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Verdicts Provide Real Civic Lessons : Education: Teachers seize on the weekend's events to initiate classroom debate. Many students prefer to focus on future.

April 20, 1993|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ and DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Dorsey High School English teacher Heidi Bowton pushed aside literature books Monday morning and distributed a two-page list of discussion questions entitled "The Wake of the Verdict: When Storm Predictions Yield Calm."

Immediately, a lively class debate erupted as about 20 students in Bungalow 25 voiced their opinions--sometimes angrily and often eloquently--about what many will forever view as a defining moment in their young lives: 7 a.m. Saturday, when the verdicts were announced in the most scrutinized police brutality case in U.S. history.

"We have been part of history, we can never, ever forget this," said Makana Patton, 17. "For me it will be something positive. We can talk together, we can pull together to make black people stand up."

Throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District on Monday, especially at inner-city schools, many teachers and students seized on the events of the weekend for an immediate lesson on history and human relations. Impromptu discussions sprouted in many classrooms, where conversations spun not on analyzing the past, but on the future.

Principals were pleased that they didn't have to deal with handling a verdict announcement during the school day. Several said that attendance, which noticeably dropped at some campuses last week, was back to normal.

For many, Monday was the last chapter of a trying civics lesson that began two years ago with the police beating of Rodney G. King. Two days after a federal jury found two of the four officers guilty of violating King's civil rights, students from second grade to senior high confidently voiced opinions about their frustration on such matters as racial stereotypes and the length of sentences the convicted officers should receive.

"What's important is that students have learned to argue a philosophy and not with an individual," Bowton said, referring to her advanced placement English class of mainly college-bound seniors at the South-Central Los Angeles high school. "This has been an exceptionally critical year for them in many ways."

Bowman darted question after provocative question at her students. Why are the verdicts considered a victory? Why were they troublesome? What urban troubles arose because of the trials? And then, the most personal and emotional question of all for these students: What are the images you would like to correct about your community?

"People, the media, no one even knows about us, the students coming here everyday to AP English," said Kieta Taylor, 17. "We come to school everyday. We are the ones who eventually have the opportunity to change what is wrong."

Terrina McDaniel chimed in: "We see a lot of the drug users and gang members on TV, but where are we? We aren't there. We are graduating. . . . We are some strong kids here to be coming to this school and succeeding."

At Jordan High School in Watts, many students in one social studies class said they were tired of trial talk and expressed disdain for those outside their neighborhood who show up to gauge their opinions on gangs and violence.

"What we need is support. Let's talk about our future, not about the past," said Andre Wallace, 17, who lives in the Jordan Downs housing project and said that he wants someone to come to his school to talk about job-training opportunities. "The summer's coming up. I want to work."

At Hobart Elementary School in Koreatown, one of the hardest-hit areas during last year's riots, children, in their clear, simple way, were quick to talk about a weekend that had left an indelible mark on their lives.

Karla Angel, 12, said her parents woke her early Saturday morning. "They wanted me to watch it on TV because it was important news," Angel said.

Jane Park, 10, whose parents own a lawn-mower shop, said she was afraid people would try to shoot her and steal everything if the policemen were found not guilty. When she talks about the verdicts, her face dimples into a smile. "I'm happy now," Jane said, "We don't have to suffer anymore."

In the nearby Pico-Union area, in La Barbara Madison's third-grade class at Union Avenue Elementary School, the youngest of the school's children needed some prodding after lunch to recollect what of importance happened over the weekend.

"My sister had a birthday," one girl offered.

But Thomas Tucker, 8, knew exactly what extraordinary event had transpired.

"Two police officers got put in jail," Thomas reported triumphantly.

"Not put in jail, but found guilty," Madison corrected with a smile, writing a few key vocabulary words on the chalkboard: riot, guilty and verdict.

Once prompted, the class warmed up quickly. The stories came tumbling out, not so much about the impact of Verdict Day, but about the violence and confusion they face \o7 every \f7 day.

Yes, they were afraid of another riot, but they worry more about fathers who work late at night and cousins whose bodies are imprinted with gang tattoos. Their fears are more about drive-by shootings while walking to and from school.

One boy told of watching a man get knifed. Another said a gang member had threatened to kill him and his family until they moved away. An 8-year-old girl said a strange older man hung around her apartment, trying to kiss her.

"The fear just moves from one thing to another but it's always there," Madison said of her students, most of whom are Latino. "They live with fear every day."

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