leaders were using their influential positions to punish enemies and reward friends and family. The series was awarded first place by the California Newspaper Publishers Association for local-government coverage in the large-newspaper category. 

Originally published on June 11, 2013

A Lennox school board member is under fire for reportedly pulling strings to allow her daughter to participate in her high school commencement ceremony even though she did not earn nearly enough credits to walk the stage this past weekend.

The tiny community has been buzzing all week with claims that the daughter of board member Mercedes Ibarra was able to enjoy senior privileges when she didn’t earn them at the Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy — a high-performing charter high school.

(Related story: More details emerge on Lennox Academy uproar)

The school district refused to release the student’s academic records and Ibarra did not return calls from the Daily Breeze this week, but a colleague on the school board, Juan Navarro, confirmed the rumors are true.

Navarro said the privileges included not only walking the stage at graduation on Saturday, but also attending the annual GradNite celebration in Disneyland in May.

“Let’s not forget: When you become a board member, you’re not there just for your own child,” Navarro said. “You’re there for all the children. You can’t be asking favors or asking administrators for favors for your own children. That’s not right.”

Dignitaries, including Mercedes Ibarra, center, congratulate graduates during commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy Teacher at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., on June 8, 2013. (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)
Dignitaries, including Mercedes Ibarra, center, congratulate graduates during commencement ceremonies for Lennox Math, Science & Technology Academy Teacher at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., on June 8, 2013. (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)

(Related story: Lennox school superintendent says 2 board members ‘usurped’ her duties)

Widely considered a model for serving disadvantaged student populations, Lennox Math, Science and Technology Academy is a consistent presence on the U.S. News & World Report’s list of top American high schools. In April, the school ranked 39th nationwide and sixth among schools in California.

In past years, Navarro and others say, administrators at the school have strictly enforced a rule enshrined in the school handbook: seniors who are significantly credit-deficient cannot participate in commencement or any senior activities. For whatever reason, that rule was thrown out for this year’s seniors, allowing Ibarra’s daughter and a handful of other students short on credits to partake.

(Related story: Lennox school board election a referendum on year of turmoil)

In all, of the 135 students who participated in the ceremony, six hadn’t met the criteria, sources say.

The abuse-of-power accusation over graduation privileges is just the latest chapter in a saga of division this year in the Lennox School District, which has become a fractious environment since the July hiring of new Superintendent Barbara Flores.

Although Ibarra could not be reached for comment, the superintendent who works for her, Flores, returned calls from the Daily Breeze late Tuesday to issue a statement about the matter.

“As superintendent, my job is to protect the rights of every student,” she said. “After examining all the relevant factors, six students were allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony because they met the policy limit. Even board members’ children have rights. To elaborate beyond that would be to violate the privacy rights of every student.”

Asked if the directive came from Ibarra, Flores said no. Asked what led to the policy change, Flores declined to comment beyond what was in her statement.

Reached Tuesday, the school’s principal, Armando Mena, declined to comment, referring calls back to Flores.

But Navarro said he believes Ibarra and other higher-ups pressured the principal to change the rules.

“Mercedes didn’t do this alone,” he said. “She had to have the support of the superintendent and (deputy superintendent Kent) Taylor.”

School officials say Ibarra was involved in a similar situation a couple of years ago, at Lennox Middle School. Margaret Sanchez, a veteran assistant principal at the school who is retiring at the end of the year, said Ibarra asked administrators at the school to allow another of her children to participate in the school’s end-of-the-year promotion ceremony, even though the student hadn’t met the academic requirements. In that instance, Sanchez said, the administrators denied the request, and were backed by then-Superintendent Fred Navarro.

In another element of this year’s graduation furor, Ibarra and an ally on the board — President Marisol Cruz — publicly requested to attend the May 17 trip to Disneyland, and to ride in the same bus as the students. But the women were late for the bus, which left without them, Navarro said.

Sources say the board members then demanded that the school provide some other form of transportation, and were ultimately taken to Disneyland in a school van driven by a school employee.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Cruz declined to comment on the specific events, but said she doesn’t believe the Daily Breeze’s coverage of the district’s recent troubles has been fair.

“It’s just disappointing to continually hear negative slants being covered when not all the facts are there,” she said, declining to elaborate because she believes the academic record of Ibarra’s daughter is a private matter. (Ibarra’s daughter is 18.)

Cruz did say, in apparent defense of Ibarra, that “any mom would fight for her child.”

