"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Frank Ferry, a member of the Santa Clarita City Council and assistant principal at Saugus High School. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: Gloria Allred filed a civil rights lawsuit against the William S. Hart Union High School District and named Superintendent Bob Lee, Valencia Principal Paul Priesz and several board members individually. Basically from the word "boo," you've been Priesz's biggest cheerleader. Why?
Ferry: To be honest with you, I've been a part of this district 11 years, and I just don't see the things being true that the district, the superintendent, the board members and Paul are being accused of.
I was a part of Valencia High School for eight years. Dr. Priesz was out there every day at brunch and lunch. He knew the students; they all came up to him. He was inclusive of everyone. And if there was ever an occasion of intolerance or of a kid having (bad) behavior, he stepped on it right away and there were consequences whether it was suspensions, whether it was putting that kid (in) for a transfer or whether it was an arrest.
Dr. Priesz consistently has always been a champion for diversity. He began his career down in Markham Junior High School in Watts an all-African American school because that's where he chose to be. He then went to Southgate Junior High, an all-Hispanic school. And then he began as an administrator at Hawthorne (High School), which was almost completely a 50-50 mix between Hispanic and African American.
Signal: We should note that Gloria Allred initially agreed to be here today; in fact, we set this interview to accommodate her schedule. But then her office called to cancel and gave no reason. (Editor's note: Allred's office later said she is giving no more interviews on the lawsuit at all.)
Ferry: Well, I was looking forward to it.
Signal: So ... what do you say to the parent who comes to you and says, "Frank, what do you know about being black or Latino in Santa Clarita?"
Ferry: The first thing is whether it's myself, Paul Priesz, Bob Lee or any of the board members I have never heard from anyone saying that we don't have an issue, or there isn't a concern. Everyone steps up and says, "We can be better." We know whether it's on a high school campus, whether it's in the community, there are people who have racial biases and are intolerant as there are in any school or in any community across this country.
Right back in (November) when these plaintiffs came forward to the school board, the school board members acted quickly, they responded, they put together an ad-hoc committee, they got our state senator involved, our state assemblyman, our county supervisor, elected officials locally, parents, administrators, teachers, students. And they have been meeting as different subcommittees throughout this process because there are concerns where we can improve our system. ... We want to step up and make this a better place to be.
Signal: Allred's lawsuit claims that school board members were taken by surprise by allegations of racism at that November board meeting. Is this a new thing?
Ferry: Well the surprise, I think, came from the severity and the extreme allegations they made. One person made a comment that there are racial riots every week at Canyon High School. Well, I know you, as a leader of the local newspaper, you'd jump on that. I'd read about that every single week. The reality of that is, that it just isn't true. And that's what happened with some of the allegations that came to the board. They aren't true. They were never true, but the rumor mill gets going and they perpetuate themselves where they grow bigger and bigger.
As administrators, we're held to a high level of confidentiality between students and their parents and discipline issues. And even though we want to step up and say, "Wait a second, there's a second side to the story," or, "Here's the issue: This student's saying this, and this parent's saying this, but this is what our investigation has proved to be true" we're not allowed to do that. And so, quite often we were silent in the public forum only because of this confidentiality that's put upon us for our minor students.
Signal: Thinking about what we do hear in the newsroom, we'll sometimes hear about a police response to a high school over the police scanner, but it usually doesn't rise to the level of a news story. You were at Valencia for a number of years; you're the assistant principal at Saugus now; in your experience, what campus has the biggest problems that require a police response?
Ferry: I don't believe that there's any campus that is better or worse than any other campus here. We have resource deputies, which the city pays for, to be on each campus; those are sheriff's deputies. Primarily they focus on truancy tickets, tobacco tickets. Right now a lot of them are working on graffiti, vandalism within their school community, and then a big influx of marijuana usage. Those are the things that we deal with throughout the year on a weekly basis.
These issues that come forth that we're hearing of, you don't see those as much and aren't the concern that they're saying is driving this issue.
Signal: Is racism a school problem?
