Monday, April 17, 2006

From Our Darwin Files: The Dump And Cover Principal

During a recent "lockdown" to prevent students from participating in walkouts, the principal of one California elementary school directed that children use buckets placed in classrooms for their sanitary needs:
As students from neighboring secondary schools walked out of class recently to protest immigration legislation, one Inglewood elementary school imposed a lockdown so severe that some students were barred from using the restroom. Instead, they used buckets placed in classroom corners or behind teachers' desks.

Appalled by the school's action, Worthington Elementary School parents have complained to the school board and plan to attend another board meeting next week.

Principal Angie Marquez imposed the lockdown March 27 when nearly 40,000 middle and high school students across Southern California staged walkouts.

But Marquez, who did not return telephone calls for comment, apparently misread the district handbook and ordered the most restrictive lockdown — one reserved for nuclear attacks.

Tim Brown, director of operations for the Inglewood Unified School District, confirmed that some students were forced to use the buckets but said the principal's order was an "honest mistake."

"When there's a nuclear attack, that's when buckets are used," Brown said. The principal "followed procedure. She made a decision to follow the handbook. She just misread it."

Brown said the school district planned to update its emergency preparedness instructions to better deal with situations such as student walkouts and give more explicit direction to principals and teachers during emergencies.

Several Worthington teachers declined to comment on the lockdown, which continued into the next morning. Cathy Stewart, president of the Inglewood Teachers Assn., also would not comment.

Like many parents, Julia Campos found out about the lockdown from her fourth-grade son, who told her he had urinated in a bucket in his classroom.

She also discussed the situation with female classmates who walk home with him.

"Many of them were crying because they felt embarrassed," she said. "One girl was afraid other kids would see her."

Parents and community activists asked the Inglewood school board at its April 5 meeting to explain the principal's decision and sought assurances that administrators wouldn't repeat the March lockdown.

"There was nothing to be worried about," activist Diane Sambrano said in an interview. "There was no violence at the protests, so this was based on what? It was unsanitary, unnecessary and absolutely unacceptable."

Although her second-grade daughter did not use a classroom bucket, Zoila Juarez found the lockdown conditions appalling. Before the school board meeting, she stood outside the Worthington school gates passing out bilingual fliers that called the situation "disgusting" and "unsanitary," and encouraged parents to air their concerns before the board.

Only a handful of parents were at the meeting, but that hasn't stopped Juarez from trying to organize another group of parents to revisit the lockdown issue at the April 26 meeting to demand a full explanation for Marquez's decision.

Juarez dismissed a letter sent by Inglewood Supt. Pamela Short-Powell two days after the lockdown as having little substance or explanation for how the principal carried it out.

In that letter, Short-Powell rejected reports that children were "denied the opportunity to relieve themselves."

"Students were escorted to designated areas on campus at specific times to use restroom facilities," the superintendent wrote. "In rare instances, the emergency preparedness toiletry provisions were used."

Several students said that classmates were allowed to use regular restroom facilities, often escorted by a teacher.

Miguel Arroyo, 12, said that a school monitor would come by his classroom and walk children to the restroom.

"The principal told us we had to use the bucket for the toilet because something bad was happening outside, but our teacher said no," said Esmerelda Lopez, a fourth-grader. "And at recess, we went to the bathroom."

School board member Johnny J. Young defended the principal's decision, though he said that having children go to the bathroom in buckets was an extreme, one-time situation.

Young said that "a large percentage" of parents were satisfied with the principal's decision and expressed those sentiments during the school board meeting.

"They'd prefer to have students safe than stand in harm's way," he said.

Worthington Elementary School is seven blocks from Morningside High School, where fewer than 100 teenagers participated in the walkout. Administrators said they feared that if elementary school children were outside or in the open park behind the school, they would be swept into the crowd of protesters.

But angry parents and activists rejected that explanation, pointing out that schools with adjoining campuses to Morningside High, such as Clyde Woodworth Elementary and Monroe Middle School, did not implement strict daylong lockdowns. Woodworth elementary was under lockdown for less than an hour, and Monroe initiated a lower-level "alert lockdown," in which staff kept watch over school gates.

"Through all my years in school, we never went through anything like this," said Davon Evans, whose daughter is a first-grader. "They had their privacy taken away from them. That's not right."
The idiocy of Principal Marquez's policy appears to me to be self-evident. What I can't comprehend is why board member Johnny Young chose to defend her. But then again, in California, neither administrators nor board members are required to pass an examiniation of their professional competency or basic intelligence.

Luckily for students, the teachers seemed to have found ways to work-around their principal's asinine directive.

Related: Joanne Jacobs
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