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.
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.
“What they did to him is criminal, because they broke a man’s heart and his spirit,” Dolce, now retired, says. “When you are one of the top in the nation for four, five, six years in a row, he has to be doing something right. He might be a tall and skinny guy, but he has the heart of a damn gorilla. He wants the best for those kids.”
Just before they stripped him of his drum team, Hawthorne High School administrators offered him a deal that Flaherty declined: He’d get his drum-line classes back, but only under close scrutiny while he produced a marching band with the addition of brass and woodwinds for football games.
“They’ll say it’s all about my ego,” Flaherty says of resisting the bureaucrats at Hawthorne High, “but I say I opened the door for these kids to walk through.” Although reluctant to tell his story for many weeks, he recently said, “When you attack the program, you’re attacking my kids — and they’re busting their asses day in and day out to do the right thing when doing the right thing isn’t easy. They’re attacking these kids and their accomplishments.”
Former principal Dolce says Flaherty did everything he asked of him: When Dolce wanted a marching band, the teacher showed up with kids who then won several band review championships in Southern California. He was a “24/7” teacher, putting in almost every weekend without pay. And Flaherty and his own parents wrote checks for thousands of dollars to help the program.
“I found Don to be extremely easy to work with,” says Dolce. “However, he had a streak in him. If he thought something would hurt the kids, he would get in your face about it. Maybe he got in someone’s face.”
Dolce found Flaherty amenable to ironing out problems that the current administration is blaming the teacher for: If kids loitered around his room, Dolce sent security to resolve the issue; if Flaherty needed to leave class on a drum-line matter, he got someone to cover for him. “I believed in him that thoroughly. The proof is, go to the superintendent’s office and you’ll see the trophies. Those are things you showcase, you hold up and say, ‘Look what we’ve got.’ ”
Centinela Valley Union district officials are citing “confidential personnel matters” in refusing to explain their actions. Bob Cox, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, tells the Weekly he can’t talk about Flaherty, saying only that the music man called in sick on the first two days of the school year, then notified the district that he was taking stress leave.
“For the protection of the district and myself, I can’t answer” the Weekly’s questions,” Cox says.
Joe Malone is a professional Las Vegas drummer who saw the animosity toward Flaherty growing among pencil pushers in the Centinela district — a school system that, like most troubled urban school districts in Southern California, rarely pushes out even blatantly incompetent teachers because of the costs and legal battles involved.
But as Malone notes, the Flaherty controversy has nothing to do with incompetence, and everything to do with the administration’s “political game” — apparently of appeasing a small number of bureaucrats and parents who want a traditional band marching on the playing field during football season.
Malone says Flaherty is a transformational presence in his students’ lives. “The biggest change I could see — and I don’t know if this is P.C. or not — is they lost the identification with the ghetto mentality. A lot of those kids had never been out of [Lennox] and Hawthorne. He was expanding their horizon to see a whole world out there.”
Since 2000, Flaherty has paid Malone to help write music and choreograph shows for the drum line and the separate bugle corps. But along the way, Malone says, Flaherty “pissed off” the wrong people. “I feel he could have kowtowed and saved his job, but he would have had to compromise his beliefs and what he believes to be right and true.”
Flaherty pushed back last spring against a demand by Hawthorne High’s administrators that he divert more of his time to forming a marching band that would perform at the losing Cougars’ upcoming football games this past September. He said he was willing to create the band, but needed guarantees from the school’s principals that the music students he needed would be properly assigned to his classes right away — not weeks into the season, as happened previously.
Flaherty’s supporters say Hawthorne High administrators, faced with a deteriorating budget and layoffs, didn’t want to hear Flaherty talk about a “world-class” drum line and drum-and-bugle-corps program. He heard back that he wasn’t a “team player.”
Some administrators, including the now-departed Dragone, put their complaints in writing, accusing Flaherty of technical-discipline and time-management breaches, such as not fingerprinting some drum-line volunteers — Flaherty says they were former students and parents — and not properly supervising some students. This, at a school where adult supervision, particularly outside Flaherty’s drum-line class, is often iffy.
Last June, Assistant Superintendent Cox wrote up Flaherty — a reprimand often reserved for failing teachers who come to school drunk, sleep at their desks or don’t show up at all. Flaherty refused to sign the June 5 “notice of unprofessional conduct and unsatisfactory performance” after talking to a union representative.
Throughout her feud with Flaherty, Dragone also made a point of writing him up for alleged failures to discipline students, and other lapses. But Flaherty complained to Principal Newell that it was Dragone, as associate principal, who failed to follow through on consequences for music students who were acting out. In one case, Flaherty said she argued that a tough and troubled student who threatened to kill him should be allowed back in his class.
Top administrators, including Dragone, did not return the Weekly’s calls. Principal Newell declined to comment.
In the June 5 notice, Cox cited events from nearly a year earlier, saying Flaherty had defied Principal Newell during the summer of 2008 over the school management’s desire to start a marching band. “On or about July 29, 2008, in response to Mr. Newell’s directives, you threatened to withdraw any commitments made during the 2008-2009 school year to work full-time, perform your duties as a band director, and to initiate a marching band,” Cox wrote, calling Flaherty’s attitude “defiant, unprofessional and unsatisfactory behavior.”
