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School Called 'Out of Control'

Teachers and students at Washington Prep High describe crime, sex acts, drug use on campus.

November 21, 2002|Joe Mathews, Erika Hayasaki and Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writers

Students and teachers on Wednesday described Washington Prep High School as a place where youngsters are regularly beaten and robbed, students have sex and use drugs in corridors, and pleas for discipline go unheeded by administrators.

The problems have escalated at the campus to the point that teachers filed a written complaint to their union earlier this month that the school east of Hollywood Park is "OUT OF CONTROL." In response, district Supt. Roy Romer vowed Wednesday to restore order within 30 days. He and his staff pledged to beef up security and increase the number of parent volunteers to monitor hallways and bathrooms.

"There are serious challenges. We need to change the atmosphere fairly quickly," Romer said. "We're simply not going to tolerate conditions in which we are not making improvement."

Washington Prep, like a handful of other troubled high schools in Los Angeles, has struggled for years to maintain order and more recently to improve its test scores, which are among the lowest in the state. District officials appointed a new principal two years ago, and although he is credited with improving achievement, he has fallen short on matters of discipline, Romer said.

Some parents said Wednesday that they fear for their children's safety.

"I tell my daughter ... 'Protect yourself however you can. Pack a knife if you have to,' " said Patricia Pruitt, whose 14-year-old daughter is a freshman. "I've visited the school and I've seen fights and people smoking weed on the second floor."

Several students said they avoid parts of campus -- especially upper floor corridors -- for fear they will encounter their peers using drugs or engaging in sex.

One third-floor alcove has become notorious for illicit activity because its doors can be locked from the inside on either end, students said.

"You never know what you're going to see on the third floor," said Brandi Welch, the student body vice president whose Advance Placement psychology class is on that floor. "I didn't know what marijuana smelled like until I came to Washington."

Principal James Noble on Wednesday acknowledged some of the misbehavior.

"Students have been caught having sex from time to time, not just on the third floor but in other places," he said.

After teachers' concerns surfaced, Noble met at the school Tuesday night with about 300 parents to discuss the problems.

"I fear for their safety," said Jaffar Smith-El, whose 16-year-old daughter attends Washington. "It's getting worse."

Washington sits in one of Los Angeles Unified's poorest communities, midway between Watts and Inglewood's Hollywood Park. Nearly two-thirds of its 3,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches.

It is also one of L.A. Unified's lowest performing campuses academically. Although its test scores improved last year, the school still ranks in the lowest band of schools on the state's accountability system.

The disorder on campus is reflected in its suspension rate, one of the highest in L.A. Unified: Thirty-five percent of its students were suspended in the 2000-01 school year, compared with 13% for high schools districtwide. Washington is among a small group of Los Angeles high schools that have struggled with discipline and academics, and where district officials have pledged in recent years to make changes.

Over the last two years, the district has replaced the principals at Washington and several of its neighbors, including Locke High, Manual Arts, Fremont, Dorsey and Crenshaw high schools.

Two of these campuses -- Fremont and Locke -- have faced extensive scrutiny and media coverage. They also have seen dramatic improvements after the district replaced administrators, stepped up discipline and introduced other measures to improve atmosphere. Officials hope to duplicate that success at Washington.

"We are really working at trying to change these schools," Romer said. "It is not easy."

Even as they acknowledged Washington's many problems, Romer and others said it is unfair to hold the school responsible for crime and other difficulties that spill from the community onto campus.

Noble, the principal, said that seven gangs operate in the immediate area and that rivalries have intensified lately. He said that some of Washington's most recent troubles reflect this upsurge in activity.

"The outsider influence has grown," Noble said. "We have people hopping the fence and coming in. There are a number of individuals who don't belong on this campus."

District officials said that parents themselves bear some responsibility for failing to ensure that their children arrive at school ready to learn.

"There is a lot more complexity to these things than this knee-jerk reaction to beat up on the principal, the administrators, the teachers and the school," said Los Angeles school board member Genethia Hudley Hayes, who represents the area that includes Washington Prep.

"The community has a piece of this. The students have a piece of this."

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