Ferry: I think it was said at the press conference (on May 25), it's really a parent issue. We know that kids come to us from kindergarten on, and they will spout intolerance and racism that they've learned from 4, 5, 6 years old. We as a school are given everyone as a public school, we can't say no to who comes to the door. So when you have a school such as Valencia with 3,200 kids, take 5 percent, 1 percent of that population, you can have two dozen kids who are intolerant, use bad language, will make poor decisions. And all of a sudden that goes out to a school community of kids and everyone now is a racist because of the acts of maybe 12 kids out of 3,200. And that's what we're constantly dealing with.
Signal: The high schools draw from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds maybe Saugus less so than the others, but kids come to Valencia High School from higher-priced communities like Valencia-Bridgeport and from communities such as Val Verde where median family incomes aren't as high. As all of these different kids with all of their different backgrounds come together on the same high school campus, is racism the right question? Or is it a question of class?
Ferry: That's a great question. As we grow as a community, and as you experience the growth we're all experiencing now, different races coming to a community is going to become an issue.
Right now Valencia High School has 5 percent African American, 20 percent Hispanic and roughly 15 percent Asian. So about 40 percent now of the student base is considered minority. And that's almost doubled from when the school began.
But socioeconomics is a big part of what you're saying. At one time, students all the way from Sierra Highway, students were coming to Valencia. As you mentioned, you have Val Verde, Castaic, Bridgeport you definitely have socioeconomics that play into it. And where I see it playing into is maybe in co-curricular situations.
I was an (associated student body) director. So right now to be a cheerleader on any campus in this valley, it could cost as much as $2,000. So we have to look internally within our system and say, "How can we make sure, regardless of your economics, you can be a part of it?"
Now, publicly, our position is the same. Any kid can participate in any activity on a campus regardless of economics. So if you want to be on the football team, cheerleading, dancing squad, and you step up and you make the team, as soon as you make that team you can talk privately with an administrator or with an ASB director and say, "Finances are an issue." And we will take care of that for you through our student body fund or whatever. No one should ever be excluded.
Unfortunately, some families are very proud. They see that as a handout, and they might not even try in the very beginning, and that's the barriers we're trying to break down.
Signal: What about the pressures on kids who aren't in the "in" crowd? What do you do as an administrator to make sure they are not teased, ostracized, bullied?
Ferry: That's the thing exactly: bullying. What I see more of, and this is regardless of race, gender, socioeconomics, I am seeing an increase of depression for kids.
I've started clubs whether it was Saugus, Valencia or Nobel Middle School (in Northridge) where specifically I'll have my ASB kids go out and look at the number of kids who eat brunch or lunch by themselves. And they'll actually bury themselves in a book; they'll sit at a table with 12 kids, but they'll be along amongst those 12 kids. And that's why I'm such an advocate for getting a kid involved, connecting them to a smaller school community. If I can get a kid to connect to a teacher, to a campus security person, even if it's a club with five other kids in it, I've connected those five kids.
Last year was a great success story. I had a problem where basically I went out and picked 40 kids that I saw were lonely, had signs of depression. I put them in a room together and we gave them community service, school service things, planting trees and things like that, painting faces at football games. They stopped coming to the club because they became a group of 40 kids and went off and did their things. It was no longer "cool" for them to be in the club, so we had to go out and recruit more people.
There are definitely things we can do at a campus to be inclusive of all kids, and I think all the campuses are making that effort.
Signal: In Allred's lawsuit, one plaintiff, a girl at Valencia, says she does not "openly socialize with white students outdoors, in that African American students are relegated to specific portions of the campus." Do you have a black portion of campus and a white portion of campus at Saugus?
Ferry: I just don't believe that to be a true statement.
Signal: Where do you suppose the idea comes from?
Ferry: Whether it was down in Los Angeles Unified, where I began teaching, or anywhere in the Santa Clarita Valley, people will socialize (with whom) they're most comfortable. Whether it's at brunch, lunch, if your group of friends share similar interests in music, kids who will hacky sack, kids who are on the basketball team that will hang out together. We'll have kids, if they're African American or Hispanic, they'll hang out together because there's a comfort level maybe from where they live, maybe from a club they're in. So you will see that.
