One view: Some minorities say taunts let hatred grow Another: Districts say racial incidents are isolated
March 22, 2008 - 3:58PM
By PERRY SWANSON and SHARI CHANEY GRIFFIN
Two boys taunted one another with racial slurs, including the N-word. Then one threatened the other.
"Touch my stuff and I'll punch you," the boy told Deshawn Shepherd, then a 10-year-old student at North Elementary School. Deshawn ignored the warning, and a fight followed, according to police and school reports.
It was more than a harmless schoolyard scrap, said Deshawn's aunt and guardian, Felicia Wingo. She said it's one of numerous incidents spanning nearly eight years in which her six children, who are black, have been attacked verbally and physically because of their race.
A spokesman for Widefield School District 3 said the 2005 episode was an isolated case and that racial discrimination is not a problem in the district. Other area districts also said such incidents are not indicative of widespread racism.
Wingo and other parents of minority students across the Pikes Peak region disagree. Even if taunts and other behavior come from misguided, childish rambunctiousness, rather than deep-seated racism, downplaying or ignoring such behavior enables dangerous hatred to fester and grow, they say.
Racial discrimination against schoolchildren is a difficult problem to measure and correct, experts say. Unlike cases with weapons or drugs, schools don't track the number of racist incidents, except the few that end up reported to police and designated as bias-motivated crimes. In addition, the law forbids school officials from publicly discussing the behavior of individual students.
"These kinds of things are difficult to prove because people will always say ‘That's not what I meant,'" the Rev. Promise Lee said.
Lee said his three children, who attend classes in Falcon School District 49, are frequently targets of racist remarks.
Some say more minority teachers and better diversity training would reduce discrimination. School officials agree those steps are important. But what would show that efforts to combat discrimination are working?
"You'll see growth, you'll see more diversity, you'll see ethnic minorities in power positions, decision-making positions," Lee said.
Lee and others said area schools have a long way to go before such goals are realized. Among the incidents they cite:
• At Creekside Middle School in Monument on March 6, at least one boy hurled the N-word at a black classmate, 12-year-old Kenyan Clay, who retaliated by putting the boy in a headlock. Kenyan faces a possible assault charge. Two other boys could be
charged with harassment.
• In Academy School District 20, Carrie Matoke alleges her son's language arts teacher stumbled over how to talk about the man who started Black History Month. The teacher first used the N-word, then "negro," then "black," Matoke said. The district said no one corroborated the allegations. Matoke said the district staff should include more minorities, to serve as role models, and it should teach more about black history and accomplishments.
• In Falcon School District 49, Darryl Murphy said his children have been called the N-word, but a bigger issue is the lack of black employees. He has offered to give a presentation on why the N-word is inappropriate, with no response. He worries racist incidents could become worse if they're allowed to stand.
The Rev. James McMearn, president of the Black Pastors Union and pastor of New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church, expressed frustration after working for civil rights reforms since the 1960s.
"The laws are probably colorblind, but so many people, too many people who live in our culture, are not colorblind," he said.
A safe environment
Area district officials say they want an environment where every child feels safe and accepted. They said they're working for that goal by being vigilant for racist behavior, training students and staff members about accepting cultural differences and recruiting diverse people for staff positions.
District 49 administrators have worked to make anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies stronger, Superintendent Nancy Wright said, and those will come before the school board in April.
The district added a link on its Web site to the federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, so parents can easily file a complaint or contact the office for advice.
Wright also wants to create a community advisory committee to tackle complaints, if the school board approves.
The district is working with officials at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to teach employees about instruction methods that respect students' background, knowledge and experiences.
That's also happening in D-20, which is working with Shelley Zion, director of the Culturally Responsive Urban Education Center, part of University of Colorado at Denver.
Some of the tips Zion offers are subtle. Students need to see people like them in the curriculum and on the walls.
If a student named Joaquim reads about only Bob and Susie, he's hearing a subtle message he doesn't belong, Zion said. If pictures of scientists in the science book are all white males, girls and minorities might believe science isn't an option for them.
Ultimately, districts must consider whether the experiences of all students are fair and equitable, Zion said. If students aren't succeeding, something is probably going on, she said.
It might not be as dramatic as racist taunts on the playground, she said. "The small things are the ones that really add up."
A different view
Not everyone sees rampant racism or danger for minority students. Cynthia Wusk, who has nine children in Falcon schools, said racism is present, but it's not an imminent threat.
Wusk said her children, who are Hispanic, American Indian and black, scoffed at the idea that Falcon schools are particularly racist. Her children told her students are taunted for any number of characteristics, such as obesity.
"Not all families are experiencing these issues," she said. "Yeah, they run into grief, and they just keep right on going."
In Widefield, spokesman Drew said outside investigators have looked into Wingo's allegations and "in every case District 3 has been exonerated of any wrongdoing."
"We revel in our diversity," Drew said, citing the district's large population of minority students (39 percent in 2006), and various district leaders who are minorities. "I have been here 14 years, and I can recall very few race-related complaints in that time. Race issues definitely do not in any way, shape or form represent Widefield's culture."
The 2005 case involving Wingo's nephew led to a disorderly conduct charge filed against Deshawn, but it was dropped after a request to prosecutors by Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction Beth Salvo.
In a letter requesting withdrawl of the charge, Salvo acknowledged Deshawn reported the name calling to a teacher the morning of the fight and that no action was taken.
The fight happened that afternoon.
Wingo said similar incidents with Deshawn and her other children have continued and are a distraction to students.
"In all of this, my problem is ‘How much education have my children got?'" she said.
Calls for a diverse staff
Several districts said they are aggressively working to add minority employees. The percentage of minority teachers has not risen substantially in any of the area's largest districts in recent years, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.
"I think we're always looking for candidates that more closely match our population," said Nanette Anderson, D-20 spokeswoman.
The district has increased from 15 percent minority students in 2002 to 18 percent in 2006.
Teachers from diverse backgrounds aren't easy to find, Wright said, especially in subjects where there are shortages, such as math and science, or in special education.
Creating a more diverse work force is a push "across the country," said Mary Thurman, deputy superintendent for personnel support services in D-11.
Lee, who's leading the effort in D-49, said a more diverse staff is important to show students examples of minorities they can admire and emulate. It's also a statement to the community that school leaders embrace diversity and oppose discrimination, he said.
But Lee said his children can't afford to wait for change in Falcon.
"We're looking for other schools. I don't believe that it's a safe learning environment for my kids. We've taken just about as much as we can take," he said. "We're pulling out, and it's not that we're running, because I'll stay there and fight for justice, but I don't want my kids subjected to these things."
Swanson, Perry and Shari Chaney Griffin. “Racism at School is Hard to Measure and
Correct.” The Gazette. 22 March 2008. Red Orbit. 12 May 2008