Schools aren’t democracies

Get-tough policies and skyrocketing suspensions have brought order to Luther Burbank High, but also a backlash

Teachers Jill Toya and Art Baird clashed with the Luther Burbank High School administration over their teaching styles and advocacy of students speaking out.

Teachers Jill Toya and Art Baird clashed with the Luther Burbank High School administration over their teaching styles and advocacy of students speaking out.

Photo by Larry Dalton

When Luther Burbank High School officials suspended 52 students in one day for defying authority and marching in a protest outside their school, one thing was clear: it was going to take more than a walkout and a few signs and ribbons to overthrow this authoritarian administration.

Disgruntled students and advocates describe as prison-like the atmosphere inside Luther Burbank, saying it’s no different than any other tyranny. They say hall monitors harass and intimidate students daily by blowing whistles in their ears and screaming at them to get to class.

Students complain of broken air conditioners and the lack of functional toilet facilities with clean running water and toilet paper. They say their free speech is trampled on, and they get no respect from school authorities, who suspend students at the drop of an eyelash with little by way of due process. They accuse administrators of violating their general civil liberties and want things to change, now.

And while the administration may dispute some of these characterizations and say they are willing to listen to both students and teachers, they also make one thing perfectly clear: this isn’t a democracy. Inside this historically troubled school, administrators are now doing whatever they deem necessary to keep the peace and teach the children in the manner of their choosing.

In the final analysis, schools like Luther Burbank are dictatorships, although Principal Bob Sandoval would say they are benevolent ones, geared toward the benefit of their subjects.

Yvonne Camper-Wilson, a parent and student advocate, has been a vocal critic of the current school administration ever since her first run-in with them last November over an incident in which her daughter, Deanna Camper, eventually got expelled.

This incident all started over some photos Deanna was showing to classmates in the hall between classes. When the ever-curious vice principal saw these pictures and suspected the people in them might be throwing gang signs, he wanted a closer look, so Deanna let him.

She became furious, however, when the vice principal tried to confiscate her photos. She tried to grab them from him, but a security guard intervened and she ended up on the ground. Feeling angry and powerless, she lashed out and before she knew it, three adults—the vice principal, a hall monitor and an officer—were holding her down as she screamed for them to get off her. In the frenzy of it all, she allegedly bit one of them on the leg. Deanna was consequently charged with assault and battery on school officials, a charge that called for mandatory expulsion.

This incident came as a shock to Camper-Wilson, who says Deanna has never had any disciplinary problems and received good grades in school. According to Camper-Wilson, the three adults involved in the incident stated during Deanna’s pre-expulsion hearing that they thought the entire situation simply got out of hand and didn’t want to see Deanna expelled over it.

Camper-Wilson remembers hugging the vice principal, Mitchell Jang, with relief at the close of the hearing when she thought the charges against Deanna would be dropped. Much to her chagrin, Jang later recanted his statements when the principal recommended the expulsion anyway.

Due to privacy constraints, Jang and other school officials were unable to comment on any specific cases or incidents.

Camper-Wilson contends that her daughter probably did overreact, but Deanna has formally apologized for her behavior in a letter to the vice principal. Could it be that school officials overreacted too?

Camper-Wilson believes the staff is as much to blame for any mayhem at Luther Burbank as the students are. Should kids like Deanna who enjoy school deserve the kind of steep penalties the administration is handing out, especially if their poor judgment and reactive nature may have contributed to the conflict?

Camper-Wilson doesn’t think so. She has since filed 11 complaints with the school board alleging improper conduct by school officials in her daughter’s case and is awaiting their outcome. And she isn’t alone in raising questions about what’s happening at the school.

The administration’s zero- tolerance approach to misbehavior has often raised the question of just how tough is too tough. Some critics believe that such inflexible discipline policies often alienate children and exacerbate the behaviors authorities wish to correct.

Principal Sandoval doesn’t think so. In fact, he believes strict discipline is crucial to improving school safety, student attendance, achievement and educational goals. He won’t say he’s tough, but he will say he’s protective of his school.

Sandoval and his predecessor, Kathleen Whalen, were brought in by Superintendent Jim Sweeney specifically to clean up the school. Supporters of the current administration would remind critics of how out of control Luther Burbank was four years ago when the school was on the verge of losing its accreditation and when outsiders roamed the corridors of the school, coming and going as they pleased.

“I cannot vouch for all of the issues that are going on at Burbank,” said Michael O’Leary, hearing officer for the Sacramento City Unified School District. “I can say in support of Bob that he runs a tough school. He may be a little quicker on the trigger when it comes to suspensions, but he’s made it clear—he’s not going to put up with the nonsense.”