“Why should we break a student’s right because their mom is a board member?” she asked.

The dust-up over the graduation activities is just the latest controversy to roil the tiny district this year.

Situated directly beneath the flight path of passenger jets landing at Los Angeles International Airport, the Lennox School District serves a highly disadvantaged student population. The district — which is composed of five elementary schools, one middle school and the charter high school — has racked up accolades over the years for its success relative to other districts in California with similar demographics.

Marisol Cruz, Mercedes Ibarra and Kent Taylor. Photo by Jeff Gritchen
Marisol Cruz, Mercedes Ibarra and Kent Taylor. Photo by Jeff Gritchen

But the district this year has become a political battlefield, with factions lining up for and against the controversial new superintendent. Before Flores was hired in July, the 65-year-old veteran professor of education at Cal State San Bernardino had never worked as a school administrator. Critics say she has led with a heavy hand, hiring friends as consultants and firing or demoting anyone seen as a potential detractor.

Supporters say she has improved relations between the administration and teachers, and done a good job of shielding teachers from cuts.

“We’ve been able to keep 20-to-1,” said Cruz, referring to the once widely adopted practice in California of keeping class sizes at or below 20 students in grades kindergarten through third grade. “Nobody in the county has been able to pull that off but we did.”

Mirroring the divisiveness districtwide, the Lennox school board has been split on Flores’ leadership, with a slim majority in support. Navarro and Ibarra are on opposite sides of that dividing line.

The tension publicly erupted in November, when Brian Johnson, an administrator with 35 years of experience in Lennox, was placed on administrative leave. In a memo circulated to district employees about his departure, Flores — without mentioning Johnson by name — wrote that construction money might have been misspent, and, if so, “any parties” involved would “subject to legal action.”

Long-timers in the district came to Johnson’s vigorous defense, vouching for his integrity.

From that point on, the environment has been toxic, fraught with finger-pointing, rumors, accusations of nepotism and charges of retaliatory firings.

At times, the accusations have been nasty, suggesting an undercurrent of racial and class tensions. In February, a group of employees, in an anonymous complaint to the District Attorney’s Office that included a long list of allegations against the pro-Flores camp, accused Ibarra of not being a U.S. citizen or a resident of Lennox. Ibarra vehemently denied it, likening the accusations to claims made from the fringe that President Barack Obama is not an American citizen.

Late last month, a separate complaint was sent to the Fair Political Practices Commission. This one — also anonymous — alleged that Ibarra advocated to have her husband hired as a custodian. Indeed, the school board on Feb. 12 did vote to hire him as a substitute custodian. The complaint further alleges that Flores saw to it that he use a pseudonym. The minutes of that meeting list him as Francisco I. Perez.

“The Superintendent directed secretary and Human Resources Department to not use his official legal last name of ‘Ibarra’ so that it would not be noticeable,'” the complaint states. “The Board of Trustees took action and hired Mrs. Mercedes Ibarra’s husband, not connecting the two because of the different last name on the agenda.”

The accuser believes the act violates the a conflict-of-interest law — Government Code 1090 — which states that elected officials are not to have any financial stake in a contract made by them or by the board on which they sit.

The FPPC received the complaint, but will not pursue it because the Government Code that was allegedly broken (1090) is not within the agency’s jurisdiction, said Gary Winuk, chief of the FPPC’s enforcement division, in an email to the Daily Breeze.

“You may be interested to know we are sponsoring a bill, AB 1090, to give us some jurisdiction over this,” he added.

Meanwhile, the high school graduation ceremony has been generating enough buzz in Lennox to reach the ears of other graduating students, a couple of whom called the Daily Breeze to voice their displeasure.

“I don’t know how it happened or why, but I do want to say it’s insulting to me,” said Laura Rosales, who graduated in the top 15 percent of her class. This fall, Rosales will attend Cal State Long Beach.

Today, Lennox Middle School will hold its own promotion ceremony for eighth-graders moving on to high school. Apparently the district isn’t extending the same pardon to the credit-deficient students there. Staff members at the school confirmed that 70 of the 520 students in the class will not be able to participate in the ceremony.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Strip club’s surprise donation helps give Lennox Little League another year

Surprise donation from strip club helps give Lennox Little League another year

March 13, 2012

In a move calling to mind the remake of the movie “The Bad News Bears,” a surprise donation from a strip club is helping to keep the financially troubled Lennox Little League rolling for one more year.

