Racial Tensions Shadow School’s Achievements
Marshall principal fighting accusations of insensitivity
Gretchen Hoffman, PasadenaStarNews.com, Apr. 28
PASADENA — A year ago, Marshall Fundamental High School was one of three schools in the nation to receive the College Board’s Inspiration Award in recognition of its work in helping economically disadvantaged students go to college. It is the Pasadena Unified School District’s highest-scoring high school on state standardized tests, and parents overwhelmingly choose Marshall when applying through the district’s open-enrollment process.
But tensions have been building at the school, which serves sixth through 12th-graders. Last month, a fight between African — American and Armenian students spilled over, resulting in a lockdown and several students being cited by PUSD police. Some parents say they are afraid for students’ safety.
An Armenian administrator has been fired, and his lawyer is threatening a lawsuit, saying Principal Steven Miller is the person who should be removed.
And a group of community members is circulating a petition calling for Miller’s removal, claiming that he is a bigot who is systematically purging the school of African-Americans.
Some Armenian parents were upset when middle school dean Kevork Halladjian was notified that he will not return to his position next year. They say that he was the only school administrator who listened to parents concerned about rumors of further violence before the March 5 fights.
Miller has been criticized for his handling of the fights, with detractors saying he is ill — equipped to handle racial tensions because he is culturally insensitive at best.
However, many parents, students and school officials have repeatedly denied that the fights were racially motivated but were merely fights between individuals.
Halladjian’s lawyer, Dale Gronemeier, said he is laying the groundwork for a lawsuit if Halladjian is not reinstated.
Gronemeier is married to Marshall’s high school dean, Temetra Gronemeier, who had a lawsuit pending against the school district alleging she was discriminated against because of her age. She was seeking the principal position, which was instead given to Miller.
The lawsuit was rejected by a judge last week.
The lawyer said that in a deposition taken for that lawsuit, Miller admitted asking district officials to remove Temetra Gronemeier from her administrative position at Marshall, a request that was denied.
She and Halladjian are a symbol of African Americans and Armenian Americans working together cooperatively at a time when Marshall is undergoing a racial crisis, Dale Gronemeier said.
In an April 15 letter to Superintendent Percy Clark, Dale Gronemeier warned of disastrous consequences for Miller and said he plays hardball and is prepared for a public battle.
“There has been a systematic attempt by Miller to purge the African Americans from the security force at Marshall,’ Gronemeier claimed Wednesday. “Because Halladjian would not go along with illegal practices, Miller wanted to fire him.
“At a minimum, Miller is racially insensitive and the alternative is that he’s bigoted,’ Gronemeier added.
Miller said the allegation that Halladjian was given a pink slip because he refused to fire a security guard does not make sense, since district officials do all hiring and firing at the high school. The opposition comes from people who would have targeted whoever took the principalship two years ago, he said.
Teachers describe Miller as calm, fair, personable and a good listener. He commands respect but becomes even more soft-spoken than usual when talking about the allegations of bigotry.
“From the very first week that I arrived here, there were threats, there were warnings,’ Miller said. “I’ve dealt with slander, intimidation. I’ve been subjected to these twisted perversions of lies. When I’m called a racist, I get emotional, because it’s slander.
“On three different occasions, publicly I’ve been told that I’m going to be driven out of Pasadena. It’s getting to a point where I’m starting to worry about (my) safety. What’s going on here is an agenda that has nothing to do with these kids.
“What I found was that every time Marshall demonstrates success, then the intimidation, the aggression escalates,’ Miller said. “Right now … the focus is on me but it’s really about destroying the school.’
District officials said Miller’s supporters far outnumber his detractors.
“Steve has the unqualified support of the superintendent and his staff,’ PUSD spokesman Erik Nasarenko said. “ Steve is an exemplary school leader who we are fortunate to have in this district.’
Miller said he is committed to leading the school despite the threats and lies but that he will leave if the conflict begins to affect student achievement.
“I think it becomes too much when I start to see students being negatively impacted, and I think (my detractors) know that about me,’ Miller said. “They know that’s ammunition.’
Altadena resident John Wright is one of the people who have been handing out petitions calling for Miller’s removal. Miller lacks the sensitivity to deal with a multi-ethnic student body and has alienated members of the community with his biased attitude, the petition states.
“He thinks that African Americans should have an appointment with him as opposed to having an open-door policy with Caucasians,’ Wright said, adding that he has not met personally with Miller. Wright has no children or grandchildren at the school.
“I’m just a concerned citizen and feel there’s got to be someone who will stand up and be a voice for the African-American community,’ Wright said. “I’m not boxing it in as an African — American principal, but what we need is a person over there who has the children’s welfare at heart and who has the sensitivity to deal with a multi-ethnic campus.’
Roy Sunada, who has been teaching at Marshall for 12 years, said Miller has had a calming effect at the school since he took over in the midst of chaos caused by scheduling problems.
“I believe it’s turning into a personal attack,’ Sunada said. “He’s absolutely not racist or a bigot. To say that really trivializes the seriousness of racism. His detractors have no sense of shame and no sense of decency.’