Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

John Ortiz, Mexican-American student leader at James A. Garfield High School addressing assembled students during a walkout on March 7, 1968.

It’s impossible not to see the contradiction this week of LAUSD’s commemoration of the 50-year anniversary of the student-led walkouts in East Los Angeles, but  sending the message to students and parents to pass on the  March 14 nationwide protest.  

The national walkout, organized by the Women’s March Youth EMPOWER group, is encouraging students, teachers and parents to take part in a school walkout at 10 a.m. on March 14 for 17 minutes — one minute for every person killed in the Feb.14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

LAUSD Interim Superintendent Vivian Ekchian said she respects that students “have the right to freedom of speech, and they may participate in peaceful dialogue and activities on campus during non-instructional periods.”

But she urged parents to “talk to their children and encourage them not to leave campus.”

“Our goal is to provide students with opportunities to express themselves in a safe manner that respects the school environment and all perspectives,” she said.

Ekchian’s comments came one day before the LAUSD begins a week of activities commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1968 East Los Angeles student walkouts held in protest of academic and racial inequality and prejudice against Chicano students throughout the LAUSD district.

Two back-to-back news releases were distributed by LAUSD on the same day, Feb., 28. The first news release contained Ekchian’s statements to keep students on campus during the upcoming national walkout . The second news release from LAUSD announced a special  program with School Board Member Monica Garcia at Garfield High School with former student activists involved in the historic school walkouts.

Now, parents of students at various valley and Los Angeles area schools are concerned with possible repercussions if their child participate in the upcoming walkouts.

“My daughter, who is a high school student was told that if she walked out of school she would face detention or possibly be suspended from school,” said one mother, who asked that her name not be used.

“I’m concerned myself at this point that if I talk openly to media, the school might punish my daughter.”

She said that a written notice wasn’t provided to students or parents, but students were warned over the school’s public address system that they could face the school’s truancy policy if they left campus to participate in the walkouts.

Parents wondered if they wrote a note to school to document their approval for their son or daughter to leave campus, if that would prevent repercussions. Another mother who similarly asked for anonymity speculated that school attendance which determines revenue for schools may be another motivation for discouraging students from participating.  “My daughter wants to express her support for the students in Parkland by marching with other students and we shouldn’t have to worry that she will be punished,” she said. “Maybe I will just keep her out of school altogether on this day.”

Tommy Elmore, operations administrator at Cesar Chavez Academy in the City of San Fernando, said he couldn’t speak on the issue but “keeping students safe,” was the primary concern. “I can’t elaborate more than that,” he said.  Elmore referred the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol to the school Principal Jose Navarro who recommended that an email be sent to the district. Navarro is in charge of the Social Justice Humanities Academy at the school.

Laurie Zaragoza, assistant principal at Granada Hills Charter High School said students who have walked off campus to demonstrate previously did face repercussions. She said that they are planning several activities on that day and a lot will be offered to students who want to be heard.

“I think there will be enough here for the kids and it will be productive, our students who are working with our school administrators on the day’s planning,” she said. 

Zaragoza said their school will have an opportunity to meet with elected officials and plans are underway for several activities including a parent meeting in the evening.

“The students are living it and breathing it but walking into school traffic isn’t safe.”

Zaragoza said that not all students may be interested in participating in the planned school activities on that day,  but the school is liable and students will face truancy if they leave campus. She said  there is some legal opinion that schools can be responsible for students from the time they leave home to the time they return back home.  

Mita Cuaron. one of the student leaders of the school walkouts in 1968 told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that “The school had this prevailing ideology back in the day and I would like to think that it would have changed, but it’s a form of intimidation and a way to say, you don’t have rights.”

Cuaron is speaking at several events this week to commemorate not only the anniversary, but the progress the East L.A. Student walkouts achieved. “I support the students who will be walking out of school on March 14,” said Cuaron.

“They now have social media and things we didn’t have to organize and I believe the kids will be taking to the streets.”

LAUSD has set up an online page to commemorate the historic walkouts and included information on the morning assembly at Garfield High School that school board member Monica Garcia will attend.

Students like Cuaron faced harsh repercussions for her participation years ago and she was expelled from Garfield High School.  She wasn’t allowed to graduate with her class, but many years later she was honored at her former high school and did walk in a graduation ceremony.  Curaron, now in her 60’s, has had a notable career as a nurse and artist.  She along with others who walked out in March 1968 are  regularly called upon to speak about social justice and the power of community and student activism.  Their actions are praised for creating better schools and providing opportunities.

On the website, Garcia praised the efforts of the 1968 walkouts:

“Fifty years ago, Chicano student leaders from the historic Eastside region of Los Angeles demonstrated the power of nonviolent resistance through El Movimiento, part of the Latino civil rights movement for sociopolitical empowerment, and raised consciousness of the Mexican-American experience in the U.S., Garcia.

“From March 1 to March 8, 1968, approximately 15,000 students walked out of classes from Wilson, Garfield, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Belmont, and other Los Angeles high schools, demanding adequacy, equity, and cultural relevancy from the Los Angeles Unified School District. They sought educational justice.

Today, the student walkouts continue to be a significant moment in U.S., Latino, and education history. We are grateful for the actions and courage by youth for systemic accountability,” dollars in school repair, modernization, and construction, and integrating a student-centered Kids First approach.

As was true then, there is still more work to do…Fifty years from now, in 2068, our community remembers every individual that fought for civil rights. 

LAUSD school board member Kelly Gonez who represents the San Fernando Valley was not available for comment by press time.