Schools punish not praise, say South L.A. students

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It was more than 30 years ago that Rosyln Broadnax dropped out of Fremont High School. She had been failing most of her classes, but no one seemed to care – or even notice. She swore things would be different for the next generation.

“When I had my child, I started looking back over my years in the school system,” Broadnax said. “And I promised and vowed that I would never, ever allow my child to go through what I went through.”

But graduates of South Los Angeles’ public schools say not much has changed. Some say they feel disrespected at school – like the students are there to be kept in line, not to learn.

“There was a lot of yelling from the principals,” said Chinyere Garner, who just graduated from Westchester High School. “Yelling at the kids about what we’re not supposed to be doing, like we’re not at school, like we’re at boot camp or something.”

For Garner, not finishing was never an option. But she was frustrated by what she sees as skewed priorities. At her school, she says, finding a security guard is easier than finding a counselor. And sometimes, she spent more time trying not to get in trouble than studying. Garner, who lived two hours away from her school, admitted that she had difficulty getting to class on time. But she felt the punishment for that offense was excessive.

Students who are even a few minutes late to class face getting tickets, often carrying fines they cannot afford to pay.

“I’ve always been at risk for truancy tickets, but I would dodge them,” Garner said.”Like, literally, I wouldn’t go to school if I saw the police car right there. I would climb the gate, go around the back, because I can’t…I’m not going to risk a ticket just to go to school.”

Now, Garner is joining other students to protest. Her group, the Community Rights Strategy Center, shows up regularly at school board meetings.

Another member is Claudia Gomez. She was kicked out of three schools in six months, mostly for fighting. She says the consequences just made her problems worse.

“When you’re in a new place, I mean, you don’t know what’s going to go on, you don’t know anybody,” she said. “So everybody feels threatened by other people that we didn’t know.”

She turned a corner when she found an alternative school that focused on channeling anger into social action. She said she wishes she had been taught those lessons earlier.

“I would have just tried to speak more instead of using violence, because violence was the number one retaliation,” she said. “Just, you don’t get me, so I’m going to go after you. Now, I would talk.”

She does not know how much of a difference she will make – but for now, finding her voice is enough.