The parents of a black 10-year-old in Oxnard have hired an attorney to demand a public apology from a fourth-grade teacher who allegedly called their son "Buckwheat."
The attorney, Phillip Feldman of Sherman Oaks, has filed a complaint with the El Rio School District demanding $1 in damages from both the district and the teacher, as well as an apology "in front of the entire fourth-grade class and such members of the press as are invited, acknowledging her inappropriate conduct."
The complaint, filed Jan. 13, alleges that El Rio Elementary School teacher Deborah McIntosh told Esteen Love III to "sit down, Buckwheat, and do your work."
"She set a terrible example," said Feldman, who recently won another case involving racial slurs, that one from the Magic Mountain amusement park. "She left 39 future members of another generation with the belief that blacks should go to the back, or, if you're different, it isn't OK."
District officials declined to comment, citing the possibility of litigation.
For the same reason, McIntosh declined comment, except to say: "This is a really hurtful, horrible situation to have someone say this sort of thing about you and not be able to defend yourself." McIntosh has taught at El Rio since 1984.
The alleged "Buckwheat" reference occured as the class was studying "math or reading," on Jan. 5, according to Esteen Love III.
When the student told his mother, Janice Love, a Ventura receptionist, of the alleged incident, she requested a meeting with the teacher, district officials and an official with the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
But McIntosh failed to attend a meeting scheduled Jan. 11, and district officials canceled a meeting scheduled Jan. 14 after learning that Janice and Esteen Love Jr., an Oxnard supermarket checker, had hired an attorney, Mrs. Love said.
The 10-year-old said McIntosh later tried to explain herself to him. He said: "She said, 'I didn't mean to call you Buckwheat, I meant to call you Buckeroo.' "
His mother said El Rio Supt. John McGarry had given her another explanation for the alleged gaffe. "It was during social studies, and they had been discussing the different kinds of wheat, and buckwheat just came out," she said, summing up the superintendent's explanation.
The Loves hired Feldman after they read a newspaper account of his work in representing a black Compton teen-ager who said an employee of Six Flags Magic Mountain shouted racial epithets at him. The family filed a complaint, and the amusement park agreed this month to a $35,000 settlement. A suit is still pending against the employee, who has since left the amusement park.
"What I want is a dollar here and a dollar there and an apology," Feldman said. "If not, you see what happened to Magic Mountain, wait till you see what happens to you."
The parents have also requested that their son be moved to another classroom. However, school officials have denied those requests, Mrs. Love said.
"I don't think he should be in a classroom with a teacher who is so obviously prejudiced," she said.
The complaint maintains that the incident came on the heels of a string of racial slurs by students, but Feldman said the school's principal, Raphael Perez, did "a brilliant, fair job" of handling those problems by telling students that "this sort of behavior wouldn't be accepted."
State code provides 45 days for a governmental body, such as a school district, to respond to a complaint before a suit can be filed, said the school district's attorney, Herbert F. Blanck.
Buckwheat, the name of a dim-witted black character in the 1920s movie shorts, "Little Rascals," which have been re-edited for television, has become a negative stereotype of blacks, Feldman said. He said it evokes "the slow shuffle, the slow talk in an almost indecipherable dialect" of "stupid, lazy" black characters who are "usually sleepy-eyed, with watermelon seeds in their mouth."
Feldman said none of this was lost on Love, who has seen reruns of the program. "I knew what she meant," Feldman recalled Love saying. "She meant nigger."
McGarry, the superintendent, reacted with incredulity to the reports of racial tension in his district, which is composed of 57 black students, about 600 Anglos and more than 15,000 Latinos.
"I've been in this school district as a teacher, principal and now as a superintendent going back to 1959, and I have never heard this sort of thing on the school grounds," he said.
Love, a Maine native, said the incidents also surprised her.
"This is California," she said, "not Alabama."