Protests, threats, violence driving wedge through a co-location
Michael Janofsky | May 15, 2014
Citizens of the World Charter School (CWC), a K-2 LA Unified school of 160 students in Mar Vista, is inviting neighbors over for dinner tonight. It’s a gesture intended to show that CWC is a better neighbor than some in the area apparently think.
The offer to break bread comes at an unpleasant time for the school, which shares a building with Stoner Elementary, a K-5 school of about 360 students. At this point, though, it’s unclear if the offer will make much difference.
Tensions have been rising through the year, CWC’s first, over issues big and small relating to the co-location experience. The uneasiness, purportedly over traffic congestion generated by CWC’s separate entrance on a residential street, has escalated into a proxy fight over the wisdom of Prop 39, a state measure that allowed for co-located schools when the public school has room to spare, and the intrinsic value and fairness of charter schools.
Groups on both sides of the issue have been arguing and protesting since last Fall, and the animosities continue building.
In recent months, CWC parents claim they have encountered threatening signs, ugly gestures, fear mongering and worse from local residents who have made it clear they don’t want CWC in the area. The parents also say literature circulated in the neighborhood spreads untruths about the school, including the erroneous contention that as a charter it drains funds away from local district schools.
“The bottom line is that we want a safe, peaceful environmental for our school,” said Amy Held, executive director of CWC, which operates schools in Los Angeles and New York. “Since we co-locate with other schools, we have no reason to believe that’s not possible here. That’s what we’re driving toward.”
The latest incident came on May 2, when a CWC family was picking up a child and “a neighbor living near the school shouted expletives attacking the family and the school and threw a lit cigarette into the backseat of the car — where a toddler was seated,” according to a “fact sheet” developed by CWC parents and staff.
The cigarette, they said, ignited a fire in the car. It was extinguished without causing harm to the toddler, but police were called, and the perpetrator was charged with a misdemeanor.
The incident led to LA Unified’s posting a school police officer at the CWC entrance during morning drop-off time and afternoon pick-up times as well as a more frequent presence of LA police.
Adam Benitez, a law librarian and neighborhood resident who has a daughter at Stoner and a nephew at CWC, has been a leader in the effort to push CWC out of Stoner.
In an interview, he described enduring traffic problems as the genesis of the issue but conceded that outside forces are using the dispute to make a larger case against charter schools and co-locations.
“There are people,” he said, “who talk about the traffic, privatization of public education by charters, charters not having union teachers. I’m just a guy who lives across the street.”
Benitez offered a different version of the facts, one that includes his receiving nasty emails from CWC parents, CWC parents using students-only bathrooms in the school, refusal by CWC parents and officials to address neighbors’ concerns, protests by CWC parents and stolen lawn signs that advocate for Stoner. He has maintained a blog since January, chronicling his view of events.
In a recent post, he acknowledged the cigarette incident, writing, “Now, CWC is using this incident as a rallying point for their community and claiming that there is an ‘organized hostile opposition’ in the community, when really all there is are a bunch of neighbors who are upset by the traffic cause by the co-location of CWC.
“The only difference between this incident and every other day,” he continued, “is that there was a cigarette involved. If there was no cigarette, the traffic/parking/safety problems would just continued as they always have.”
At this point, he said in the interview, a dinner is not going to make much difference and only one solution would satisfy local residents.
“With so many bridges burned and lines crossed, we don’t trust them,” he said. “My conclusion is they should leave.”
Held said neither she nor parents believe the issue is solely traffic and congestion. If it is, she said, LA Unified could solve it by granting permission to move CWC’s entrance. The school cannot do it unilaterally, she said, adding that the district has so far been unresponsive to a request for moving it.
Remediation may be on the way. CWC parents said they have appealed to LA Unified board member Steve Zimmer to resolve any troublesome issues to the satisfaction of all sides although matters of co-location can only be addressed by the state legislature or another statewide ballot initiative.
Held said she and the parents are optimistic that an accommodation can be reached — but when and how remains unclear. Events of recent weeks, she said, have convinced her there is little time to waste.
“People are have a right to their different opinions,” Held said. “The problem occurs when physical safety is jeopardized. “That line has been crossed.”
*Clarifies involvement of Board member Steve Zimmer.