For those of us fortunate enough to live here, we all know that Santa Monica is a pretty interesting place, and apparently it’s also interesting, for various reasons, to people who don’t live here.
Some of those reasons involve overstuffed bikinis romping on our famous beach, as seen in movie palaces and on TVs worldwide. Our courthouse draws attention on a pretty regular basis too, mostly for the real life legal dramas of horrible hardened vicious violent criminals, like OJ and Britney. Oops, check that. My apologies. OJ was not convicted, in his criminal trial.
But they did finally find longtime Santa Monica resident “Whitey” Bulger, hiding in plain sight, and convicted him of 11 nasty murders, even though we had to ship him back to Boston for trial. You see how that runaway production keeps killing us? Economically anyway.
So now Santa Monica makes the international newswires again. (Just kidding. There are no more international newswires. The cellphone videos went viral. You knew that.)
The bad news is, it’s for a Santa Monica High School teacher getting into a fight with a student, in the classroom. The good news is, it’s become a cause celebre for discussing the rights and responsibilities of teachers in the classrooms, and how the system supports them, or doesn’t. The bad news is, it publicizes us as a place where students sell drugs in our classrooms, with extra credit for taking a swing at the teacher, pulling his hair and stabbing at him with a pencil (presumably sharp, allegedly No. 2). The good news, it tells the world our grey-haired educators are tough. The bad news, it revealed we have a superintendent of schools with bad judgment. By her own admission.
All the above, of course, is based on a string of allegations, which probably won’t be sorted out yet by the time you pick up today’s paper. Except the last one, and that’s the one that immediately bothered me.
We do need an investigation, we do need the facts, beyond just the video and the accounts of eye witnesses. But what I saw on the video was a teacher who immobilized an alleged law-breaking student, with his wrestling moves, without throwing a punch or really harming the kid. I admire that restraint and skill.
I don’t know Coach Mark Black at all. But based on the remarkable outpouring of support for him from those who do, literally 20,000 “likes” on the designated Facebook page in less than a week, I’m inclined to think he didn’t act out of character, without any provocation or proof, and attack one of his students for no reason at all.
There has been, of course, plenty of overreaction. Cries that Superintendent Sandra Lyon’s suspension of Black throws all teachers under the bus. That he should immediately be “rehired” (he wasn’t fired) and Lyon just as immediately fired (wouldn’t that be the same unfair reaction they’re complaining about?). That the student should be expelled immediately, no hearing, guilty by video. (On that point, let’s not forget, this is a kid, we all did dumb things at that age.)
That still leaves the reaction letter/e-mail sent out to Samohi families by Lyon as a standout fumble. I can understand her initial reaction upon seeing the video. But the person we trust (and pay a truckload of money) to run our school system should know better than to put something on the record before knowing anything for sure. (Even your eyes can deceive you.)
Lyon wrote, on Friday: “Until the investigation is complete, we will not have all the details that led up to this incident; nevertheless, based on what I have viewed, the kind of physical restraint used by the teacher is unacceptable. I have placed the teacher on leave pending the outcome of an independent investigation.” (But she didn’t note then, and she surely should have, that it’s standard policy and practice to do so.)
And, even more of a one-sided slap: “We have been in contact with the student’s family, and we will work with them to offer the support that they may need.” Ahem. And, your teacher, who may well have been doing the right, even heroic, thing?
Unfortunately, these words were picked up and repeated without investigation or qualification by media, including local media, and a distorted image of Santa Monica, almost impossible to reverse, has gone out to the world.
Within 24 hours, Lyon understood that she had reacted hastily (or, she simply feared the firestorm of reaction it created). The Los Angeles Times reported that Lyon later wrote a memo to the school board, which acknowledged “many teachers at Samohi were upset with my earlier message, as many, even those involved in the end of the incident, had not seen what happened prior to that.” Right. What if the student had pulled a knife or gun, just before the videos started, would she still consider Black’s actions “utterly alarming?”
The Times also quoted a Lyon memo to another teacher: “I am sorry if my earlier message disappointed Samohi staff.”
Lyon acknowledged in a statement to the “community” Saturday that her remarks about the teacher and wrestling coach have “caused great anger.”
“There is concern that my statement reflected a pre-judgment of the teacher’s conduct prior to completion of an investigation,” she wrote. “There is also concern about my failure to address the conduct of one or more students who were involved in the incident. In retrospect, I understand how my statement has created these concerns. I apologize …”
That’s good that she apologized. But it doesn’t end there. The proper channels must examine whether or not Lyon’s actions constitute consideration of removal. Her hasty reaction caused considerable damage to our community. It’s a deal breaker, in such an important leadership position.
Too bad she didn’t exercise the kind of restraint that Mark Black seemed to. She had much more than a split second to think about it.
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 28 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at email@example.com.