Published Online: February 12, 1997


Death Threat Prompts School Probe in Chicago

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A death threat left on a would-be principal's answering machine has reopened a Pandora's box of questions about a Chicago high school's ties to militant Puerto Rican nationalists.

The threat this month against Jerry Anderson, who was a candidate for the principal's job at Roberto Clemente High School, has prompted new investigations into the school's operations.

Paul G. Vallas, the school district's chief executive officer, said he had notified local police and the FBI about the threat against Ms. Anderson and that those agencies had begun investigating political activity at the school.

The speaker of the Illinois House has also named a special committee with subpoena powers to look into the school.

The chairman of that committee, Rep. Edgar Lopez, last week called for the school to be broken up into smaller schools. "The school is controlled by political radicals, and people have the right to know about it," the Democratic lawmaker said.

A school district evaluation of Clemente High in November concluded that "the political climate and divisiveness thwart academic progress at a level so significant that the education of the students is being ignored."

The 2,400-student school came under intense public scrutiny in 1995 when officials discovered that school officials had misused a state aid program intended to boost poor neighborhoods.

State and local officials said money from that program was instead used to fly in speakers and performers who support Puerto Rican independence, bankroll a fund-raiser for a nationalist group, and send students to camps in Puerto Rico that espoused radical politics.

The scandal followed the management shakeup of the city's public schools that year, which gave the mayor's office broad control over the troubled district.

Clemente High was among dozens of schools quickly placed on academic and financial probation, which required the school to undergo special audits. The move won praise for the new administration and for Mr. Vallas, the take-charge school boss appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Mr. Vallas said last week that many of the administrative and financial problems at Clemente High have been resolved.

Threat Against Candidate

Ms. Anderson, an administrator at Homewood-Flossmoor High School in suburban Chicago, said she rejected the principalship at Clemente High after receiving a letter telling her to call "your boss" at the FALN. That Puerto Rican group, which is known by its Spanish initials, is suspected of terrorist activities.

Ms. Anderson said she had also received telephone calls pressuring her to meet with Puerto Rican community leaders.

"I knew the school had academic and gang problems, but those problems are everywhere and I saw it as a challenge," Ms. Anderson said in an interview last week. "But I began to have reservations after the letter and calls. I didn't think politics should have any part in education."

Ms. Anderson said that on Feb. 1, the day after she rejected the job, she received a message on the telephone answering machine at her home that said, "I'm going to kill you, each and every one of you."

A report by the police in Homewood, the Chicago suburb where she lives, says the FALN is suspected of making the threat.

Officials have not identified any school employees suspected of supporting militant Puerto Rican groups.

Meanwhile, the local school council at Clemente High settled on a new principal last week. Irene DaMota, who has been the principal of Chicago's Whittier Elementary School for six years, has also taught in the city and served as principal at its Brazil High School.

"She has a record of improving test scores and is an educator with good experience," Mr. Vallas said. He added that the district is providing a personal bodyguard for Ms. DaMota.

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