Racial Incidents Force Change
Julie Patel, San Jose Mercury News, Jan. 19
FREMONT — As waves of immigration transform its campuses, Fremont schools are confronting a spate of racially charged classroom incidents that have stunned the community and embroiled the district in the difficult issues surrounding ethnic change.
At John F. Kennedy High School, a teacher recited a version of “eenie, meenie, minie, moe,” inserting a racial slur for blacks before finishing with “… by the toe.”
A teacher at nearby Irvington High announced to his class, “If you don’t stand for the Pledge, you should go back to the country you came from.” Two elementary school principals and a third high school teacher drew additional complaints about their lack of cultural sensitivity.
While the nation today honors the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., the tumult in the Fremont Unified School District serves as a powerful reminder: Even in such multicultural places as the Bay Area, the diversity King championed still leads to the tensions he sought to ease.
All of the teachers and principals apologized for their actions and were reprimanded. At least one teacher was transferred to another job in the district. Now, the district is instituting special sensitivity training for teachers and students.
The discord comes as the district experiences the rapid growth of its Asian and Asian-American population. Minorities now make up more than two-thirds of the district’s student body, up from 38 percent 10 years ago.
Most troublesome to parents is that the problems have come from the individuals entrusted with setting an example of tolerance and understanding for children: teachers.
“These people are forming the minds of young people,” said Keionia Braxton, the mother of a student who was in the Kennedy High class. “I don’t send my child to school to learn that type of ignorance.”
But even as the region grows increasingly diverse, teachers in Fremont and elsewhere often lack the tools to avoid such conflict, said Roland Tharp, director of the Center on Research for Education, Diversity and Excellence at UC Santa Cruz.
“They’re not being given adequate resources and training to deal with classrooms that are becoming ethnically and linguistically more complex,” he said. “This is a failure of national and state policies.”
Since the tensions in Fremont spilled into the open this past fall, parents have confronted administrators to demand action, and student newspapers have found themselves chronicling the controversy. This month, the district hired a Massachusetts multicultural consulting firm to conduct a “diversity audit” to evaluate how the district is handling the situation and what tools it has in place to support a diverse student body.
As part of that, teachers and students at the district’s five high schools, five middle schools, 28 elementary schools and one continuation school this year will take part in a series of programs aimed to improve racial sensitivity.
At Kennedy High, where much of the initial diversity training is being tested, officials last month invited a speaker to talk about racial sensitivity. High schools students made presentations on diversity in classes at the school last week.
Kwynn Uyehara, a second-grade teacher at Joseph Azevada Elementary School, said she considers the situation a wake-up call.
“It hurts that we’re still stuck in a time where this happens, especially in California, where it seems like there’s an understanding about diversity,” she said. “In a way, I’m actually glad this came up. We as teachers need to be called on it if we’re doing something wrong.”
About 40 parents of Middle Eastern and Asian descent first called on the district to better handle racial tensions in September. They aired their concerns in a meeting about a climate of fear following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq.
Many of those parents followed up on that meeting in another this month where they presented district officials with videos promoting awareness about their cultures. But by then, the issue had moved to a different, and, for many, shocking, level.
In October, a Kennedy High teacher attempting to select a student to make a trip to the main office made a racial slur while reciting “eenie, meenie, minie, moe.” She was quickly placed on unpaid leave for two days before being given another position within the district, said Vivienne Paratore, the school’s principal.
A few weeks later, a Spanish-language teacher at the same school made inappropriate comments that singled out Mexican-Americans, Paratore said. School and district officials refused to comment on disciplinary actions taken against the teacher and several others in the district.
The most recent incident came in November, when an Irvington High teacher chastised an Indo-American student for not immediately standing up for the Pledge of Allegiance, said Irvington High Principal Pete Murchison.
He said the teacher acknowledged telling students they “should go back to the country you came from” if they didn’t stand.
“It’s clearly not an acceptable remark, and it’s outside the culture of this school,” Murchison said. But in the teacher’s mind, he added, “it didn’t have anything to do with the kid’s ethnicity.”
Although it may have been unintentional, the comment made Sonali Shankar, a student in the class, uncomfortable.
“It made me feel bad,” said Shankar, a sophomore. “I felt like some immigrant who doesn’t belong here.”