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Teacher in Ethnic Debate Apparently Won't Return

July 31, 1988|JEFFREY MILLER | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIMAS — A substitute teacher whose statements that blacks, Latinos and Italians resemble dogs outraged some students and parents will not teach again in the Bonita Unified School District, according to one of the parents.

Toni Johns, whose son, Brian, was among three San Dimas High School students who complained that teacher James Willard's lecture was racist, said she was assured last week by the district's new superintendent, Duane Dishno, that Willard will not be hired to teach at any of the district's schools.

Could Not Confirm

Johns said Dishno promised to send a letter on the district's handling of the matter to all the parents who had complained about Willard's statements.

Dishno said he could not confirm Johns' account of their discussion, saying it would violate Willard's right to confidentiality.

"I did offer my personal assurance (an incident such as the one involving Willard) would not occur again," Dishno said. "There is no chance this is going to happen again. (The parents) are going to have to read between the lines. . . . We have taken appropriate action and I believe that everyone will be satisfied."

Class Lecture

The parents have said they will be satisfied only if Willard never taught in the district again.

The controversy stemmed from a lecture Willard gave to a consumer math class May 25.

According to accounts from students and school officials, Willard told the class that he had developed a theory that some ethnic groups--blacks, Latinos and Italians, for example--are like dogs because they are slovenly, good-natured and tend to run in packs. Anglo-Saxon and Asians ethnic groups, on the other hand, resemble cats in being more independent, fastidious and intelligent.

Three students, two blacks and one of Italian descent, walked out of the class and complained to school administrators.

Their parents attended a meeting June 20 with the teacher and district officials, including acting Supt. Mitchell Gilbert and the high school's principal, Lou Rosen, both of whom have since retired.

Parents said they were told that Willard's statements were not intended to be racist and had been taken out of context. At one point, Rosen accused the parents and students of trying to "lynch" Willard, according to three parents who were at the meeting.

Demand for Apology

In response to the parents' demand for an apology, Gilbert said in an interview: "We certainly are sorry that this misunderstanding occurred and we regret that what the teacher had to say was misinterpreted the way it was. To that extent, we are sorry."

Johns said this response was inadequate and continued to demand a public apology and an assurance that Willard would not teach again.

Efforts to reach Willard for comment have been unsuccessful.

Dishno, who had been superintendent of the El Monte City School District, said he had little choice but to deal with the controversy on July 1 when he took over as superintendent of the Bonita school district, which serves San Dimas and La Verne.

'Hanging in the Air'

"This thing was hanging in the air," Dishno said. "I didn't feel that it was fully resolved and the parents' concerns were not fully resolved."

Dishno declined to criticize his predecessor's handling of the matter but said the district should have acted quicker.

"I felt the parents' concerns were valid," he said. "If any parent has a concern, it should be addressed in a prompt and timely manner, and I'm not sure it was here. My personal feeling is that the matter should have been resolved before it got as far as it did."

Johns said she found Dishno "more responsive" and "more apologetic" than other district officials. However, Johns said she will remain skeptical until she sees the superintendent's letter.

"If this letter does not say everything that we think it ought to say, then nothing is resolved," Johns said. "I'm not sure they can give me what I'm asking for, and that is a public, on-the-record statement. Why the secrecy? Does Mr. Willard not know what happened to him?"

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