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Racial Confrontations Spark State Inquiry

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The West Virginia Human Rights Commission has initiated a formal investigation of racial problems in a school district that rights officials say has produced more complaints of racism than any other in the state in recent years.

Officials decided to investigate the situation in the Mercer County School District in the wake of several incidents at the Princeton Junior High School and in the surrounding community last month.

A fight involving a small group of students at a Saturday night school dance escalated the next day with threatening phone calls to some parents of black students, according to Irene Pauley, principal of the school.

An assault on black students in the gymnasium on Monday morning by two outsiders touched off rumors of an impending race riot, she said. About a third of the school's 950 students left early with permission, and only about 300 attended on Tuesday.

Although a cross was burned in front of a nearby church, there were no further incidents at the school and attendance was normal by the end of the week. School officials suspended five students for fighting, saying they were confident that the suspensions had solved the problem.

A History of Complaints

The rights commission has received more complaints about discrimination in the Mercer County district than from any other district in the state over the past six years, according to Howard Kenney, executive director.

Although the rights commission has responded to complaints about the Mercer County district brought before it in the past, said Mr. Kenney, the current investigation marks the first time the commission has initiated an inquiry involving the school district.

In an investigation in 1981, for example, the commission found that teachers at Princeton High School had "poor attitudes and judgment with racist jokes and statements."

The commission's current investigation, which is expected to take several months, will seek to determine whether there are any discriminatory policies in the district, Mr. Kenney said. The commission has the authority to order the school system to discontinue any policy or practice it finds discriminatory.--ws

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