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Student Walkouts Cannot Be Prevented, Officials Say

November 01, 1994|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With Election Day a week away, Los Angeles school administrators acknowledged Monday they are unable to keep students from leaving campus to protest Proposition 187 and can do little besides mark them truant.

But parents say they consider the walkouts potentially dangerous and believe administrators should find ways to control students.

"Parents are terrified about kids leaving campuses," said Harriet Sculley, president of the 31st District Parent Teacher Student Assn., which covers the San Fernando Valley. "We are encouraging parents to be . . . on school campuses as much as possible. Kids on the streets is an incredibly dangerous situation."

Thousands of students took to the streets last Friday in Chatsworth and Van Nuys, leading to a citywide tactical alert by police and scattered fighting and vandalism. While some students scaled fences, others were permitted to leave through open gates.

Schools were mostly peaceful Monday. Los Angeles Unified School District officials reported anti-187 protests at Canoga Park and Hamilton high schools and Sepulveda Middle School.

The Los Angeles Police Department maintained its command post in Van Nuys, but no incidents of trouble were reported.

But when the students decide to walk, principals say they are greatly outnumbered and therefore powerless to stop them.

"It's like trying to kill ants when you've got an ant swarm," said Joan Elam, principal at Monroe High in North Hills, where at least 100 students left campus Friday. "Our kids scale a fence like you and I walk over a crack. Do we stand there and say, 'You do not go over that fence'? That doesn't work at all with a gang or mob situation."

In a memo to administrators, school district officials said the schools must respect the students' right to free expression but that they must also ensure the youths are safe. School district spokesman Bill Rivera said schools should dissuade students from leaving classes by holding forums on the controversial ballot measure, which would deny illegal immigrants public education and other government services.

"There's no sense locking gates because they go right over them," Rivera said. "If you have 150 kids going out the door, who's going to be able to hold them?"

He added, "Our policy is to let them go but try to dissuade them by talking with them. We're trying to encourage kids to participate in forums on the school campus rather than walking out."

Schools also must try to ensure the students' safety when they leave, district officials said. At several schools last week, administrators--in cars and on foot--followed students, urging them to stay on sidewalks.

On Monday, Sepulveda Middle School Principal Bob Reimann sent two school buses to pick up about 100 students who left campus during a midmorning break. "If you have 100 kids facing you and you're one person, you let them go," Reimann said. "You can only do so much."

While parents, such as Sherryl Zurek, the PTSA president at Van Nuys High School, acknowledged the difficulty in keeping students on campus, they say the schools should do more to encourage students to stay put.

"I think (students) should be kept on campus--definitely," Zurek said. "If the schools are not equipped to keep them on campus, they should do more to encourage them."

At Reseda High, administrators succeeded last week in keeping students on campus. When scores of students from other schools showed up at the Reseda campus to lure students, administrators locked gates and stationed football players at school exits to keep students in class.

In an effort to forestall a walkout, Chatsworth High administrators scheduled a forum on the ballot measure. But when they tried to end the forum, the students bolted through the school gates. Between 1,500 and 2,000 students--nearly the entire student body--left campus, and most marched for several blocks before returning to the football field for a daylong anti-187 rally.

Cheryl Lunkusky, the former PTSA president at Chatsworth High who has two children there, said she was upset by Friday's demonstration and that the administration should never have scheduled the forum. "Things got out of hand there," Lunkusky said. "I'm really distressed about this."

But Larry Moore, a district administrator, said he believes the Chatsworth students planned the walkout and had agreed to leave before the forum began. Students disagree.

"If they had closed the gate, they would have stormed it and jumped," Moore said. "That would have been unsafe."

* WALKOUT FALLOUT: Latino student activists decry protest's poor organization. B1

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