Parents, teachers rally behind Santa Monica teacher suspended for fighting with student

Santa Monica High School.
Santa Monica High School.
Flickr Creative Commons/Joe Wolf

Student-shot cellphone videos of a Santa Monica High School classmate being subdued by a teacher are becoming an internet sensation, and have triggered an outpouring of support for the teacher from parents, teachers, students and alumni. 

Science teacher Mark Black, who is also the school's wrestling coach, was suspended following the Friday altercation, and the school district launched an investigation.

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Superintendent  Sandra Lyon sent a letter home to parents Friday stating "a number of videos capturing at least a portion of the incident are circulating, and I can tell you that what I witnessed on one of those videos is utterly alarming." Based on what she had seen, the "physical restraint" used by the teacher was "unacceptable," wrote Lyon. 

That move infuriated many in Santa Monica, and a Facebook page supporting "Coach Black" had more than 3,100 "likes" as of 4:15 p.m. Saturday.

The incident, according to student witnesses who spoke to TV stations, started when the teacher tried to confiscate a bag of marijuana and was set upon by the teenager. The student allegedly stabbed Black with a pencil, students told the TV outlets. No punches were thrown, and Black eventually can be seen wrestling the student to the floor, pinning him there with his arms locked around the student's legs. Witnesses told TV stations the student was arrested, but the teacher was not. 

A Santa Monica police spokesman declined to comment on the incident and instead referred questions to the school district. The SMMUSD's initial answers to those questions angered many. 

Lyons, in her letter to parents, wrote, "we have been in contact with the student's family, and we will work with them to offer the support that they may need. I am grateful that there is no reported serious physical harm to students or teachers, but that neither dismisses the severity of this situation nor my commitment to gather all the facts and make sure the proper actions are taken." That infuriated many teachers and parents. 

"Terrible job by the superintendent making statements without full knowledge of the situation...poor leadership and not very supportive of her teachers," John S. Dahlem, who identified himself as a teacher in Orange County who grew up in Santa Monica, wrote on the Facebook page set up to support Black. "The superintendent needs to read the Education Code on reasonable restraint and the rights of teachers to defend themselves when being attacked, stabbed with a pencil, etc.," he wrote.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Lyons later wrote a memo to the school board, which acknowledged "many teachers at Samohi were upset with my earlier message, as many, even those involved in the end of the incident, had not seen what happened prior to that." 

The Times also quoted a Lyon memo to another teacher: "I am sorry if my earlier message disappointed Samohi staff," she wrote. "Clearly, this video is only a piece of this story and many people only have seen or heard a part of the story," she wrote in the memo obtained by The Times. "I can assure that any future action will be based on the full investigation."