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Threat To Halt Funds Latest Chapter In Racially Charged Drama in Calif.

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When the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights sent a letter last month to the Centinela Valley (Calif.) Union High School District threatening to cut off its federal funds, the action culminated four years of bitterness and racially charged controversy.

The O.C.R.'s move was one of only a small number of cases in recent years in which the office has formally warned a school district that its flow of federal dollars was in danger because of alleged civil-rights violations.

Centinela Valley, located just outside the Los Angeles city limits, has been torn by a series of conflicts with racial overtones, including:

  • A power struggle between a black superintendent and a Hispanic-dominated school board elected with the backing of a predominantly white teachers' union;
  • A series of alleged racial incidents, most involving black administrators and white teachers;
  • Ongoing charges of discrimination against black employees and minority students; and
  • On-campus brawls between groups of Hispanic and black students.

More than a dozen current and former black employees have filed discrimination complaints against the district, which has given several of the complainants cash settlements. Three cases are pending in federal court and several more are pending before the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or state authorities.

The district has spent $2 million over the past three years fighting the charges.

'Racially Hostile Atmosphere'

Although the O.C.R. does not have direct jurisdiction over employment disputes, it found that district officials had done little to ameliorate a "racially hostile atmosphere.'' The office also concluded that the district was in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial bias in federally funded programs.

Critics of the Centinela Valley school board say the O.C.R.'s finding has bolstered their charges that the board discriminated against black employees and condoned bias against black students and racial harassment of students and employees.

"It vindicates everything the African-American community has been saying for years,'' said Shannon Reeves, the Western-region director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

But district officials say federal investigators did not hear both sides of the dispute, adding that they did what they could to investigate incidents of alleged harassment. Several black administrators were fired or demoted because of their performance, not because of their race, the district officials contend.

While their lawyer is currently negotiating a settlement with the O.C.R., board members continue to insist that Centinela Valley has no racial problems beyond the tensions that exist in any diverse urban district.

"Of course, there is racism,'' said Pam Sturgeon, the board president, who is white. "What I'm saying is that it's not predominant, not something beyond what any other school district or any other workplace experiences.''

The players in the drama paint radically different pictures of the same events. But many agree that the situation has been driven at least in part by a political fight for control of the district.

"Rights and wrongs on both sides caused this problem,'' said Darlene Daniel, an associate principal at Hawthorne High School, who is white. "Some say it's a racial thing, some say the issue is competence, maybe it's a question of power.''

"One thing's for sure,'' she said. "The ones who have suffered the most are the children.''

Demographic Shift

Centinela Valley is a secondary school district that receives students from several elementary districts. With two comprehensive high schools, an alternative school for dropouts, and an adult-education center, it currently enrolls about 6,000 students in grades 9-12.

In the 1980's, the district shifted from a largely white enrollment to one that is predominantly Hispanic. About 56 percent of students are Latino, 18 percent black, 11 percent white, and the rest Asian or members of other ethnic minorities. More than 80 percent of the teaching force is white.

In 1983, the school board selected an African-American superintendent, McKinley Nash, who hired and promoted a number of black administrators.

But a few white teachers refused to accept black administrators and "did not want to be held accountable'' for student performance, Mr. Nash alleged. Along with Kenneth Crowe, the former principal of Hawthorne High School, Mr. Nash charged that some teachers resisted "progressive'' programs and efforts to change the district's tracking system and get more minority students into college-preparatory classes.

On the contrary, argued Lauren Sanders, the executive director of South Bay United Teachers, the teachers simply did not like Mr. Nash's management policies and questioned his competence.

By all accounts, great animosity developed between Mr. Nash and a faction of teachers that included the union leadership.

The racial incidents described by the black administrators and their supporters began in 1987. The O.C.R.'s letter cites distribution of racially oriented cartoons and "hate mail,'' and remarks denigrating blacks allegedly made by teachers to their classes.

