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Norco School Safety Uproar

Dozens of students walked out of John F. Kennedy Middle College School in Norco last week to protest school officials' alleged failure to take action against a special needs student who has reportedly threatened a popular teacher, driving the teacher to abruptly leave her job.

After the march by 150 students, many of whom demanded that teacher Heather Ellis be brought back — and be made safe from threats — some teens at the elite, 700-student high school angrily complained that principal Don Ward had waited far too long to deal with a student they say has Asperger's syndrome.

TV news reports said the student was suspended for five days in October after allegedly threatening the life of Ellis, who just five months earlier, in April, was named a teacher of the year.

When JFK's principal and other administrators "did nothing" to actually protect Ellis, some students allege, Ellis decided she could not continue teaching. By last Friday, Ellis had missed 54 days in class and her students were being overseen by a series of substitute teachers.

The Corona-Norco Unified School District Board was set to meet Tuesday evening to hear a raft of expected public criticism of its handling of the issue, then meet in closed session to discuss the district's reading of a California law on student expulsion and readmission.

Some students said word had gone out on campus that Ellis, who has not commented to the media, hoped to return next week.

Last Friday, Kimberly Kirchner, 17, a senior, said Principal Ward had failed the popular teacher and was ducking serious questions. "He's ... hiding somewhere in his office," she said of Ward. "ABC News was looking for him today and our school officials don't like the media. Our district hates the media."

Student Megan Ortega, 17, says, "We want our teacher back and we want proper safety procedures on campus. We're in our senior year and preparing to hit college, and we want to be prepared. We've had, like, seven substitute teachers in the past two months."

Official details are sparse regarding the nature of the alleged threats.

But Ellis' many, well-spoken teenage students tell L.A. Weekly the threats against the teacher were made in full view of others during class — and apparently also via e-mail or text message — and Ellis was not backed up by school administrators.

Ortega describes the student as a junior with behavioral issues, and she says other students feel the junior would be better accommodated in a different, more secure environment — not mainstreamed at JFK.

"They accepted him in spite of these issues and that was the problem," Ortega says. "He should be placed somewhere that is better equipped to help him and educate him. It's ironic that they label him 'special needs,' because they're not handling him like he has them."

The student walkout followed a flurry of last-ditch efforts by JFK school and district administrators to prevent it. Students tell the Weekly that they got an automated call from the principal the night before the Jan. 27 march in which he vowed to punish them with truancy citations by law enforcement — and even suspension from school.

Then, on Jan. 27, district officials called a forum on campus for students to vent their pent-up frustrations. But it was too little, too late for many teens who attended the meeting.

Students poured off the campus of the relatively new school — JFK is only 5 years old — and marched a short distance down the hill to the offices of the Corona-Norco Unified School District, chanting slogans and hoisting signs along the way.

As far as student walkouts go, this was a determined and spirited protest, but also a decidedly well-mannered civil demonstration in what's locally known as Horsetown, USA, a small town that straddles Interstate 15 and advertises its charm as "city living in a rural atmosphere."

Students loudly chanted their support for Ellis, though not in a menacing tone, and waved gleefully at the passing cars and trucks that honked their horns in support and proceeded along their route.

"We want [Ellis] back and we're trying to get her back," says senior Jesse Chavez, 17, who also complained about the unsettled feeling that the substitute-teacher parade, made up of more than a half-dozen new faces, has created in the class Ellis once taught.

L.A. Weekly tried to contact Principal Ward last Thursday, and was told by a desk clerk that he was no longer on campus. But students on the campus said Ward was sitting in his office.

When two students in front of the school attempted to talk with the Weekly, a security guard sent the students packing and demanded to see the reporter's driver's license.

"You were trying to talk to minors," the guard said, refusing to give his name. "We don't have students here that are 18 years old."

That may be news to Yesenia Vargas, 18, a senior, who said students are legitimately concerned for their safety in the aftermath of the alleged threats and the administration's failure to address them. "We feel very, very unsafe," Vargas says. "A teacher has been threatened. What about us?"

Like Ortega, Vargas did not express any hostility toward the student in question.

"I don't think he understands what he has done," Vargas says. "He's not in the right environment."

Assistant Superintendent Thomas Pike seemed to take last week's events in stride, offering a measured analysis of the mass student departure as well as the events leading up to it. Student and faculty safety are indeed a top priority, Pike says.

He also points to the multiple, sometimes conflicting interests of campus safety, transparency in campus operations, privacy rights and protecting the rights of the accused.

"We've been involved and actively engaged with the students on campus on this matter for months," Pike says.

"I don't think we were caught off-guard at all by this, as we've been very aware and have undertaken a lot of staff actions on campus to address and meet the students' concerns. Unfortunately, their frustration came to a head today. I understand it."

In the wake of the Tucson shooting of a U.S. congresswoman and the recent, accidental shooting of two L.A. schoolchildren during class, Pike says the district maintains an "aggressive program" to identify and intervene with students who may be struggling with behavioral problems or mental issues.

Pike says the school had some trouble keeping a single substitute in Ellis' class, mostly because of the nature of substitute teaching itself: a transitory assignment in which a substitute teacher often will either take another job elsewhere or take days off.

But Pike insisted the district is taking decisive action to remedy the problem.

"We have finalized plans today to resolve that concern of the students," he told the Weekly on Jan. 27. "On Monday we will have someone in that classroom that can commit to the needs of the district."

Student organizer Avery Smith, 17, a senior, says a second automated call went out to students and parents last Thursday after the protest, in which officials vowed to take action regarding student concerns.

As for meting out punishment to students for engaging in the walkout, Pike seems focused on the future, not on recrimination.

"[Ward] is going to take a look at it, but we don't want to escalate their frustration, so we'll take a very careful close look at how to proceed," Pike says. "We want to handle it in an adult, perhaps less punitive fashion."

One thing the students and Pike seemed to agree on is the value of a teacher like Ellis.

"We want her back just as badly as they do," Pike says. "And we're trying to make that happen."

Reach the writer at mrcromer@aol.com.