Silencing Hawthorne High's Music Man 

Mr. Flaherty changed kids' lives on the drum line. The pencil pushers struck back

Wednesday, Dec 23 2009

For most of this decade, the Hawthorne High School drum line has arrived at competitions dressed in black, tuxedo-cut uniforms with the boys smartly extending their arms to escort the girls from the bus, where they leave behind their baggy jeans, sneakers, short skirts — and lives often filled with poverty, violence and failure.

Hundreds of mostly poor, minority kids from Hawthorne and Lennox have found this unlikely road to success despite living in some of the South Bay’s harshest neighborhoods. Many have risen at Hawthorne High, a tough and academically struggling campus racked by repeated student riots and poor test scores, to become world-class percussionists and brass players.

The 40 drummers, marimba players and color guards who make up the “drum line,” an indoor percussion performance group, have won more championships than any other team in the Centinela Valley Union High School District since 2000, burnishing the reputation of the school, where the Beach Boys were once students.

click to flip through (2) JENNIE WARREN - Quiet time: Flaherty at home, four months after taking stress leave
  • Jennie Warren
  • Quiet time: Flaherty at home, four months after taking stress leave

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The music teacher behind all this is Donald Flaherty, a 45-year-old with a Ph.D., a love of drum-and-bugle corps dating to his own Porterville High School marching days, and a stubborn belief that urban kids can fight the countervailing culture of drugs, guns and gangs to emerge as bona fide winners.

Flaherty didn’t turn on his heel and walk out of the horrific band room he inherited nine years ago, itself a testament to how completely the adults at Hawthorne High had capitulated to the students: Kids had sprayed graffiti inside the band room and left piles of garbage on the floor, including human waste in one corner.

But the band man stayed. He focused on about 50 kids who had learned to drum in a middle-school program and who could “really play.” He had an inkling they might just be willing to exchange their street lives for music — a ticket to college, and maybe to a profession.

Flaherty introduced old-style discipline — push-ups for being late, or kicking out kids who weren’t willing to play by the rules — with a steady diet of affirmations to make street-hardened kids less afraid of success. By all accounts, the lanky-framed teacher, whose piercing dark-green eyes are slightly at odds with his easy SoCal bearing, slowly earned their trust. He began to spend his own money on the program, buying marimbas and drums worth more than $80,000, and asking his professional musician contacts to collaborate on writing the music and choreographing the competitions.

With pros mentoring the kids, the drum-line program “shot through the roof,” Flaherty says in his soft voice, with the steely pride of a perfectionist.

As he recently told L.A. Weekly, in the winter the kids played for the high school’s drum line, and in the summer, for the Gold Drum & Bugle Corps, a special unit Flaherty created to include students from high schools as far away as San Diego.

Because of the drum line’s polish and poise, competitors from other high schools initially thought they were facing a group from a wealthy suburban school. The players over the last two years also impressed the choosy American Drum Line Association, which ranked Hawthorne High above some college teams. Meanwhile, the Gold Drum & Bugle Corps won consistently, and, in 2008, was briefly ranked No. 1 in the United States in its division by the governing body Drum Corps International.

But this year, citing “insubordination,” Centinela school-district officials abruptly reassigned the beloved music teacher to oversee music-appreciation classes, where no music is performed. His crime: Flaherty failed for two years in a row to organize a marching band for Hawthorne High School’s winless football team.

The bureaucrats who stripped him of his cherished role are ducking the media. But the consensus from several people contacted by the Weekly is that Flaherty particularly angered former associate principal Kathy Dragone, who complained about his discipline and said he improperly kicked kids out of class. Dragone had the ear of Centinela Valley Union High School District Superintendent Jose Fernandez — and she has since been promoted to run the district’s adult-education programs.

This fall, the first day back from summer break, Hawthorne High School Principal Mark Newell told Flaherty to immediately clear out all his “stuff” — though he left behind many instruments he purchased so students can still play — to make room for a new bandleader. Flaherty was so shattered he couldn’t sleep, fought with fleeting thoughts of suicide — and immediately went on stress-disability leave.

Now, as the school’s loss sinks in, current and former students, colleagues and even some past administrators are angry and stunned. Frank Dolce, Flaherty’s principal at Hawthorne High for five years, says the music man was “screwed” over politics.

The Centinela Valley Union High School District is so meek it doesn’t fire its worst teachers, Dolce says. Instead it went after one of its best.

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