But right now on our campuses across the valley, I see now just inter-race, inter-gender groups where that isn't the issue. And I almost become colorblind to it as an administrator, because you're out there and you see the kids getting along where you don't see these pockets that they're talking to. It might be their own fear, and that's what you want to make sure. You have kids who are intolerant that are white, you have kids who are intolerant that are black, and you have kids who are intolerant that are Hispanic. This isn't a white intolerant issue. You will sometimes have intolerance from all spectrums of socioeconomics and race.
Signal: So if a problem among kids is brought to your attention, you don't necessarily put it in a little box as a "race" problem or a "this" problem or a "that" kind of problem?
Ferry: Not at all. It's a student issue. And I know that at least every administrator I've worked with, or staff members, you always look to that student in how you can help that individual.
Signal: Have you seen or experienced or dealt with the aftermath of race-based hate incident?
Ferry: Definitely. And I think every campus out here has had to deal with that individual who comes from that background in their family where they are absolutely just prejudiced (toward) different colors, or anti-Semitic. I've seen that, also. I know that personally as a administrator, I've brought them in and I've suspended them and on one occasion had them arrested, because of the fact that their hate led to violence that was a fight.
The other issue I had was three years ago, I had some Latina kids come up to me and stated that there was a group of 12 kids wearing cowboy hats, and the cowboy hats were seen as an anti-Hispanic statement. And so the state Education Code gives me the ability to change dress codes based on the safety of the campus. And that's why you'll see (us) not allowing bandanas to be worn. You'll see some things that are sometimes gang-affiliated are not gang-affiliated. At my specific school, we banned hats for that year because, in my judgment, and the judgment of the other administrators, this group was espousing issues of intolerance that were becoming disruptive on campus. We acted quickly. Those parents came in to us. As a matter of fact, I remember the one dad clearly. He came after me as councilman and said, "I will never vote for you again." And I came right back and said, "Sir, with the values you share and the intolerance you're espousing right now, I don't need your vote." And right away the campus the Hispanic kids saw that we took it seriously and they respected the administration for doing so.
Signal: Look into your crystal ball. Allred's lawsuit makes specific claims about things that allegedly happened to four specific students. What do you see coming out of it?
Ferry: I don't know. Sometimes I want to make sure Ms. Allred has had some outstanding clients and has done some very positive things for human rights, civil rights. I've seen some great lawsuits. I've also seen her, with other lawsuits, where it seems sensationalist and she drops the client for whatever reason. I just want to make sure that she has the ability to know who her clients are.
I also want to make sure that she has the ability to talk to other African Americans from other communities to make sure that what she's being told is a truthful statement. So I want her to make her own judgment.
I think on our own as a community, this isn't something that we're sweeping under the carpet. I see good people stepping forward from the business community, from elected officials, really looking at, what are the policy changes that we can make? How can we be responsive to the things that are being stated? Not just for African Americans, but for Hispanics and Asians, also. Especially once again, I hear as many anti-Semitic things in our community as I do racial things, and I think we need to address those, also.
Signal: The question has been circulating in the gossip mill: Will Paul Priesz be back next year as principal?
Ferry: I know the superintendent and every board member has stepped up and told everyone that Dr. Priesz is and has been and will continue to be, as long as he wants to, at Valencia High School.
Here's a man who (in 2002) was recognized as the California State (Secondary) Principal of the Year, an honor bestowed upon one high school principal. (He was also California's 2004 nominee for National High School Principal of the Year). We then had the stadium named after him that was just recently dedicated this past fall.
(At the May 25 press conference) you saw 40 African American teachers, students, alumni, parents step up in his support. So you have now 40 African American parents versus the (four) here saying, "Don't speak for us, this isn't our experience." Jonathan Bailey is a great example. Jonathan Bailey, a high school senior, came forward and stated that two years ago, four kids came up and used the N-word. He was very distraught and wanted to leave the campus. He went to his mother, (his) mother told him to talk to Dr. Priesz. Dr. Priesz investigated and found that it was true. He had the students suspended and all disciplined, transferred out of the school.
