About 300 students from Whaley Middle School in Compton staged a nonviolent but unruly demonstration Thursday, forcing officials to shut down the school early at 12:30 p.m.
Tempers flared over the transfer of popular Assistant Principal Willie Charles Littles to another school in the Compton Unified School District. Students viewed Littles as both a peacemaker and a respected disciplinarian on the uneasy campus, parents and teachers said.
The unrest was at least the third demonstration this month over student and parent complaints that the school is filthy and poorly managed. One protest escalated into rock throwing.
After the school closed, parents and some students filtered onto campus through an open gate. Most of the parents were getting their first unescorted view of their children's school, which has about 950 students.
Parents walked through an outdoor eating patio among 14 benches covered with graffiti, dried mud and bird dung. "It's not fair," said parent Jose Martell. "Can you imagine kids taking lunch and breakfast here?"
The group crossed a litter-strewn playing field, passed tottering bleachers missing bench seats, passed a trash-filled puddle with a protruding sneaker. They arrived at a girls locker room covered with graffiti. The lockers were bent, battered or missing. The parents' shoes left footprints on the dirty shower floor.
Students said they don't use the showers because there is no hot water.
"Who would want to take a shower in here?" said parent Vera Bowers.
"This is awful," parent Shirley Briggs said. "It makes me very angry to see this."
Her 13-year-old daughter, Tigress, the student body president, led the group into a recreation room that students use for physical education when it rains. She pointed to an equipment closet. "All they have is jump ropes," she said, tugging at a frayed cord.
The group could not enter the boys locker room, which has been closed since November because vandals kicked in the walls and pulled down light fixtures. Nor could the group enter two classrooms destroyed by fire.
A custodian was mopping one bathroom as the group approached. "Right here, they put in a new sink," he said, gesturing at a space in the wall. "And the kids broke it off the next day. That was a couple of months ago."
The bathrooms lacked soap, paper, trash cans and sanitary napkins. Graffiti covered walls, stalls, urinals--everything.
School officials blame vandals at the school and gang members from the neighborhood for the school's condition. Whaley sits in an economically depressed and gang-plagued area on Compton's northeastern tip.
"There's an influx of a variety of gangs right in that area," said school board President Kelvin Filer. "That's a problem that exists just because of the location."
School funding shortages make policing and repairing the school virtually impossible, officials added. Two days after a recent paint job, the school was plastered with graffiti again.
Nonetheless, administrators agreed that the school must be improved. "We are going to address these problems," said LaVonne Johnson, acting director of secondary education.
Students and parents said they are tired of excuses. "We were complaining about the same things two years ago," parent Keith Williams said.
Thursday's demonstration began about 8 a.m. when students refused to go to class, witnesses said. Officials tried to restore order by summoning Littles to speak to a student assembly at about 9:30. Littles urged students to return to class.
Instead, students congregated on the front lawn and the street in loosely organized groups.
Some held signs with messages such as: "We Want Mr. Littles Back Now." Others chanted: "Ferns must go."
Naomi Ferns, the school's principal, has been on sick leave since the first disturbances earlier this month and was unavailable for comment.
A group of parents and students aired these and other complaints at Tuesday's school board meeting.
Later that evening, the board voted to transfer three administrators, including Littles, to other schools. Administrators said the changes were needed to improve the administration at another campus.
The transfer angered many students, parents and teachers. "It's like they just slapped us in the face," one parent said.