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Santa Monica High Has Lunchtime Blues : Schools: Principal's compromise proposal would require students to earn the right to leave campus for midday break.


Domino's pizza, El Pollo Loco chicken, Big Bowl Express fried rice, Top's hamburgers, Subway hoagies, AM/PM mini-market's microwave burritos: The choices are mind-boggling, and all within four blocks. Add the lure of cruising cars and the opposite sex. Why would any Santa Monica High student want to spend lunchtime in the school cafeteria?

About 1,500 students, more than half the student body, don't. Neighbors say that, while the students are seeking out fast food, they are also loitering on lawns, vandalizing property and terrorizing passersby.

Students now face the prospect of no longer being allowed to leave the Pico Boulevard campus, and lunchtime talk has turned from dates and college applications to rights and discrimination.

Under a proposal drafted by Principal Nardy Samuels and a student committee with community input, off-campus privileges will depend on a merit system. Students with at least a 2.0 grade point average will be given 100 points to start, with points subtracted for a number of reasons. For instance, two points will be lost for skipping a class, 10 points for each 0.1 drop in GPA and 20 points for a suspension. Points can be earned for removing graffiti, picking up trash in the community or on campus and other service projects, with one point granted for each hour worked. Students with at least 61 points will be allowed to leave campus for lunch.

In addition, parents must sign a form at the school giving permission for their children to leave campus during lunchtime.

Students who qualify will get stickers for their identification cards, which will be checked at the school gate. New stickers will be issued for every six-week grading period, Samuels said.

He estimates that about 500 students who now leave campus would be kept in under the plan.

Samuels has circulated the proposal to the faculty for comments and plans to give a report to the superintendent within a week. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board is expected to review the idea next month. If approved, the plan will be put in effect as soon as possible, perhaps in early spring, "to show good faith toward the community," Nardy said.

The open-lunch policy is at least 30 years old. During the 45-minute lunch period, most of the students who walk out end up at the two mini-malls at Lincoln and Pico or on residential Bay Street.

Albertine Rucker, who has lived in the 600 block of Bay Street for 48 years, said she is afraid to come out of her house during lunchtime. The student are "noisy, they're mischievous," they try to break into homes, and they "treat (Bay Street) like a racetrack," said Rucker, 73, whose children graduated from the school. The Ruckers presented to the school board a petition, signed by 100 people, to close the campus.

Police are aware of some of the problems. This fall, some students hit a man at Taco Bell with a chair after he complained that they were cutting in line, said Sgt. Bill Brucker, spokesman for the Santa Monica Police Department.

Brucker said that a police car patrols the area during school hours, and at lunch, two mounted police officers stake out the Top's mini-mall at the southwest corner of Lincoln and Pico.

Fights among students occur about twice a week and they probably are involved in at least one instance of graffiti, threats, malicious mischief, or vandalism daily, Brucker said. Constant problems are littering and gang members hanging out, "scaring off a lot of potential customers," he said.

Though many neighbors are persuaded that Santa Monica students are causing most, if not all, of the havoc, others aren't so sure.

"The problem is the homeless and the drunks," said Izhack Aloni, owner of Rachel's Place, a clothing store in the Top's mini-mall. He said it is because of them that he is going out of business this month. "People are afraid to come over here because all the beggars. . . . Basically, the kids are good kids."

"We don't bug people," said sophomore Veronica De La Torre, who was in a group of 15 students standing on 7th Street across from the school recently. She said she spends her lunchtime talking and watching cars and people, and some of the neighbors simply "don't like kids, so they get mad."

The merit-system plan is the classic compromise--no one is completely happy with it. The criticisms vary from philosophical to logistic.

Residents are still pushing for a total closure of campus, Rucker said, saying the point formula is too lenient. "You can't say it's being unfair, when all the other high schools are closed," she added.

Open campuses appear to be the exception. Culver City High School was closed for lunch about five years ago, after neighbors complained about loitering students. Now, only seniors are allowed to leave during lunch. Beverly Hills and all Los Angeles Unified School District high schools are closed during the school day, and there's no talk of opening them. "(We're) trying to tighten them, more than anything else," said LAUSD spokesman Patrick Spencer.

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