To clear the air after a handful of campus dust-ups, 's Parent Teacher Student Association hosted a let-it-all-out exchange Tuesday night between a seven-member panel and about 100 parents.
For more than two hours, emotions bubbled up as many of the parents expressed ire not just about the fights, but the perceived lack of information from school officials.
Campus frays are rare at Santa Monica High School, so when they do happen, and if there's multiple people involved, a racial or gang component, or if it was a planned attack, fear can quickly fill the corridors, no matter how big the fight was or how quickly it ended.
Problems began Jan. 5, when students walking home from track practice were confronted near the campus by other young people, including some apparent gang members. Racial insults were hurled, a fight broke out, police arrived and the crowd scattered.
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In response, Santa Monica High School's principal sat on a panel Tuesday joined by the district's superintendent, a school board member and four members of the Santa Monica Police Department, including two officers who work directly with local schools.
The panel's two-part challenge: to figure out how to ensure students' safety and to improve the amount and accuracy of information flowing among the pupils, parents and school officials.
A small example of that challenge: parents expressing resentment at the administration's use of the word "scuffle" for some altercations, contending it was an effort to minimize their seriousness.
Samohi Principal Laurel Fretz says two students were suspended as a result of the Jan. 5 incident, as were two others when an on-campus fight occurred in the following days. Fretz says two girls were name-calling on another occasion, but there were no other fights.
Police say they've been involved in five incidents, including the initial off-campus fight, one on-campus fight, and three other off-campus confrontations, including a student being threatened with a gun.
Parents say there have been other incidents and that the situation has sparked student fears of larger race- or gang-based violence.
"My son called me from the school gym" one emotional father told the panel. "He told me a group of African-American students were there, scared to leave, out of fear they were going to be attacked by Latinos."
School officials and police representatives said they had been unaware of that situation, but that since Jan. 5, .
Police and school district Superintendent Sandra Lyon said information school officials distribute will be more timely and accurate if they, in turn, can get timely information from the students and their parents.
"I can't stress enough that if your kids see something or hear something, you need to communicate with a school administrator," Lyon said. "This is a difficult, long-standing community issue. We are not minimizing the situation but we're also not going to inflame it."
Parents acknowledged that their children often keep silent out of fear of being called a snitch.
Some parents also complained that the Samohi campus has unguarded entrance gates, and that the school has no safety zones where students know they can gather and be protected.
Parents applauded when Principal Fretz said she was trying to bring the popular and successful "Racial Harmony" program back to campus. Its two-day workshops involve students, grouped by race, discussing their concerns about racial problems, then meeting with the other groups to exchange viewpoints. Funding the program is another challenge.
After the meeting, Fretz talked about the frustration of trying to get accurate information flowing in all directions, when inaccurate information can spread so quickly.
"When we already think we know the truth, it makes it harder to listen ... That's something we're going to have to work harder on as a community, to listen to each other," Fretz said, noting that it included herself.