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School Finds No Basis for Racism Charge : Education: Controversial teacher instead is reprimanded for using inappropriate and insensitive language in class.

December 20, 1990|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A school investigation into allegations of racism by a calculus teacher at Manual Arts High School found no basis for the charge, but resulted in a reprimand for his use of inappropriate and insensitive language in class, administrators said.

Teacher Jim Horsman, who uses confrontational methods to challenge his all-minority classes, received a three-page letter this week that read in part: "There are some statements by students that you make racial comments on occasion but that some students don't take them seriously or personally.

"I am directing you to be vigilant in guarding against the use of any language or commentary that may be perceived as inappropriate or insensitive to any racial and/or ethnic group," wrote Manual Arts Principal Marvin Starer, who declined to comment on the letter.

The investigation started in October after a student complained that Horsman allegedly said in class that blacks cannot do calculus because they are ignorant. Horsman, who admits he uses "reverse psychology" to motivate students, denies that he ever made such a statement.

He also has come under fire for other teaching tactics, such as occasionally requiring his tardy students to do pushups to instill discipline--even though he reportedly did pushups with them.

Horsman built up Manual Arts' calculus program from five to 30 students since 1986, including seven high school students who now take advanced calculus at USC. He faced a transfer or suspension if the allegations of racism were found to be true.

In an interview this week, Horsman said he will try to change his style to comply with the directives outlined in the letter.

"The principal wants me to be a better teacher and I'm going to try," Horsman said. He also apologized to his students for upsetting them. "I'm going to have to be more sensitive."

But many who raised complaints about Horsman's teaching methods said the school's administration did not go far enough in reprimanding him.

"It just makes my blood boil, he got nothing more than a hand-slap," said Margaret Henderson, aunt of Tiaqia Lewis, who transferred out of Manual Arts after she broke her arm doing pushups in what school authorities say was a freak accident.

"The very, very sad thing is that it's the students who lose out," said Henderson, contending that Manual Arts administrators did not listen closely to their complaints.

The controversy over Horsman's tactics polarized teachers, students and administrators this fall, prompting questions about how far teachers should go in pursuit of excellence when traditional methods fail. Manual Arts, with a student body that is 70% Latino and 30% black, is located in the low-income, gang-blighted area near USC.

The ensuing furor prompted fierce denunciations from parents and teachers who said Horsman's confrontational methods lowered the self-esteem of students. But the calculus teacher also received 100 letters of support from students and a classroom visit from another controversial calculus teacher--Garfield High School's Jaime Escalante, who visited to show solidarity.

Horsman now concedes that his methods may not work for all students.

"If you say something that is interesting and provocative, it could be taken out of context and you could have a problem," Horsman said.

But Manual Arts teacher Joshua Pechthalt called Horsman an elitist who uses a racist teaching style. He says 30 teachers at Manual Arts signed a letter condemning Horsman.

"There's an issue here--should teachers be permited to use racist, sexist, elitist and demeaning language in class," Pechthalt says. "The issue is not whether (students) took it personally."

Horsman points out that many of his current and former pupils say he helped them drop out of gangs, develop self-esteem and enter college.

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