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De la Torre Calls for "Mutual Respect... Not Divisive Attacks"

Every human being has etched in his personality the indelible stamp of the Creator. -- Martin Luther King Jr.

There has been a lot of confusion and misinformation that has been put out in the media regarding a mediation session that was going to take place at Santa Monica High School on Wednesday April 20.

I believe it is important to provide accurate information regarding my role in this incident. To truly end violence we must begin with establishing mutual respect and not engage in the type of divisive attack that has prompted me to write this letter.

As a lifelong resident of Santa Monica, former student body president of Samohi (1989-90), former counselor at Samohi (1998-00), founder/director of the Pico Youth & Family Center which serves at-risk youth and current member of the School Board I have a unique perspective that I hope can inspire a new vision for peace, unity, academic excellence and social justice at Santa Monica High.

On April 15, 2005 Santa Monica High experienced a few fights that were misconstrued as “race riots” and exaggerated in the press. I was made aware that violence occurred on campus after the school had been placed on “lockdown.” I was not on campus when the violence occurred but offered my support to the school and administration on various occasions and even months before tensions escalated on campus.

On Monday, April 18, 2005 I was called on by Superintendent John Deasy to mediate tensions between students at Santa Monica High. I mediated tensions that resulted from Friday’s violence between two students and I also met with several Latino and African American student leaders to brainstorm ideas to promote unity on campus.

One house principal told me that my presence was needed and welcomed the support from the community on campus. I did not communicate with Dr. Deasy or Samohi’s administration after Monday and this lapse in communication and coordination contributed to a confrontation between police and I that SMPD Chief James T. Butts exploited for political reasons.

On Wednesday, April 20, 2005 I went on campus to continue the mediation process and I was accompanied by two individuals that are successful business pioneers in the Hip Hop industry. We made sure to check-in and sign-in at the front gate. Both of the peace mediators in question are committed to uniting youth of all ethnicities.

One of these individuals made mistakes in his past, paid his dues to society, and is committed to giving back positively to his community. Their story of struggle, transformation and triumph in the face of poverty and marginalization is exactly what our youth facing similar social dynamics need to hear.

From my many years of working to address youth violence in the community I understand that the youth directly involved in the violence will listen more to people who they can connect with. In fact, this approach was called for by experts, parents and youth at the first “community workshop on gang violence” that was sponsored by the City of Santa Monica and Senator Sheila Kuehl on February 26, 2005.

Our plan on Wednesday was to speak to youth of all backgrounds about the need for peace and reconciliation. In our own lives Hip Hop culture has taught us to cross the racial divide that is so prevalent in almost every aspect of society.

Unfortunately, because of miscommunication and negative stereotypes we were unable to continue the mediation process. The manner in which the police approached us caused a scene and a group of African American students began to gather around to see what was happening. I spoke to the youth in the group, many who I have relationships with, and suggested that they disperse to avoid any further conflict with the police.

The students were respectful and cooperative. The police report stated that my behavior could have resulted in a “riot” from black students. This statement is more than an exaggeration; it indicates how the person who wrote the police report perceives our children.

Although police can deter a fight between students they are not trained to resolve intercultural conflict. I acknowledge and respect the role of law enforcement on Samohi’s campus but a long-term solution to violence requires much more than deterrence.

Youth violence is a symptom of a larger crisis that has its root in social and economic inequality. To build peace we must have a space at the table for every individual in our community that is committed to spreading the message of unity and non-violence.

As a former alumnus of Samohi I care deeply about our students and the schools that I was elected to protect. I have made a lifetime commitment to ending youth violence and I look forward to working collaboratively with school administrators, community leaders, students, parents and the police to sustain the peace and promote unity in our community.

Respectfully,

Oscar de la Torre,
School Board Member
Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District

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