That's how I've always seen it handled. I haven't seen these other things handled. One of the other things Gloria Allred stated was, there some hate graffiti at the school and this is something that occurs regularly. That's just not true. The graffiti that occurred was actually done during the spring break. There's no way to know after the campus is shut down for a week who was on (campus), who was not on (campus). You could have people come from outside the valley, based on this issue being on the news, doing these types of things.
The second that it was brought to Dr. Priesz's attention, within minutes it was taken down. And that's how I see graffiti and hate things done across this valley. It's just acted upon quickly.
Signal: One area where you've taken a leadership role at school is with drugs. How big a problem is drugs on campus?
Ferry: It's definitely is an issue. Marijuana is still your primary economic drug. Unfortunately for $20 a kid can buy marijuana for the weekend without really an issue. I don't know where they go (to get it). They all have their connections. Hopefully we'll find out who they are and arrest them.
The biggest problem we're having right now, that's increasing, is over-the-counter drugs. Kids will take anything from cough medicine to Claritin. They're going into their parents' cabinets and their own pharmaceuticals and taking anything from Vicodin we have to be careful, as parents, that we know what we have in there. We have kids who will sell Ritalin; they might have ADD or ADHD and they will sell that amphetamine to other kids. And those are things that we're always constantly dealing with.
It all starts with cigarettes or alcohol as gateway drugs. The kids will get to the next height with marijuana and then they'll go to the next height. Meth is the next big thing we're dealing with; it's the biggest of influx of drugs we're having right now. (Sheriff's) Capt. (Patti) Minutello is fantastic. She really has her COBRA deputies with (Sgt.) Donny Wyman really out there, as well as our resource deputies, and we're constantly arresting kids who come back from lunch and they're under the influence.
The district policy right now is zero tolerance. They will suspend five days, go for an expulsion and transfer them to another school.
Signal: Is that some of the police activity we're hearing on the scanner?
Ferry: I'm sure it is. I'm trying to make a change in that. It's coming slowly. One of the issues for me is when a kid is using alcohol or marijuana, there's generally a reason why. And I can almost always trace it back to a divorce, some type of issue in the family, a death in the family; I can almost always bring it back to something.
With this zero tolerance policy, you want a consequence for the behavior, but right now I don't know if we're dealing with why that kid's using. So I'd love for the parents to sign a contract with the kid where they might be allowed to stay at the school, where every month they'd take a drug test. That way you can show accountability that you're clean, as well as going through a 10- to 20-week program such as Cary Quashen's ACTION (Parent and Teen Support) Program. That way I'm dealing with my kid, I know, for a period of a semester where I can maybe heal the kid and get him back on track whereas now, when we transfer him and move him to another school, they sometimes get lost in the cracks and not necessarily put into a program. There's no testing.
I firmly believe, 100 percent, if you test a kid every month, they now have a reason not to use. Because every kid, I don't care how good they are, what their GPA is they're going to lie to their parents. And if they're asked, "Are you using?" They are going to say, "No." And until their parent has a piece of paper saying they're clean, there is always going to be an escape route for them.
Signal: Have you seen any support at the school board level for a voluntary monthly drug test?
Ferry: (In 1997, Dr. Mike) Allmandinger, who was the director of student services, actually went through the process and actually went to the board. I'd say there were roughly 40 parents I believe they were parents of athletes they were adamant against it. For me, that's a red flag, because parents generally know if their kids are partying on a Friday night or drinking on a Saturday night. And in our valley, everybody is getting a college scholarship. Everybody is going to go on in Division I in some sport. I think some parents were threatened.
(In) my experience, if we drug-test, it doesn't have to be punitive. We're able to say, hey, the first time you're still going to be able to play your sport, play in the band, be in the ASB, but you're going to have to do this program. The second time maybe you miss a game, but you're still going to do the program.
We waited five years, and this past 18 months (ago) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is legal to drug-test co-curricular people. So it is legal. I brought it forward to the (assistant principal) meetings; we're now in discussions about it. The (city's) Blue Ribbon Task Force wants to bring together a package and submit it to the (school) board, as well as the (school) superintendent and probably the new superintendent, and see if there's an interest.