Nancy Neussler, who was then the president of the teachers' union, admitted to having called Mr. Nash "Honig's Stepin Fetchit'' at a 1989 union meeting, referring to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig.

One unusual incident involved a black mannequin designed to portray a mutilated corpse in the film "Coma,'' which a teacher used in a film course. Students and staff allegedly made remarks comparing it to Mr. Crowe.

Political Struggle

The alleged incidents increased in frequency before a hotly contested school board election in November 1989, in which three white incumbents were ousted by two Hispanics and Ms. Sturgeon. With strong support from the teachers' union, two of the newcomers were openly critical of Mr. Nash's administration.

Mr. Nash and his supporters said the challengers and their union backers ran a racist campaign in which they talked about ousting black employees.

"Race was used to get a political advantage, and that brought out the racist elements in the community,'' said Mr. Nash, who now works for the California Association of School Administrators.

At their first board meeting, the new members were confronted by members of the black community who wanted to discuss racial issues.

"They just brushed us off,'' said Lionel Broussard, a leader of the Committee for Racial Free Education, which filed the complaint with the O.C.R.

The O.C.R. report supports Mr. Broussard's contention that the board rebuffed repeated attempts to raise complaints about harassment and discrimination, and failed to respond to reports from Mr. Nash and from a lawyer who was assigned by the previous board to investigate harassment charges. All participants agreed that board meetings became increasingly confrontational, sometimes degenerating into shouting matches.

In January 1990, board members agreed to try to clear up the racial allegations through an independent investigation, and Mr. Nash requested one from the state education department. But before the department's intergroup-relations office could begin its study, the pot boiled over.

In late February, Mr. Crowe resigned after learning that the board planned to demote him to a teaching position. Within a few days, hundreds of students had walked out of class to demonstrate their support of Mr. Crowe.

In July, the board fired Mr. Nash, who said he was told he was being terminated because he was "insubordinate'' in refusing to support the demotion of Mr. Crowe. Board members have refused to comment, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters.

A Case of Racism

The ousted administrators and their supporters say the case is clearly one of racism on the part of the board and some teachers. They claim that all six of the district's African-American administrators were fired or demoted after the new board took office and that all the slots were filled with white men.

The activists--and the O.C.R.--say the board failed to implement any recommendations made by the intergroup-relations office, which found that "many students, staff, and other adults perceive racism in the district.''

They add that the board ignored a plan drafted at a meeting called by State Sen. Diane Watson after the student demonstrations.

The key recommendations in both reports concerned establishment of a process for resolving racial complaints.

Members of the African-American community also believe that two on-campus brawls between Hispanic and black students in 1991 were caused indirectly by the board.

"When this began in the 1980's, racism was almost nonexistent,'' said Mr. Reeves of the N.A.A.C.P. "You had kids of all races walking out in support of a black principal. Now, you have kids circulating racist cartoons and racial fights.''

"Children do what grown folks do; racism is not genetic,'' he said. "When that atmosphere is allowed to continue, it becomes inevitable that children pick up on it.''

Although the brawls were between black and Hispanic students, and the board they are fighting is predominantly Hispanic, the black activists say the problem is not enmity between two minority groups.

"While it may appear that the dispute is between Latinos and African-Americans, that's not where the dispute is at all,'' Mr. Crowe said. "I think Latinos were used as puppets by the white teachers' union to get rid of African-American leadership.''

The activists' complaints, and all the incidents cited by the O.C.R., involved treatment of black students and administrators by the board and by white teachers.

According to the state report, some Hispanic students spoke about tensions between Latino and black students, but complained more often about white teachers' bias against them and a lack of attention to their needs in the curriculum.

Or a Question of Competence

The view from the other side is quite different.

Ms. Sturgeon and Mr. Sanders said board members and teachers view their arguments with the black administrators as a policy dispute. The administrators have falsely charged them with racism, the board president and union leader contend, when the issue is really the administrators' shortcomings as managers.

