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School Boycott Threatens 'Lifeblood' of La. Town

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BONITA, LA.--This is the kind of place where the drive-up lottery window has replaced the drive-up banking window. Now, town residents fear, Bonita Elementary School will go the way of its bank--a once-thriving community institution forced to close its doors.

But the school's existence is not the only piece of community identity threatened by a standoff between the parents of black elementary students and the children's white principal.

With each passing week, the confrontation chips further away at the good will that had come to mark race relations in this tiny agrarian community. Only last July blacks and whites had worked together to win passage of higher property and sales taxes to be used for school improvements in Morehouse Parish.

"That did a great deal to help race relations here, and then this thing hit the fan,'' said Duke Shackelford, a Bonita landowner who fought for the tax measure. "I'm sure glad [the tax increase] did pass, because there's no way in hell it'd pass with the situation we've got now.''

"The situation.'' It is an often-used euphemism for the semester-long boycott of Bonita Elementary by scores of black parents who maintain that Principal Dale Bishop has created a hostile learning environment for their children.

Over the past several years, the parents allege, Ms. Bishop has systematically treated children differently according to their race.

Now, the community has splintered. Whites are pitted against blacks; blacks who are upholding the boycott are at odds with blacks who have sent their children back to Bonita; and parents are sparring with the school board.

"This has totally destroyed the good working relationship of the black and white communities in our village,'' Mayor Rick Polk said. "When people think of Bonita now, all they think of is this situation, not all the good things we've done in the last few years.''

"When your school dies, it's the beginning of the end for your town,'' Mr. Polk said, "and I don't want that.''

Moreover, parents and teachers say, the boycott has meant major disruptions at the school, which before the boycott enrolled 133 students.

As the boycott took hold and enrollments dwindled, teachers doubled up some classes, and they came up with a plan to teach 3rd graders who were left without a permanent teacher as a result of the upheaval.

"The whole school year has been disrupted,'' said Betty Long, who teaches 2nd grade. "The kids who are out will never catch up, and those who are in school have been affected. It's like the whole year has been wasted.''

Facing Allegations

At issue is the five-year performance of Ms. Bishop as Bonita's principal--not as an administrator, for which she is widely praised, but as a nurturer and educator of students of all races in a K-6 school that remains subject to a 1970 federal-court desegregation order.

In Bonita, where 55 percent of the town's approximately 450 residents are white, nearly 75 percent of the students at the elementary school are black. If they have the money, white parents pay for private busing to send their children to the predominantly white Prairieview Academy 20 miles away.

Parents of black students attending the school have accused Ms. Bishop in interviews, state district-court documents, and a complaint registered with the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights of creating a hostile atmosphere for blacks.

They cite, among other evidence, incidents in which the principal allegedly ripped an earring from a student's ear, called black students "blackbirds,'' slapped black students on the back and grabbed them so hard that their skin broke, issued different punishments for black and white children, and questioned black students in front of their white peers about whether they had bathed or washed their hair.

"To her, every black kid that went [to Bonita Elementary] was nasty,'' said Valentina Robinson, who pulled her son out of the school earlier this year and moved so he could attend another school.

"If every time you go into a person's yard and his dog is trying to bite you, why keep going in that yard?'' asked Marilyn Anderson, who has observed the boycott by keeping her two daughters out of school.

Shemika Bortee, Ms. Anderson's 11-year-old daughter who is now spending her days at home, said she likes the freedom. "It's fun, and I do read my books,'' she said. "I can have recess when I get ready, I can eat when I get ready, and I can read when I get ready.''

Ms. Bishop denied the parents' allegations and said in an interview that she looks forward to the time when the issues can be aired before the parish school board or in court so she can clear her name.

"All of the charges brought against me by the parents are not true,'' said Ms. Bishop, who until now has refused to speak with reporters. "We firmly believe that this is the safest environment [students will] ever be in, that this is the cleanest environment they'll ever be in, that this is the happiest environment they'll ever be in.''

She admitted only to being a workaholic who is overly concerned about each and every facet of her school.

"Anyone with an ounce of professionalism or humanism or whatever else would say, 'Stop, let me look at myself.' It's only normal to do that,'' Ms. Bishop said. "I'm rethinking in that I'm not taking on all of the responsibility now.''

The 'Capon Caper'

The boycott began on Sept. 25 when a local police official summoned the school's two cafeteria workers, one black and one white, to appear in court to answer charges that they each had stolen a handful of chicken and biscuits.

