Swarm of unrest envelops high school | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Swarm of unrest envelops high school

Dan Thrift/Tahoe TribuneCUTLINE: Senior Elizabeth Cervantes said fights erupt when crowds form at South Tahoe High School.

Jorge Gonzalez has seen the evolution of student tension at South Tahoe High School. A couple of years ago, it was the white students versus the Latinos, Gonzalez said, while the Filipinos got in the mix last year.

But now things have changed.

“This year it’s everyone hating everyone,” said Gonzalez, an 18-year-old junior. “You can’t trust no one.”

Numerous students and teachers have expressed concern about the administration’s lack of enforcement regarding infractions from classroom tardiness to lunchtime brawls.

“There’s a lot of hatred at this school,” said Elizabeth Cervantes, a 17-year-old senior. “I think it was worse when I was in ninth grade, then it got slower, now it’s bad again.”

The offenses aren’t limited to the knuckles of students’ fists.

When students learned their homecoming rally would be during lunch instead of keeping with the tradition of having it after school, seniors protested by taking to the halls and pulling fire alarms.

During the closed portion of a Dec. 10 Lake Tahoe Unified School District Board of Education meeting, board members considered expelling a ninth-grade student who allegedly threatened a school staff member while on campus.

The student was in possession of a knife on Sept. 30, the board document stated.

One of the well-known altercations at the school occurred Nov. 15, a Friday, in what many believed was a race-related fight.

A 16-year-old Latino boy was playing basketball during the half-hour lunch break, which starts at 11:15 a.m. When he was done playing, he noticed a group of Latinos around him, reportedly looking for a fight. The 16-year-old tried to diffuse the situation with jokes and break dancing, but had to pick up a trash can to defend himself against a 14-year-old Latino, said South Lake Tahoe police Sgt. Alex Schumacher.

During the altercation, a 14-year-old Filipino attacked a 16-year-old Latino from behind, Schumacher said. The 14-year-old was subsequently pushed and whipped his head on the asphalt. He was taken to Barton Memorial Hospital for observation.

“The one Filipino kid said he didn’t want to fight,” Schumacher said, as he read witness statements. “He bumped into him at the bus stop (earlier in the morning). The other kid didn’t want to fight either but their friends were pressuring him.”

At a Nov. 12 board meeting, officials considered expelling a senior for having alcohol on campus. Last February, the student was suspended for being under the influence of marijuana.

“It hasn’t come through to the board in a formal action,” said school board member Wendy David. “Of course the board of education is concerned and cognizant of students’ welfare and safety. So we take any incident very seriously.”

Board member Madeline Fernald said the board asked Superintendent Diane Scheerhorn for a report on the offenses and asked what Principal Karen Ellis was doing about enforcement. Fernald said she spoke to school counselors, who relayed the situation was under control.

All seemed fine until Fernald read a Dec. 9 letter to the editor in the Tahoe Daily Tribune from Kendra Terry, a 2002 South Tahoe High School graduate.

Terry used her letter to express embarrassment of her former school and to criticize Scheerhorn for not doing her job as superintendent.

“It is her responsibility to improve the school system and surely that is not what’s happening,” Terry wrote. “The greatest of teachers will be packing their bags and finding work elsewhere if she doesn’t improve the high school.”

Terry said one reason for the discontent at school has to do with not knowing the leadership. She said for two years she never saw Ellis on campus.

“From kindergarten to eighth grade you always knew who your principal was but you get to high school and you’re, ‘principal who?'” Terry said from her college in West Virginia. “And you should know who she is.”

Ellis and Assistant Principal Jack Stafford declined to comment after repeated phone calls.

Scheerhorn expressed faith in the high school administrators’ efforts in handling the fights, which she understood to amount to three since the beginning of the school year. Tardiness and class cutting has not come before her as issues, she said.

“For each incident I know the administration has handled them appropriately, considered disciplinary action when appropriate and talked with student leadership and the (Students Making it a Little Easier) group,” she said. “They’re talking to students and trying to have a positive learning environment for everybody.”

Kathy Bluethman, a physical education teacher, said she’s had to stop brawls, including at least four fights between girls this year.

“I, myself, had to break up a confrontation with about 10 Hispanics and 10 Filipinos during a passing-period brunch break,” Bluethman said. “The Hispanics were waiting for a soccer class when the Filipinos jumped in. I was afraid of a gun or knife coming out. I was screaming into a walkie-talkie.”

Bluethman told of fight breaking out in the classroom of a pregnant teacher who tried to call 911, but the room phone didn’t work. Students walk the campus during class time, cut class or show up an hour late into the lesson and take their seat unpunished by giving a lame excuse, Gonzalez and teachers said.

“There’s no consequences for tardiness,” said Mike Patterson, the automotive teacher.

Ric Martinez, the school safety officer, could not be reached for comment.

Bluethman said morale among teachers is low, with the coupling of the district’s financial problems and likely staff reductions in March. Students pick up on that feeling and are affected by it if teachers are concerned with job security as well as safety, she added.

Educators and students aren’t the only ones concerned.

At a Nov. 26 board meeting, Lyn Barnett took the public comment portion to speak about his worries as a parent of three elementary children. Barnett wanted a plan in place to address the violence. He wondered if the high school’s open campus contributed to the unrest.

Last week, Barnett, a brother of a counselor at the school, had more tempered words for the situation.

“I do know they try very hard and the kids have been reprimanded through suspension or other ways,” Barnett said. “I’m happy to hear they are aware of the situation and have a plan in place. That makes me really happy.”

Barnett, and students Cervantes and sophomore Lynne Murphy believe the tensions are easing. The main offenders are being punished while fights and class-cutting have decreased, the students said.

While most believe punishments are now more swift and firm, Gonzalez dismissed the idea with a shake of his head.

“We have fights everywhere (at) any minute. At lunch you can find a fight anywhere,” he said, adding, “I don’t think it’s better. I think it’s getting worse.”

— Contact William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.co

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