But unlike the 2005 “Bears” remake, in which the teammates were forced to advertise a sponsor called “Bo-Peeps Gentleman’s Club” on their uniforms, the jerseys of the 40 or so teams in the Lennox league will not bear the logo of the Jet Strip.

And the Jet Strip’s $1,200 donation certainly doesn’t mean the league’s existential struggle is over. In fact, the league president says the organization serving at least 300 kids still needs a miracle.

“It feels good to be from Lennox when people do stuff like that,” said Roberto Aguirre, who has held the volunteer post for four years. “At the same time, the future is very scary for us, because (the donation) is a one-time deal.”

Located in an economically depressed area in the shadow of Los Angeles International Airport, the Lennox Little League is buckling under the weight of several new regulations and fees imposed by the K-8 Lennox School District, Aguirre says. The school district owns all the ball diamonds in the mile-by-mile community.

Although the league and the school district are attempting to work through their issues, Aguirre says the dispute has taken a heavy toll on player participation and delayed the start of the season by three weeks.

Whereas the season usually opens in February with a ceremony that includes live rock music, hot food and inflatable jumpers for the kids, the 2012 season opened on Saturday on a low-key note: just a few balloons tied to the chain-link fence and a first pitch.

“We’re all bummed and sad,” Aguirre said. “It’s even kind of embarrassing.”

In December, the school board doubled the per-day fee it has historically charged to the league for the use of those fields to pay for a security guard.

Temporary rescue 

The $1,200 contribution from the Lennox strip club – presented to the school board two weeks ago – as well as a $1,000 donation from the league in Westchester and another $600 from the Lennox Coordinating Council is enough to cover the increase in the Lennox league’s fees for one year.

But the bigger issue has to do with selling snacks, Aguirre says. Midway through last season, the school district, citing concerns about public health, quashed what has long been the league’s financial bread and butter: selling grilled foods such as hamburgers and hot dogs at the games. Now the league is restricted to selling packaged goods.

“People don’t want candy, candy, candy – chips, chips, chips,” Aguirre said. “They want hamburgers, hot dogs and french fries.”

The school district, whose top administrators could not be reached for comment last week, has attempted to strike a compromise, installing a drain for a legitimate snack shack to be built amid the cluster of fields near Lennox Middle School. And a local nonprofit organization called YouthBuild has stepped up to the plate by offering to build the snack shack free of charge.

So what’s the problem? To purchase the materials, the league is going to have to raise $65,000. That’s a tall order in an urban town so impoverished that the league offers a payment plan so families can afford the annual $85 per-player fee.

“We’re looking up in the sky and hoping for something great,” Aguirre said. “If this snack stand happens, it’s going to be the best thing that could happen for our league.”

Relations between the school district and the league remain tense. League volunteers are miffed, for instance, by a request from the district to view the league’s financial records.

“I want to turn around and say, `Look, this ain’t our job – this is something these guys do out of their hearts,” Aguirre said. But he added he is happy to comply. “I think (the school officials) just don’t know simple things, like what a dozen baseballs cost. A catcher’s helmet costs $68. Guess what, I need a lot of helmets. They don’t see that part.”

School officials have said they are well aware of the shortage of green space in Lennox and do their best to accommodate the league and other nonprofits. But they say that, in recent years, more and more unpermitted groups (not the organized leagues) have been using the fields for pickup games.

The district has hired a security guard to keep better tabs on the fields, and the fee increases – from $150 to $300 a weekend for the entire league – will pay for that guard.

As for the Jet Strip, whose parent company is Lennox Entertainment – which also owns Bare Elegance in Hawthorne – this is far from its first foray into local philanthropy.

The company typically contributes on the down low.

“We don’t really like to brag about it,” said Jet Strip General Manager James Wallace, who for 15 years has served on the all-volunteer Lennox Coordinating Council, which acts as a kind of unofficial proxy for a city council in the unincorporated town.

In the past, entities have been reluctant to accept charity from the nude entertainment clubs.

Frequent donor

In 1999, Bare Elegance raised up to $10,000 in a charity golf tournament, but couldn’t find a home for the donation; nonprofit groups such as the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation refused the money. In 1993, the American Red Cross begged off a $5,000 offer from the Jet Strip.

Over the years, the Jet Strip has donated frequently to the Lennox Coordinating Council, which has redistributed the money to its pet causes, such as scholarships, the annual Lennox Family Festival and self-defense classes.

