June 19, 1997
A Woman's Voice
Are seniors at Milken Community High School really "Wildcats" after all?
Aaron Fishman, outgoing student body president, told me that earlier this year, students tried to change the school's sports mascot from the Wildcats to "something more Jewish."
"We wanted a symbol that would represent us as Jews out in the world," he said. The Wildcats had an extraordinary year, winning league championships in basketball, softball, swimming and baseball. "But after talking about it a long time, we said, 'Being Jewish is not in a symbol; it's in our behavior, the things we do in the world.' So we kept the name."
The story, posing the conflict between Jewish and secular values, seemed apocryphal last week after Senior Prank Nite got out of hand.
Here's what happened, in an incident that has been the subject of rumor and hyperbole throughout the last week: Prank Nite, that venerated tradition of seniors cutting loose after final exams, has been an accepted, if problematic, institution at Milken. Students talked openly in front of faculty about plans to "T.P." (toilet paper) several school buildings and to bring four chickens onto campus, cooping them up in an area large enough to make it appear they were being set free. Milken students are, God knows, a sweet bunch, a tame bunch, destined for fine careers as rabbis, lawyers and community leaders. There are five prayer minyanim on campus (including one for "doubters.") These students are so committed to Jewish learning, they spurned Ditch Day because it competed with the Senior Sermon (on the Torah portion of the week).
And they've got great ruach, school spirit. They raised $1,000 in a two-day "Tzedakah Fair"; held a walk-a-thon for camp scholarships in memory of Jamie Silverman, the Milken student killed on TWA Flight 800; and wore black tape on their sports uniforms to signify the year of mourning for Silverman and two other students, Avi Gesundheit and Michael Lewis (the latter two killed in a car crash soon after graduation). The yearbook is dedicated to the missing three.
The seniors never considered anything as risqué as making a fish pond out of the campus driveway or dragging a cow upstairs to school headquarters, as other Los Angeles seniors have done. If the Milken administration objected in advance, it looked the other way. A joke's a joke. Chickens are funny.
On the evening of June 4, 38 of the 53 seniors built the chicken coop, T.P.'d the school and doused the campus in shaving cream, spraying the words "Class of 1997 rules!" After 25 minutes, the job was done. Everyone left but a small group of students, a security guard and several of his adult friends. The next morning, there was glue in three door locks and thumbtacks on at least one door knob (obscured by shaving cream); garbage buried the campus driveway; broken beer bottles were strewn on the teacher parking lot; dog feces was left in a bag in the faculty lounge.
Lee Chernotsky, senior class vice president, picks up the story. "When I got to campus the next day, I was horrified. We all were. I was in a suit, but I immediately changed my clothes and got to work, cleaning up. All of us did. We worked for hours."
Nevertheless, the administration went ballistic. There were three senior-class meetings, a parent-administration meeting, and each student was brought in individually to see Headmaster Bruce Powell, who concedes, "I was upset." You can imagine what was on his mind: In this community, bad P.R. can be lethal. The five-year effort to create a viable Jewish community high school (with 560 students expected next year, Milken is the largest non-Orthodox high school in the nation) could be ditched in a garbage heap.
Powell ordered every student who was on campus during Prank Nite to do teshuvah (repentance) -- to pay $50 (toward an estimated $2,000 in cleanup) and to complete 40 hours of community service; the main culprits got 100 hours. The Grad Night party was canceled for all but the handful of students who had stayed away. The security guard was let go.
When my phone began to ring after Prank Nite, the rumors I heard were unbelievable: that the students had spray-painted swastikas on the school buildings, that a Torah had been defaced. Parents and community members alike were wondering "what's going on at Milken" that Jewish students could go off that way?
I have to inform my readers that the rumors aren't true. Compare Milken's Prank Nite with that at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach. Seniors there brought manure, fish heads and a dozen chickens, plus they T.P.'d the campus, glued locks and scratched graffiti on the walls. At Mira Costa, 30 students were disciplined with either a $75 fine or 15 hours community service, Principal John Giovati told me. He termed the Milken punishments "understandable," if somewhat excessive.
"This incident's been a tremendous learning experience for me," Fishman told me. "Even though it was only a tiny handful of students who lost control, we all take responsibility for them and their actions. For this, we'll make amends."
These Milken students are responsible, sober, concerned young adults. I'll remember them that way.
Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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