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Student Rally Controversy: Governor Knows the Tune

October 22, 1986|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The recent controversy over Gov. George Deukmejian's recruitment of public high school students to perform at campaign rallies is not the first time the governor has faced the sensitive issue of involving students in partisan politics.

Two years ago, a federal court judge issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting Deukmejian and several Sacramento-area school superintendents from using public high school bands at a reelection rally for President Reagan. Deukmejian was named as the lead defendant in the case because of his role as the California chairman of Reagan's reelection committee.

During the last month, Deukmejian has frequently enlisted public school bands and cheerleading squads to perform at political functions, including campaign rallies the governor held in Walnut and Anaheim during normal school hours.

Kristy Flynn, Deukmejian's press secretary, said she was not familiar with the 1984 case. But she suggested that it differed from the governor's recent campaign rallies because the Deukmejian campaign pays the school's costs of sending students to the events.

"I'm not sure there is any comparison to be made between two years ago and what is currently being done today," Flynn said. "If they wish to participate, they are welcome to come. Any costs incurred by their performance are picked up by the campaign."

In 1984, 15-year-old Shelley Darrow filed suit against Deukmejian and school officials after her Cordova High School band had been scheduled to perform at a Reagan rally the day before Election Day. A supporter of Democratic candidate Walter F. Mondale, she objected to playing at the Republican rally.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton issued a temporary restraining order at the last minute prohibiting the school band--and 10 other public school groups scheduled to play--from performing at the rally.

"The school was using taxpayer funds for political purposes," recalled attorney Jay-Allen Eisen, who represented Darrow. "It was a completely political event."

Unlike the the Reagan event, no student has yet challenged the Deukmejian rallies in court. However, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the governor's Democratic rival, has accused Deukmejian of deceiving school officials and improperly using public school students.

Deukmejian has made a practice of recruiting high school students to provide entertainment at his political functions, including a Monday night GOP rally in San Gabriel and a Saturday appearance in Merced. The governor has repeatedly said that he sees nothing wrong with the practice and that it gives the students an educational experience.

At the rally in Walnut last week, the students' participation in politics was most pronounced when Walnut High School cheerleaders chanted "Go, go, go, Deukmejian" and "Beat, beat, beat Bradley." In Anaheim on Monday, students from Orange High School cheered the governor by substituting "We love Duke" for their usual school yell.

Voluntary Participation

As in the Sacramento case of 1984, school officials in both Walnut and Anaheim insisted that the students' participation was voluntary. All of those who attended the rallies had their parents' permission, administrators said.

At the same time, officials in both districts said that before the events took place they did not understand their political nature.

"If it is a partisan event, and this is known in advance, then we certainly would not support that," said Don Skraba, community liaison for the Walnut Valley Unified School District. "You don't take a youngster or exploit a youngster for the benefit of any organization, most certainly not a political organization."

But Skraba, who has since sent a letter of apology to Bradley, disagreed with the mayor's charge that school officials were deceived by the Deukmejian campaign.

No Deceit Intended

"We don't think there was any deceit intended at all," he said. "We were caught up in a community event. We were there to welcome the governor of California."

In Anaheim, Orange High School band leader Tom Schenk said before the event that he believed the students were appearing at a "dedication." Drill team leader Kelley Higgins said she devised the Deukmejian cheer so the students would have something to yell.

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