“They’ve always stayed in the background,” said Maria Verduzco Smith, a retired Xerox employee who has served on the coordinating council for 34 years.

It was Smith – not Wallace – who told the Daily Breeze about the Jet Strip’s contribution to the Little League.

“I told (Wallace), `Hey, it’s about time we get you out of the background and let people know you care about the community,” she said, adding: “They don’t do anything illegal. It’s a business. To each his own.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

California ranks 49 nationally in per-pupil spending, but tide is poised to change

California ranks 49 nationally in per-pupil spending, but tide is poised to change

July 27, 2013

Teacher Mark Duvall's Torrance High classrom is packed with 43 students in this 2010 file photo. (Robert Casillas/Daily Breeze)
Teacher Mark Duvall’s Torrance High classrom is packed with 43 students in this 2010 file photo. (Robert Casillas/Daily Breeze)

It’s difficult to believe now, but there was a time — through the eras of flower children, bell bottoms and disco — when the Golden State was widely seen as the gold standard on education spending.

Class sizes were low. Schools were well maintained. Textbooks and other instructional materials were new.

Back then, California ranked in the top 10 nationwide in per pupil education spending.

The abundance made an impression on Michael Kirst, now the president of the California State Board of Education, when he moved to California from Virginia in 1969.

“There was free summer school for every kid that wanted it,” he said. “I’d never heard of such a thing.”

A multitude of factors has caused California’s relative standing in school spending to sink like a gold coin in a swimming pool.

The state now ranks 35th in per pupil spending, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Factor in cost-of-living considerations and California’s place in the pecking order among all 50 states and the District of Columbia is a dismal 49. That’s ahead of only Nevada and Utah, according to a widely cited annual January report by Education Week. (Per-pupil spending figures from Education Week include state and local funds, but not federal money, or funds for capital improvements. Census figures include federal dollars but also exclude capital outlay.)

However, the needle is poised to begin moving in the other direction, thanks to two big game-changers. One is the November passage of Proposition 30, the temporary tax hike that will primarily benefit public education. The other, which was signed into law in late June, is the Local Control Funding Formula — Gov. Jerry Brown’s successful attempt to revolutionize the way school dollars are distributed.

The first wave of replenishment will hit the coffers of local school districts this fall, mostly in modest fashion. The infusion is expected to increase year by year for a time, but specific numbers are tough to come by.

The Governor’s Office has projected that, by 2016-17, California will boost its per-pupil spending by $2,800 over the 2011-12 amount, bringing it to somewhere near the current national average in raw dollars. That would be quite a bump, but that projection is questioned in some education circles.

In any event, the approaching relief raises an intriguing question: to what extent — if at all — will more money lead to better academic performance? It’s a question that the brightest minds in education have been debating for years.

“Some would argue there is very little correlation,” said Maggie Weston, a research fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California. “Others would say we probably should be spending more money, but it’s about wise investment. So, just spending more money in exactly the same way probably won’t lead to better student outcome.”

As it happens, California’s level of its funding lines up pretty neatly with the performance of its students.

Much as it ranks 49th on cost-adjusted per-pupil spending, its nationwide standing in academic performance on math and English tests among fourth- and eighth-graders ranges from 46th to 49th, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the most authoritative source of interstate comparison on academic performance.

Similarly, Vermont, which occupies the No. 1 spot nationwide on per-pupil spending by Education Week’s measure, ranks an impressive 6th in fourth-grade mathematics.

But on the other hand, test scores in California have risen steadily over the past half-decade, even though that stretch of time marks one of the worst five-year periods for school finance in state history.

“If you take the negative angle, you could say ‘so money doesn’t matter,’ ” said Peter Birdsall, executive director of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. “Public school educators in California did a wonderful job. … The problem is, people can only keep up that level of exertion for so long.”

And then there is the puzzle of Texas.

Per pupil spending in the Lone Star State is in the neighborhood of California’s, clocking in at 44th nationwide by the measure of Education Week. And yet, students in California are vastly outperformed by their peers in Texas — the nation’s second-largest state, whose demographics closely mirror those of California. (In both states, for instance, Latino students have recently become a majority population in the schools.)

Eighth-graders in Texas rank 10th nationally in mathematics; their counterparts in California are at the bottom of the heap, just above Mississippi and Alabama, at 49th.

In his book, “The Money Myth,” Norton Grubb, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, makes the case that money’s ability to boost performance in schools is often overstated.

