Monday, December 22, 2008

NAMING OF CARSON SCHOOL HITS A ROADBLOCK: Council wanted slain L.A. SWAT officer honored, but Latinos back Cesar Chavez designation.

By Gene Maddaus, Staff Writer


Construction of a high school that will serve Carson students is under way amid a growing controversy over the name for the campus. (Sean Hiller / Staff Photographer)

21•Dec•08 -- An effort to name a new high school serving Carson after a fallen SWAT officer has run into controversy, as Latino residents say they want it named after labor leader Cesar Chavez instead.

In October, the City Council unanimously voted to recommend naming the school after Los Angeles police SWAT Officer Randal Simmons, who died in a shootout earlier this year.

But since then two council members - Mayor Jim Dear and Councilman Harold Williams - have had second thoughts.

Williams said he was fooled into believing that the idea had full community backing, and encouraged Latino residents to come forward and voice their opposition to the choice.

"I'm very upset," said Miriam Vasquez, who lives in the neighborhood near the school. "This is a Latino area. It should be named after Cesar Chavez."

The issue has the potential to stir up resentment in a community that prides itself on racial harmony. Simmons was black, and much of the support for naming the school in his honor comes from his church, Glory Christian International Fellowship, which has a predominantly black congregation.

The issue may also play a role in the upcoming council election. Julie Ruiz Raber, a Latina and a former councilwoman, has taken the lead in calling for the decision to be re-examined.

"If I had my first choice, it would be Cesar Chavez," she said. "That would be such an honor. He's the only Mexican-American hero for the Latino community."

Raber, a close ally of Dear and Williams, is campaigning to get her council seat back in March, and Vasquez noted that the current council has no Latinos. Simmons' friends think that helps explain why the issue is coming up again.

"It's a few people trying to make political headway with a segment of the community," said Walter Clark, who works at Glory Christian International. "They're trying to make it a black-and-brown issue, which is ridiculous."

Clark noted that Simmons, who lived in Rancho Palos Verdes, ministered to youth in predominantly Latino housing projects, such as Scottsdale in Carson.

"He crossed racial boundaries," Clark said. "He was colorblind."

Councilman Mike Gipson, who led the effort to name the school for Simmons, noted that the Los Angeles Unified School District already has a school named after Chavez.

"I don't care if Randy Simmons was Iranian, Persian, Arab, white, Asian," said Gipson, who knew Simmons through his volunteer work. "This is not a racial thing for me. This was someone who lost his life trying to save other people's lives."

LAUSD is building the school at Santa Fe Avenue and Carson Street, just over the Long Beach side of the border with Carson.

Long Beach adamantly opposed putting the school there because it took away some of the city's industrial land. Carson also objected to the location, citing parking and traffic concerns.

In the midst of a relentless building campaign, LAUSD brushed those concerns aside, bought the land through eminent domain and started building. The campus is scheduled to open in 2011.

Reina Alvarez, who has been involved with the parent-teacher organization at nearby Dominguez Elementary School, said she and her neighbors first heard of the idea of naming the school for Simmons at the school's recent groundbreaking.

Though they said they have nothing against the fallen officer, they were troubled that they were not consulted.

They circulated a petition asking that the school be named for Chavez or for Manuel Dominguez, who owned the area's 19th century Spanish land grant.

The petition got about 100 signatures, but Alvarez said the group later decided to drop its request for particular Latino names.

"We come in peace," Alvarez said. "It's not politics. It's not a racial thing. It's just us being heard."

At the council meeting on Tuesday, Williams and Dear voted to rescind the city's support for naming the school for Simmons.

But that motion failed on a 2-2 vote, leaving the council's earlier unanimous support for the idea officially in place.

Gipson called the vote "divisive" and said it made the city look bad.

Raber, on the other hand, said it was Gipson who had stirred up the issue by bringing it to the council in October.

"He's the one that opened up the can of worms," she said. "It wasn't us. He blindsided us."

Despite the political tug-of-war in Carson, the right to name the school rests with the school district. While it will take the city's views into account, it will also conduct its own community outreach, said Dave Kooper, chief of staff to LAUSD board member Richard Vladovic.

"School naming shouldn't be controversial," Kooper said. "It's one of those things you get to do. It should bring the community together."

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