Since the installation of Sandoval, the school’s numbers for suspensions have skyrocketed. According to the accountability report from the school district, Luther Burbank had 1,003 suspensions for the school year 2000-2001. That’s 218 more than the previous year and 711 more than the year before that. With roughly 2,200 enrollments, that’s nearly half of the student population suspended. At a minimum of three days per suspension, that’s more than 3,000 school days missed. In addition, out of the 29 expulsions the district reported that year, 10 came from Luther Burbank.

Compared to the other five high schools in the district where suspension/expulsion rates have either decreased or remained steady, Luther Burbank’s numbers have put the administration under attack not only from students and their parents, but from teachers as well.

Art Baird, who taught government at Luther Burbank, equates Sandoval to a Latin American dictator. He says he was run out by Sandoval’s Machiavellian administration and will not return—not because he doesn’t like teaching, but because he wasn’t allowed to do his job.

He is currently on administrative leave for inciting the walkout and posting fliers in the bathroom, charges he adamantly denies. He said all he did was teach his students the principles of democracy and the right to due process. School officials, however, didn’t see it that way.

According to Sandoval, much of the recent outcry and controversy surrounding his school and the walkout were the result of a couple of staff members who fanned the fire and manipulated the students into defying his authority.

The two staff members accused of fanning the flame happen to be Baird and another teacher, Jill Toya, who also taught government at Luther Burbank but was eventually suspended for walking out with the students on their April 22 protest.

Toya claims she was pulled out of her class in front of all the students by the principal to be reprimanded. When the administration decided to release her from her contract, the vice principal pulled her out 20 minutes into her class and sat with her students while the personnel officer served her with papers. She believes her dismissal from the school had more to do with her inability to conform to the administration’s rigid methods of teaching than with her competence as a teacher.

“They want all the teachers to teach the same way, and I can’t teach that way,” Toya said. “The classroom I work in, it doesn’t work that way.”

She says that administrators would often come into her classroom to observe her, but would find her not standing in front of her podium. She explained to them that this is because she’s with her students, walking her classroom, helping them in a hands-on way.

“So I got talked to about that—that I have a lack of classroom management,” she said.

Both Toya and Baird feel the school’s conservative administration has painted them as radicals for their informal style of teaching, one in which they feel students respond to very well.

“If the students don’t have a textbook open or a worksheet in their hands, I don’t think that administration recognizes that as learning,” Toya said, adding that she does cover every inch of the students’ textbook and much more. “But because I don’t have a test every three weeks and letters to give for their grades, I get hammered on and harassed.”

As a teacher of government, Toya wanted to incorporate a model of democracy into her classroom where students asked questions and debated issues openly. So she and Baird developed the mock government concept where students learned hands-on the functions and processes of government. The students’ response was phenomenal, she said, but when they tried to do it again this year, they received nothing but flak from the administration.

Toya believes the student walkout was no more than an action of democracy where students were asking to be heard. The question is: does democracy really exist on school grounds under the school’s watch?

“One parent called in and said I gave my child the right to protest, and I said, ‘You know what? You don’t have that right,’” said Michael O’Leary, hearing officer for the Sacramento City Unified School District.

He points out that it is school policy for students to stay on school premises and be in regular attendance. These very policies authorize school officials to discipline kids who participate in school disturbances. Therefore, when students walked out despite warnings from Sandoval, it is considered deliberate defiance of school authority, which has its consequences.

“Should the school turn their back and not discipline those kids who commit offenses on campus that interfere with the educational process?” asked O’Leary. “Should they not take care of kids that want to go to school, that want to get an education?”

Defying authority is by far the most common reason for suspension. According to the district’s monthly suspension figures, more students are suspended for “willful defiance and disruption of school activities” than any other offense.

Are school authorities simply over-using this catch-all phrase to punish children for almost anything they do? Or are students really that out of control? Do the high suspension and expulsion rates indicate that administrators are trying to weed out the troublemakers and shuffle them around the system? Or do they show the school is now safer?

Toya agrees that if kids are fighting, there needs to be discipline and punishment. “But at some point we need to look at why kids are fighting,” she said.

Sandoval suggests that if students want their issues to be heard, then they should come to his office and talk about them. He notes only a few students have taken this opportunity, and he believes the walkout had more to do with the adults’ agenda than with resolving any real issues.

“These advocates have empowered themselves to be the voice of everybody,” Sandoval said. “Those people are never around for positive events but suddenly come out when there’s a walkout.”

It could be that the administration’s “get-tough,” zero-tolerance policies have actually frustrated, alienated and disenfranchised their students rather than making them feel welcome and worthy. Toya also questions whether they create safety or just the illusion of safety on campus.

“I think in general in this country,” Baird said, “the kids, the young, are seen as almost a liability instead of being nurtured.”