Signal: It would apply only to extracurricular activities?
Ferry: Right now. Correct. And that's why I started the DADS program Dads Against Drugs. We right now have 40 seventh- and eighth-grade boys and girls who have voluntarily agreed with their parents to come forward. We meet every quarter. We have a guest speaker. Last time we spoke, we had a student who was a senior who came in and gave his experience of how he started when he was 12 years old, how he's ruined his life and how he's trying to get back. So the kids hear these things and then each kid's given a drug test from ACTION, and the parents and the kids test.
What I'm hoping is, if my kids don't know when they're going to get tested, my own personal son, then he's going to at least have an excuse when someone comes up to him and offers him marijuana and says, "take this." Because right now, a lot of kids just need that excuse (to reject an offer of drugs). They don't want to try it, but peer pressure's significant. So our kids, I'm hoping, are going to be able to say, "Hey, we love sports. We don't know if our dad's going to test us now, a week from now." Because marijuana will stay in your system up to 30 days. We're hoping it's an out for our sons and daughters not to use, and we're hoping it's effective.
Signal: What's up with all the graffiti around town?
Ferry: Graffiti right now is in influx. And I'm a big supporter or whatever you want to say of the "broken window" theory. You don't want to get to a point where you've lost the battle. You want to handle every small vandalism, every graffiti seriously, and find who's done it and prosecute them to the fullest extent. If you can keep a kid at the earliest level from graffiti and vandalism that's the same kid who will end up breaking into your home during the school day. That'll be the same kid who will end up selling drugs. So you've got to hit it hard.
These graffiti taggers don't have any honor any longer. They used to put their tag, we'd be able to find them out, we'd send them to jail and that was good enough. They now, weekly, change their (tag). Every week a new thing. And the courts say we no longer can use that (a different tag) to prosecute them. It's become far more difficult.
Signal: The Pride Committee has done a great job eradicating it over the years, but they can't keep up with it anymore?
Ferry: Right. We have to give kudos to the Pride Committee, especially Tom Haner. Here he's out there, 80 years old I forget how old he is he's out there from 10 (p.m.) till 3 in the morning while you and I are sleeping. And he's out there vigilant with his volunteers. There's been such a big influx of it that we now, at the city, have hired a full-time staff person to wipe it out.
In addition, we're right now looking at special cameras that we can move from location to location in primary areas to catch individuals. Because you have to catch them in the act. You have to see them. The other day in Canyon Country, the neighbors turned in two people and we were able to catch them and they were arrested. (Last week) I believe over in Newhall four other students were arrested and will be prosecuted.
Signal: Will you be running for reelection to the City Council in April?
Ferry: I sure would like to. I just recently had gastric bypass surgery done where I lost 70 pounds. It was a big part of my decision. I've lost 70 pounds in the last 10 weeks. I want to be around to see my sons' grandkids, and so I'm probably going to live 20 years longer than I would have. I'm hopefully going to escape that heart attack and stroke. So my quality of life is getting such that I feel very energetic, very positive.
But more importantly, the cross-valley connector. That's the reason I ran. I want to stay through completion. I don't want any glitches. But more importantly I feel that on the council, at least with my experience with kids and teenagers, I have an advocacy role that I've been able to use, the council and community resources to really help kids. So whether it's AYSO soccer, whether it's baseball, whether it's drugs, the Blue Ribbon Task Force, I feel like I have a role that I continue being very positive. As long as I am positive and energetic about it, I'd like to continue.
Signal: What drives you more? There used to be a time we talked about Frank Ferry aspiring to Congress. Since then, you've moved up to assistant principal in the Hart district. Is your future in politics or education?
Ferry: My answer has always been the same from day one, and that is: My sons are first. Nick and Jake. Nick was a kindergartner when I started this, and now he's an eighth grader. And I told our mayor, Cameron Smyth, as I've told everyone with the congressman comment that I have never missed one of my son's events. I've gone to every baseball game, every soccer game. I've never missed an open house. That's just my priority. And I let the council know that, I let my employers know it, so that when they have an event, I'm going to be there. And people just know that, not to schedule.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.