Grubb is quick to clarify this thesis.

“I would never say money doesn’t make a difference; money does make a difference,” he said.

It’s just that some expenditures are more effective than others, Grubb said. Raising teacher salaries, for instance, correlates to better test scores, graduation rates and credits earned, he said. Investing in school counselors tends to reap similar results. Conversely, some spending has produced little in the way of measurable academic benefits. Falling into this category, according to Grubb, are the class-size reduction efforts of recent years and intervention programs for lagging students.

Grubb has even found a relationship between some forms of spending and worse performance. The biggie here, Grubb says, is traditional vocational arts classes such as automotive and shop class.

As for California’s low national standing on school spending, it doesn’t extend to teacher pay. At $68,500, the salary of the average teacher in California during the 2011-12 school year ranked fifth nationwide, according to the National Education Association.

Conversely, California schools have the fewest number of adults in contact with children. This includes not only teachers, but administrators, librarians and counselors.

“We are dead last,” Kirst said. “That is really compelling. More interesting even than class size. We have less of everything — even janitors.”

The history of California’s funding decline is complex, but a couple of momentous events are widely seen as change agents.

The first was a landmark lawsuit in the early 1970s — Serrano v. Priest — that sought to correct an inequity: school districts in wealthy areas had way more money than their counterparts in poor areas. The courts agreed with the plaintiff, John Serrano — a parent of a student in the Los Angeles Unified School District — that the funding formula violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Limits were placed on per-pupil expenditures.

The second was the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 — an epic shake-up in government that provided tax relief to homeowners but shifted the burden of education funding from the local level to the state.

Why did this cause a drop-off? Experts aren’t certain. One theory, put forth in a report by the Public Policy Institute of California, suggests that before the initiative, the property taxes paid by commercial interests subsidized schools to a greater degree.

Another theory — expressed by Sacramento Bee journalist and author Peter Schrag — attributes the backslide to white voters’ increasing reluctance to support an education system that benefits a higher and higher percentage of nonwhite students.

In any case, by many accounts, Proposition 13 generally marks the point at which California’s national standing on per pupil funding began to dip below the national average.

All the while, a massive wave of immigration has led to a demographic sea change leaving schools in a much needier position. (Latinos, who make up one of the most disadvantaged demographics in education, made up just 12 percent of the state’s population in 1970, and now constitute 38 percent of all Californians.)

Approved in June by the state Legislature, Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula popularly grants school districts much more local control in deciding how to spend their dollars. The controversial part is how it also dedicates significantly more money to the districts serving disadvantaged students.

Many school leaders in the suburbs fear the formula will give their districts short shrift.

Among them is George Mannon, superintendent of the Torrance Unified School District, who believes the numbers are based too much on intuition, and not enough on hard facts. He contends it would have been better to wait a year and use that time to carefully study how much more money is truly needed to educate disadvantaged students.

“We’re making decisions without basing them on research,” he said.

Legislatively, it has been surprisingly popular. The funding model was approved by not only a majority of Democrats in both the state Senate and Assembly, but of Republicans, who relish the return of local control.

“The current system was collapsing and had no defenders,” said Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford who is widely considered the father of the state’s brand-new formula.

(Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula was based on “Getting Beyond the Facts,” a 2008 report co-authored by Kirst, former California Secretary of Education Alan Bersin and now-state Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu.)

Grubb sees Proposition 30 and the Local Control Funding Formula as the one-two punch needed for progress: more money, and smarter use of it.

But he cautions that it could be a long time before improvements are measurable. “California has spent about 35 years making these problems,” he said. “It’s going to take another 35 to get us out of the problems.”

THE HARD TRUTH about education funding

No link: Funding and academic performance aren’t necessarily linked. (Texas is funded at a similar level to California, yet its students perform quite a bit better.)
A little-known fact: Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula played surprisingly well among Republicans. (It passed with Republican majorities in both chambers.)
Pay day: California’s teachers are the fifth highest paid in the nation, according to the National Education Association.
Ratio: California’s schools are dead last on the ratio of adults to students in schools.
Tumble: Back in the 1960s, California’s per-pupil spending ranked in the top 10 nationwide.
Source: LANG research

Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Future Uncertain for Students Caught in Palos Verdes High Grade Scandal

Future Uncertain for Students Caught in Palos Verdes High Grade Scandal

Feb. 3, 2012


Teachers and administrators at Palos Verdes High School were aware of the rumors swirling through the halls: a group of students were selling test answers to their peers.

