July 14, 1997

Parents Sue for Repairs of Schools

LOS ANGELES -- Parents of school children in Compton, Calif., have filed a lawsuit asserting that classrooms in the state-run district are so dilapidated and school management so inept that the students are being deprived of a basic education and are at an increased risk of injury.

The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in Los Angeles County superior court, seeks to force the state Department of Education to improve conditions in the Compton Unified School District. One in five Compton students drops out before graduating from high school and the district's standardized test scores are among the worst in the state.

In the lawsuit, parents complain of classroom floors covered with buckets to catch leaking rainwater, boarded-up windows, graffiti, exposed electrical wiring, playgrounds littered with broken glass, meager libraries and bathrooms that are perpetually flooded with human waste and lacking toilet paper. They also say that many teachers are unqualified, that playground equipment is either nonexistent or broken, and security is so lax that gangs hold meetings on school grounds.

"If there are any school districts worse than this one, it's in Haiti," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped to file the lawsuit. "This is an environment where kids can't learn and teachers can't teach. It's tantamount to state-sponsored child abuse."

The state took over management of the Compton district, a predominantly black and Hispanic inner-city system of 28,000 students 10 miles south of Los Angeles, in 1993 after it fell $20 million into debt and an investigation found corruption among local administrators. Since then, a series of five state-appointed school administrators have reorganized district finances and ordered repairs to many of Compton's 35 schools.

"There are so many problems that have festered in the district for decades that you can't address them all immediately, or even in three or four years," said Vivien Hao, a spokeswoman for the school district. "The kids and the administrators are doing the best they can. Sure it's hard to pay attention to algebra when the roof is leaking, but this winter I don't think there will be any leaking roofs.

"Will there be trash on the ground?" Ms. Hao asked. "Maybe. Will there be stopped up toilets? Maybe. But those are the problems of many urban school districts, not just ours."

Ms. Hao said that contrary to the lawsuit's contention of school neglect, administrators had issued 2,000 repair orders that had to be financed from the district's limited budget, creating a backlog of orders. She added that many of the repairs were needed because many of the buildings were at least 50 years old. Ms. Hao said these included repairs to crumbling walls and ceilings and replacement of 182 roofs.

Randy Stone, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, called the lawsuit unnecessary because of what he said was the state's steady progress in improving Compton schools. He said repairs had initially been delayed because priority had been given to putting the district's finances in order, including paying teachers on time.

Now that that has been done, Stone said the repair schedule and the purchase of educational materials would accelerate. For example, he said, a load of text books arrived at the district the other day.

"It has been a very challenging endeavor," Stone said. "The state administration has been fighting tooth and nail for Compton."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company