"It was a question of competence,'' Mr. Sanders said, adding that many educators thought Mr. Nash's "progressive'' programs--which included efforts to help dropouts and a mentoring program--did not live up to their billing and came at the expense of smaller classes and desperately needed textbooks.

Ms. Sturgeon said the board was particularly angered when a program Mr. Nash said would be funded with a federal grant ended up taking a chunk out of the district's budget instead.

While Mr. Broussard said racial considerations were paramount, he agreed that the teachers also had other motives for battling Mr. Nash.

John Carter, who succeeded Mr. Crowe as the principal of Hawthorne High, also emphasized the struggle for power.

"I think it's a political thing,'' he said. "It's about who's going to control the board.''

Board members contend they did as much as they could to find the perpetrators of the incidents cited by the O.C.R. Ms. Sturgeon noted that some occurred before the new board took office, and that, in addition, two white teachers were reprimanded.

The board president described the 1990 student demonstrations as instigated by adults seeking to damage the board, while the 1991 fights were sparked by personal disputes and involved only a handful of students.

"We had maybe 20 kids standing around and a few actually fighting,'' said Ms. Daniels, the Hawthorne associate principal. "On a campus of 3,000 where the rest are in class, that's not a riot.''

The board's rejoinder to the O.C.R. report also complained that both federal and state investigators had failed to interview board members or others who shared their viewpoint, and ignored evidence submitted by the board.

Federal Investigation Faulted

The O.C.R. "wouldn't even tell us what the charges were'' prior to sending last month's letter, Ms. Sturgeon said. She added that the board had not negotiated with the O.C.R. because federal officials demanded that the district agree to a remediation plan without outlining the accusations.

O.C.R. officials declined to comment on the pending case, but a spokesman confirmed that it is not their policy to withhold complaint information from school districts.

"Complaints about overzealous prosecution are rather ironic'' in light of longstanding criticism from civil-rights organizations that the agency is too quick to settle cases, one O.C.R. official noted.

Indeed, civil-rights groups have often criticized the agency's policy of trying to reach agreement before a letter of finding is sent.

In 1992, for example, the O.C.R. sent 1,540 letters resulting from complaint investigations and compliance reviews. But the vast majority stated that no violation had been found or that the violation had been corrected. Only two of the letters threatened a cutoff of federal funds.

Precedent for Action Seen

Neither O.C.R. officials nor the district's lawyer, Lawrence Frierson, would divulge what corrective action the agency is seeking.

The district's current superintendent, Joseph M. Carrillo, who was hired last June, said some of the demands involve procedures for handling racial complaints and in-service training for teachers.

"It isn't anything I consider terribly stringent, and I think there are some good things in there,'' he said.

The O.C.R. does not have the authority to ask the district to undo the disputed personnel changes. But the black administrators' supporters hope the O.C.R. findings will bolster their complaints.

"I think the O.C.R. report is very helpful to Dr. Crowe,'' said his lawyer, George W. Shaeffer Jr.

Mr. Crowe, who is now the principal of a high school in a nearby district, is awaiting a trial date in federal district court. Mr. Nash settled his case for $150,000 some time ago.

Mr. Reeves said he hopes the O.C.R.'s findings will help the N.A.A.C.P. take action against other districts.

"It's a precedent,'' he said. "Centinela Valley isn't the only place this is happening.''

But the combatants are less hopeful about the immediate future of Centinela Valley.

"No matter what we do, it will never satisfy them,'' Ms. Sturgeon said of the board's critics.

Some board opponents said real progress is unlikely as long as the current members remain in office.

Mr. Reeves said he will press state officials to put the district into receivership. Failing that, he will ask the O.C.R. to monitor it closely.

"I'm hoping [the O.C.R. findings] will help, but it's hard because [the board] doesn't think what the O.C.R. did was right,'' Mr. Broussard said. "We all have to sit down and talk about what has happened in this district and what we need to do about it, and I don't think they're ready for that yet.''

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