But the breakthrough came when a teacher noticed that a normally strong student bombed a final, getting just a quarter of the answers correct.

Closer examination revealed that the answers the student bubbled in were an exact match for an exam that had been administered the prior year. The student had obtained the answers, and erroneously assumed that the teacher would use the same test two years in a row.

A police investigation then led to last week’s arrest of three 16-year-old boys accused of breaking into the school, hacking into their teachers’ computers and changing their grades. A little more than a week after the arrest, new details are emerging.

The case – along with a developing story in Torrance that is strikingly similar – is a sign of the times, underscoring the impressive level of technical prowess possessed by some of today’s teenagers, and how the knowledge they have can be used for ill.

It also raises interesting questions about the college prospects for students smart enough to hack into computers but dishonest enough to use that knowledge for the purpose of cheating.

The three juniors at Palos Verdes High all had GPAs at or above the 4.0 mark – although that was before they were docked for allegedly cheating.

“These kids had very bright futures,” P.V. High Principal Nick Stephany said. “At this point, who knows what’s going to happen.”

Authorities say the crime began with an old-fashioned break-in: The three boys allegedly picked the lock to a janitors’ office late at night when school was closed. They pocketed a master key, sneaked into classrooms, snatched hard copies of tests from teachers’ drawers and tampered with the computers, authorities say.

Police say the students later sold the tests and their answers to their peers for $50 apiece and offered to change grades for $300. It appears they had about eight or nine takers.

Now the three students soon could earn a dubious distinction: becoming the first high school students expelled from the school – and indeed the entire district – in years. Stephany is recommending expulsion for all three, and their first administrative hearing on the matter is scheduled for next week.

In the past three years, only one student has been expelled from the high-performing Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District: a middle schooler who brandished a knife on a school bus, Stephany said.

Stephany speculated that the crime may have closed a few collegiate doors for the students. But it isn’t clear how badly this will mess up their chances at getting into good schools.

Officials at UCLA were vague on whether getting expelled hurts an otherwise strong student’s chances of getting accepted. For instance, UCLA admissions applications do not ask students whether they’ve been expelled, said UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vazquez.

However: “If the expulsion is noted in the student’s final transcript, admission officers may look into the reasons for the expulsion, even if the student has already been admitted. They also have flexibility in terms of what, if anything, they would do in these situations.”

Vazquez added that the university rarely sees cases in which a student has been expelled.

In any event, the students not only have an academic problem. Now they each face being charged with two felonies, one for burglary and one for the computer crimes, Palos Verdes Estates police Sgt. Steve Barber said.

“I’ve been working at (the Palos Verdes Estates department) for 16 years and I have never seen anything like this – it was a pretty intense case,” he said. “It was pretty incredible what they had accomplished before they got caught.”

To be sure, if the students are convicted, their records would be cleared once they turn 18, Barber said. (Crimes usually need to be violent to stick on a minor’s record.)

But the students – whose next trial date is set for April – are sure to find themselves saddled with the stress of navigating the juvenile justice system at a time when they are trying to get their academic lives back in order.

The issue surfaced about a month ago in the form of vague hallway chatter, Stephany said. Mindful of the rumors, teachers checked their grade books and noticed discrepancies.

Police and school officials later found easy-to-miss devices attached to USB ports on the computers. These were “keyloggers,” or spy software that makes a record of everything a person types on a computer, thereby enabling the students to obtain information such as the teachers’ passwords.

Barber said the students failed to realize a key detail: Many teachers at Palos Verdes High also keep written accounts of grades – a practice he recommends for all schools.

“So when the teachers are noticing discrepancies online, the red flags start to go up,” he said.

Stephany said although the alleged culprits were good students, they tended to keep to themselves.

“They really weren’t involved with a whole lot of athletics or extracurricular activities,” he said, adding that while he knows most of his students by name, he only knew one of the three alleged culprits, and only vaguely. “There were some minor discipline issues in the past, but nothing major – nothing like this.”

As for the nine students who received tests or had their grades altered, most if not all were suspended. Stephany said seven of those students came forward voluntarily, after learning that the consequences would be far less dire for them if they did so.

He said his ultimate goal is to do what it takes to maintain the academic integrity of the school.

“I’m concerned about doing what’s right and letting the cards fall where they will,” he said.

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