Hardly an issue to spark a school boycott, many of the whites interviewed for this article said, arguing that the black parents overreacted to the police investigation and "blew it out of proportion.''

But the "capon caper,'' as one observer called it, ignited an explosion of resentment that had been building against Ms. Bishop. It did not help, many pointed out, that word spread that the white worker may have received special treatment from the officer.

After the district's superintendent placed Ms. Bishop on administrative leave in early October, tempers cooled briefly and parents returned their children to Bonita for one week.

But the children were pulled out again when Michael Faulk, the parish's superintendent of schools, reinstated Ms. Bishop pending an investigation by the board's lawyer. The results of that investigation are expected later this month.

In the meantime, retired teachers from the area began operating a makeshift school at nearby St. Mark's Baptist Church for those students not attending the public school.

At the boycott's height, more than 80 students had pulled out of Bonita, and many were attending the school at St. Mark's.

But the school was forced to close several weeks ago in the face of pressure from members of the congregation and because too few parents volunteered to help with food distribution, janitorial duties, and classroom activities.

Since then, students have slowly trickled back to Bonita Elementary; its daily student count is now in the 90's.

Pressing the Point

But several parents have resolved to pursue the issue until Ms. Bishop is removed.

Enlisting sympathetic school board members to press their case, the parents first asked the board to transfer or promote the principal, and then later urged the board to waive the state requirement that students miss no more than 20 days of school per year.

Both measures failed by 7-to-3 votes, with both being decided along racial lines.

Their next effort, a court challenge brought by a public-interest law firm, was thrown out by a district-court judge, who said the parents had not exhausted potential administrative remedies.

The series of setbacks has firmed the resolve of the parents and their supporters.

"It's as simple as this: This lady abused our children, and nobody gives a damn, and we would look like fools to send our children back while she's still there,'' Ms. Anderson said.

Still, some parents, like Catherine Waters, have.

Ms. Waters, who said she was pressured to keep her child out of school, said her son returned to Bonita after missing 18 days and after some parents got in touch with the Education Department's office for civil rights. At that point, she said, "I felt there was nothing else I could do.''

"During the movement, I felt that we needed 100 percent participation,'' Ms. Waters said. "But, as I told Ms. Bishop the other day, I feel comfortable at work now because I don't think, with this coming out, that she'll do anything to my child.''

Education Department officials have pledged to investigate Bonita schools early next month.

Nevertheless, some observers note that the parents rejected attempts by community leaders, including some black ministers, to negotiate a resolution to their grievances.

"It's the parents' decision to keep their kids out of school, but it's hurting the children to keep them out of school,'' said Ruthie Price, who runs Bonita's senior citizens' center. "We've prayed and tried to solve it, but it has just gotten out of hand.''

Power Play

The brinksmanship between the parents and Ms. Bishop, Mr. Faulk, and the Morehouse Parish school board has shaken this small town, a place not accustomed to such high-level political tension.

Said one Bonita teacher who asked not to be named: "At this moment, it's a power play. [Some of the board members] want to prove their power over the parents, and then they can make the changes that need to be made.''

"Children need to be treated with dignity,'' the teacher added, "and sometimes that didn't happen.''

Mr. Faulk acknowledged that a couple of Bonita employees talked to him last summer about their concerns about Ms. Bishop's conduct.

He refused to discuss the merits of the concerns raised by either the employees or the parents, or Ms. Bishop's future at Bonita Elementary School.

But Mr. Faulk said he is evaluating the principal and the need to keep the school, Morehouse's smallest, open next year.

"Small schools like that are often considered the lifeblood of the community,'' he said, "and whenever you close a school like that, you eventually drain that community down to where it ceases to exist.''

In recent weeks, however, Mr. Faulk told the boycotting parents that he would consider, on a case-by-case basis, requests that the district provide transportation for children who want to transfer from Bonita Elementary to other schools in the parish where they would be in the minority.

Under the desegregation order in place in the district, school officials are required to approve such transportation requests but, until now, have refused to abide by the order.

The superintendent's change of heart may lead the parents to drop their consideration of an appeal of the judicial ruling, A.J. Jones, the parents' lawyer, said last week.

"If this [policy had been in force] in the first place, there never would have been a lawsuit,'' he said, adding that he expects most of the boycotting parents will apply for the transfers.

But that, he agreed, would put the future of Bonita Elementary in further jeopardy.

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