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PARENT PRESSURE STRAINS CAMPUS.

Byline: Harrison Sheppard Staff Writer

SUNLAND - In one of the most intense parental conflicts Los Angeles Unified School District officials have faced, an East Valley man has filed so many complaints that officials have placed a monitor at his daughter's school and hired a retired judge to investigate his claims.

Carlos L'Dera, whose daughter attends Mount Gleason Middle School in Sunland, has waged a yearlong campaign against school officials over everything from unfair suspensions to dirty bathrooms. Most recently, he and his wife filed a $5 million lawsuit against the district alleging myriad abuses, including violations of state law.

``I have not observed in all my years with the district a situation quite like this,'' said local district Superintendent Judy Burton, a 30-year LAUSD veteran whose career includes five years mediating parent complaints.

L'Dera, who formed a group called Parents Demand, has met with some success: The district last month ordered the campus to reduce its student suspension rate, the highest among San Fernando Valley middle schools.

But most of his complaints have been judged meritless, and he has generated resentment among some parents and many staff members, who have consulted with an attorney about possible legal action. He has also consumed countless hours of the principal's and district administrators' time that they say could be better spent on trying to improve education.

``What they're (Parents Demand) basically saying is, if we don't get our way, we resort to name calling or anarchy to get what we want,'' said attorney Richard J. Schwab, who represents teachers at the school.

L'Dera contends he is trying to improve a problem-plagued school that suspends students with little justification and ignores parents' complaints. And he is determined to fight until he gets satisfaction or removes those who stand in his way.

School officials ``have excluded parents and they have done everything their own way without any kind of challenge,'' L'Dera said. ``They're totally out of control. They are a rogue administration. They retaliate against kids as a control mechanism.''

The group now has about 30 members, he said, and he has begun tackling problems brought to him by parents at other schools.

During the last year, L'Dera has attempted to recall a school board member, filed complaints with the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing against 33 district employees, distributed fliers accusing three staff members of child abuse and tried to overturn the election of the school PTSA president.

Unfair suspensions?

L'Dera's problems with Mount Gleason began last year, when he objected to the school dress code, claiming that it violated state law. But his complaints, he said, went unaddressed until he took them to the district level.

After he filed another complaint about dirty and closed school bathrooms, his daughter was suspended in what he believes was retaliation. Eventually, she was suspended five times during the school year for incidents that included bad language and kicking another student.

L'Dera and other parents in the group contend the school is too harsh with its discipline, suspending students with little justification, and in violation of state law.

``I think their solution to everything is to suspend, and just throw it out, get it out of here, and that's it,'' said parent Glenn Neith, whose son has been suspended and even arrested for incidents he contends didn't merit that response.

``That's the end of the problem. If you look at the numbers, I believe that holds true. Their numbers compared to other school suspension numbers are way out of line,'' he said.

Principal Patricia S. Joe, however, said the suspensions were justified, and notes that L'Dera appealed all five of his daughter's and lost every one.

The school does have the highest suspension rate among 26 Valley middle schools last year. According to district records, the 1,663-student school meted out 701 suspensions last year, statistically equivalent to suspending 42 percent of the student population. The next-highest rate was 39 percent at Sutter Middle School in Winnetka.

Burton ordered the school last month to address the high suspension rate. Joe said she has started peer mediation programs to reduce student fights.

Joe attributed her high suspension rate to her policy of recording every suspension, contending some schools artificially keep their official statistics low.

Burton also hired retired Superior Court Judge William Sheffield to investigate L'Dera's complaints. Sheffield noted the high suspension rate, but found ``no credible evidence of any retaliation'' or reason to remove any staff members, adding that L'Dera's complaints against the administrators ``all are unfounded and unjustified.''

But while L'Dera felt the district brushed off his complaints, Sheffield found they went too far in addressing them, essentially micromanaging the school and undermining Joe's authority.

``Chaos was introduced into Mount Gleason,'' Sheffield wrote in his Sept. 28 report, advocating that the district make it clear that Joe runs the school.

Walking a tightrope

The situation illustrates the tightrope school districts must walk in dealing with parent issues. California law and educational philosophy over the last decade have empowered parents more than ever before, according to educational experts, giving them input on school budgets and even the hiring of principals.

Former Los Angeles County Superintendent Stuart Gothold said districts have to weigh parental input against maintaining principals' authority.

``You have to try to be understanding and certainly listen to see whether law or good sense has been violated, but in such a way that you don't undermine the authority of the principal or the teacher,'' said Gothold, who now teaches school administration at the University of Southern California. ``In the long run, if that happens, then the doors open and it's very difficult for them to do their job after that.''

Mount Gleason PTSA President Kristine Boyle said she has never had problems with the school administration, even before she was elected president.

``I don't understand a lot of it,'' Boyle said of L'Dera and his group. ``It's almost like a lynch mob.''

Their tactics, she said, are to criticize without fully understanding situations.

For example, Parents Demand's latest newsletter criticized the PTSA for holding a fund-raiser in La Crescenta, outside of the community. But Boyle said the fund-raiser was approved by a vote of the PTSA, at a meeting L'Dera did not attend, even though he is a member and could have made his objections known then.

L'Dera is also trying to remove Boyle from office, claiming her election was fraudulent. He complained to the state PTA organization, which investigated and upheld her election. He now is considering taking the issue to court.

Ultimately, he said, his group continues to get stronger as he adds members from other schools in the district. And he is determined to keep fighting against what he believes are the injustices of LAUSD.

``Our membership will keep continuing to grow and keep creating more of an uproar until we have the power to make them come into compliance or be removed,'' L'Dera said.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Carlos L'Dera leads a group called Parents Demand, which has campaigned for changes at Mount Gleason.

Andy Holzman/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 20, 2000
Words:1176
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