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Racist, Sexist Remarks Put Dallas Board on Edge

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The Dallas school board has become mired in scandal, racial strife, and lawsuits--mostly as a result of tape recordings of its members' own words.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the possibility that board members were the victims of illegal wiretaps. And the school board adopted a resolution last week condemning all forms of bigotry and declaring its intent to craft a major initiative to address the problem.

The controversy stems from a tape of the private telephone calls of a board member, Dan Peavy, that was anonymously distributed in September to at least three other board members.

The tape captured spliced snippets of conversations in which Mr. Peavy, who is white, uttered racist, sexist, and anti-gay remarks. Mr. Peavy resigned last month after the tape became public.

"I am deeply remorseful for using this language, even in the privacy of my own home," he said in a prepared statement announcing his resignation.

Sandy Kress, the president of the Dallas school board, denounced Mr. Peavy's remarks in an interview last week, but called the unauthorized taping of the board member's phone conversations "scary and outrageous."

An FBI spokeswoman confirmed last week that the agency was conducting such a probe, but she refused to discuss it further. She noted that the unauthorized interception of a telephone communication is a violation of federal law.

Threats and Protests

Mr. Peavy's remarks were made public when two black members of the Dallas board, Kathlyn Gilliam and Yvonne Ewell, read a three-page transcript of the tape at the board's Sept. 28 meeting.

At one point during the five-minute recording, Mr. Peavy said Dallas schools were difficult to manage because they contain "ignorant goddamn little niggers." He used a host of other racial epithets, and referred to fellow board members in sexist and anti-gay terms.

Ms. Gilliam and Ms. Ewell called for Mr. Peavy's immediate resignation.

Mr. Peavy held a reconciliation meeting with local minority leaders on Oct. 5. He announced his resignation the next morning, saying "my language and the thought process preceding my language should not be used or tolerated."

Since the controversy erupted, dozens of activists have demonstrated outside the board's headquarters, and several white board members have reported receiving death threats.

The airing of Mr. Peavy's remarks has also triggered the formation of a coalition of local minority activists. They have demanded a long list of changes in district policy--including a change in how board members are elected--to address the needs of minority children.

Superintendent Chad Woolery responded last month by creating an intercultural-relations department headed by an expert on race relations from Southern Metho-dist University. He also appointed one white, one black, and one Hispanic school board member to a new committee charged with examining racial concerns in 149,000-student district.

Dealing With Divisions

Race has long been a sensitive issue for the district, which, before Mr. Peavy's resignation, had five white, one Hispanic, and three black school board members elected from different sections of the city. A new election to fill Mr. Peavy's seat has been scheduled for Jan. 20.

Four years ago, divisiveness over race and related concerns grew so persistent and severe that the Texas state education commissioner appointed an outside expert to intervene in the board's affairs. (See Education Week, April 29, 1992.)

Mr. Kress, the board president, who is white, said last week that the board has largely overcome its racial divisions and has made substantial strides in boosting minority student achievement. Few board votes, he said, have split along racial lines in recent years.

But minority activists have often complained that the majority-white board does not represent the community. White students make up only 12 percent of the district's enrollment, they note.

And black board members maintained last month that Mr. Peavy's remarks were symptomatic of a board that continues to shut them out of many decisions.

Lee Alcorn, the president of the Dallas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said last week that Mr. Peavy's resignation had done little to cure the institu-tional racism he sees as the cause of its minority students' higher dropout rates and lower test scores compared with those of their white peers.

He pointed out that a federal judge in September faulted the district for showing an "alarming lack of compliance" with the court's desegregation orders.

Plot Against Critics?

Mr. Peavy's resignation may not bring an end to his troubles. An internal district investigation recently recommended that local law-enforcement officials investigate whether he had a conflict of interest in awarding one of the district's insurance contracts.

The board, meanwhile, remains snarled in a fierce legal battle caused by the leaking of a separate audiotape used to record one of its executive sessions.

The tape captured the voices of several board members and their lawyer as they apparently conspired in 1992 to silence two of the board's most vocal critics with a defamation lawsuit at a time when the district was seeking voter approval of a bond issue.

On the tape, board members said they hoped the suit would damage the critics' credit ratings and interfere with their private business affairs.

The critics claim such damage was done, even though the district's suit ultimately was dismissed. And they have sued the board for what they contend was a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech.

The board recently countersued the critics and a former board member, alleging that the three tricked the board into engaging in the apparent plot as part of a scheme to sue the district and loot its insurance fund.

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