Flaherty tells the Weekly he had no intention of withdrawing from his commitments, but merely wanted the bureaucrats off his back. The music program was getting squeezed because the middle-school “feeder” program had ended, and an administrator replaced the high school’s crucial beginning band classes with guitar classes for a year.
But Flaherty also undoubtedly made enemies in high places by criticizing the way in which Hawthorne High School herds its students — many of them several years behind in reading and math — into a time-wasting “advisory” period each day where no teaching and no curriculum are offered. Striving for continuity for the kids, he also found the ever-changing parade of six or seven principals and associate principals in the last decade unnerving.
“He was committing educational triage, doing what he could do given the circumstances,” Malone says. “He’s been rather successful with what he’s done, but they want more” — the marching band at football games.
Juan Leguizamon, who had shepherded the drum line when a previous bandleader quit midyear, says Flaherty made it work for the kids, if not for the bureaucrats, spending thousands of his own dollars so that poor students could tour with the Wyoming Troopers Drum and Bugle Corps for a broader musical and educational experience.
“Don’s a great guy with a big heart,” Leguizamon says. “There’s not a single kid he taught that would say a bad thing about him; they loved him. He knows how to build a great program, not just a little high school band, which is what they wanted. It’s shitty when you succeed and you get punished for it.”
Leguizamon says administrators were hyperfocused on creating the football marching band as they chipped away at Flaherty’s drum-line program, failing to help kids find a way to take four years of band while also meeting a P.E. requirement. Flaherty insists there were ways to keep the kids in band and still meet the requirements.
Leguizamon argues that Flaherty never objected to a marching band, and had, in fact, patched together bands for football games using members of the drum line and other musicians, working as far in advance as June to create a list of students, their class assignments and their capabilities from beginning to advanced brass and woodwind — a massive student-scheduling effort.
The future of the school’s famous drum line, and of the summertime drum-and-bugle corps, which has now produced six world-championship student performers, is in jeopardy. Leguizamon says he plans on leaving next year after staying, without pay, to help the kids through this season.
Cox, the assistant superintendent, recently told the Weekly he doesn’t know what the award-winning drum line’s fate will be. The drum-and-bugle corps is in negotiations with host schools to move as far south as San Diego, Flaherty says. And despite all the upheaval, there was no marching band this fall while Hawthorne’s football team racked up another losing season.
Leguizamon says a new band director is trying hard against enormous odds. “It’s likely to fall apart, and that’s what they want — because it costs money.”
William Calvario still vividly remembers the summer several years ago that the music teacher who changed his life drove him and a group of other students to Casper, Wyoming, so they could march for three months with the Troopers Drum & Bugle Corps — a world-class unit sometimes called “America’s Corps” because of its U.S. Cavalry–style uniforms.
The trip was a typically bighearted scheme by Flaherty, originally intended to get one of the other kids out of Los Angeles for the summer after the student witnessed a gang murder. Flaherty remembers Calvario as an awkward ninth-grader who barely knew his right foot from his left. But Calvario was blessed with such amazing hands on tenor drums that he went on to Riverside Community College’s prestigious drum program and won a world championship with the Concord Blue Devils.
Now 25 and working for a Santa Monica Jaguar dealership, Calvario says Flaherty gave him his opening to a successful life when even his parents doubted that playing in a drum line was worth much.
“I probably would have dropped out of high school and be working somewhere for a minimum wage trying to get by,” Calvario tells the Weekly. “He would say, if you felt like quitting, ‘You can’t.’ I actually learned not to quit from him. His big thing was not to quit no matter what other people think. You have to prove them wrong, that’s what I got out of him.”
Calvario put Flaherty to the test, too, by wanting to quit, especially during his first year with the elite Troopers. Flaherty spent $600 so Calvario could spend the summer in Casper, where the then-16-year-old endured homesickness and busy days of marching under a searing sun.
It turned out to be just what Calvario needed. “I wanted to quit, and I sat down with him. We were eating lunch, he talked to me: ‘This is hard — if it’s easy, everyone would be doing this.’ He told me how he had marched, and I still said, ‘I can’t.’ Then he said, ‘These opportunities don’t come around every day, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance and you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment that no one can take away from you.’ And you know what? He was right. There were about 115 performers that summer, and only that many people in the world could say they went through that experience, that they marched with the Troopers.”
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Calvario, a reluctant student, says Flaherty was no less demanding academically and would even take him by the shirt and march him to classes. “Other teachers would just give up. He’d keep harping on you, he wouldn’t stop until you were successful ... I’ve seen him turn kids’ lives around.”
Flaherty assisted Calvario through college and during his drumming career, asking him to pay back his debt merely by returning to Hawthorne to help younger kids. Calvario did return, acting as head of the Gold Drum & Bugle Corps last summer. Traveling through California as a leader of the corps while it won multiple events was the pinnacle of his drumming career.
But Calvario is struggling to make sense of what has happened to his favorite teacher, saying he wishes he could make it all go away so that the next generation of musicians at Hawthorne High School can experience what he and his peers did.
“It’s a mix of emotions. You think about it and you get sad, because he’s my friend and a real good influence, and I feel bad. Then I get angry at the power of people to do that to such a good guy. Why would you do that to a guy who’s so great?”