Demonstrating that it's possible to shake up even the hidebound Los Angeles school bureaucracy, several students got results from their gutty decision to escort me through two badly deteriorating high schools.
During my tours of Jefferson and Fremont high schools in South L.A., I found that bathrooms and drinking fountains were filthy. Walls were covered by graffiti. Ceiling tiles had fallen on the floor. Lights were burned out.
A week after I wrote about our visit, Beth Louargand, district facilities manager, sent a memo to the school board members representing the Jefferson and Fremont areas, confirming my assessment.
"The overall conditions . . . at Jefferson have been reviewed by the cluster facilities specialist [the regional maintenance boss], and the plant manager [the principal] has been notified that those problems that can be corrected (such as grimy fixtures, broken dispensers and graffiti on walls) must be addressed immediately." At Fremont, "two restrooms in particular have been problematic. . . . Toilet paper dispenser locks have been repeatedly stolen and dispensers then used as urinals, ruining any remaining paper. Two of the restrooms visited by Mr. Boyarsky were cleaned by a custodian who had not been using the recommended cleaning products that would have eliminated most if not all of the urine odor. That employee has been admonished to use these recommended products in all of his assigned areas." Just as I had noted, Louargand said there were falling ceiling tiles, graffiti on the walls and nonworking lights.
These conditions have existed for a long time. But it took the whistle-blowing students to call attention to the failures of the adults who are supposed to be looking after their education and school environment.
In doing that, the students displayed real courage.
They have been organized by a South-Central L.A. grass-roots organization, the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment, which has been working the past several years to reduce the number of liquor stores in the area, eliminate motels where prostitutes and drug dealers gather, and, lately, to improve schools.
The youth group, known as South Central Youth Empowered thru Action, is composed of African Americans and Latinos, working together in an area where there is often tension between the two groups. They conduct their meetings in a disciplined and serious manner. Imbued with a muckraking spirit, they have photographed the horrors in their schools and arranged them in dramatic displays.
These kids, most of them college-bound, are not the kind of students to get hauled into the principal's office, but that's what happened after my column appeared, according to a Community Coalition staff member. Marqueece Dawson told me that he, other staffers and students had been called in by the principals of the South-Central L.A. high schools where the group does its organizing.
All the principals wanted was an explanation of what the youth group hopes to accomplish--an understandable request. But Dawson said that some of the kids who had never been called to the principal's office before found the invitation troubling.
Their efforts, however, may have been worth the trouble.
Last week, Lynn Roberts, director of the school district's maintenance and operations branch, told me of the district's cleanup efforts.
Inspectors will check on night cleanup crews. The Jefferson custodial force has been increased and the principal has been given a cleanup deadline. "We gave them a date when we will come out and double-check," she said.
This wouldn't have happened without the students.
Many of you will say, as have other readers, wait a minute. Why don't you blame the kids? These schools are in bad shape because the students are slobs or just plain destructive. Whoever heard of urinating in a paper dispenser? Why don't the kids clean up the schools, instead of complaining to The Times?
Some teachers and parents have given me a similar message on the phone and in e-mail and letters.
They have a point. A lot of kids are slobs. Some of them are destructive. But not all, or even most. The majority, who appreciate clean facilities, shouldn't have to suffer for the sins of a few.
Not all old schools are in bad shape. Some run fine. The hallways are painted and the bathrooms are clean. It depends on the managerial skill and dedication of the principal and the custodial crew.
When those ingredients are missing, we should thank the students for blowing the whistle.