SACRAMENTO — Gross racial slurs allegedly directed at youngsters by a teacher and coach in the isolated Northern California community of Susanville, and administrators' refusal to discipline him, have led to state charges that could force the town's two elementary schools to close.
If the charges are affirmed after an unprecedented state inquiry under way in Sacramento, it could cost the schools about $3 million in state support--two-thirds of their total budget.
Lassen County Supt. of Schools William P. Gillaspie has said that the schools, which serve 1,350 pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade, probably could not operate next year without the state funds.
The charges, filed by the state Department of Education on behalf of a parent, involve Edward Frank Murin, 45, who for 17 years has taught science in one of the Susanville School District's elementary schools. Until earlier this year, Murin also had coached high school basketball and football in the Lassen High School District, where the incidents were alleged to have taken place. Both districts are administered by the same superintendent.
Lawyers for the Department of Education allege that Murin frequently hurled racial slurs at high school students, especially minority members of the football team; that school district officials did nothing about it, and that Susanville school officials have attempted to retaliate against parents who brought the charges against Murin.
Lawyers for the Susanville schools concede that the teacher-coach did use racial epithets in referring to black students in the past, but said he no longer does so. Nor, they say, "is it established that Mr. Murin made any slurring references to American Indians," as department lawyers have charged. They say "the experience of school administrators is that Mr. Murin does a good job of teaching."
The school lawyers add that the two districts have done everything possible to correct the problem. And they deny the charges of retaliation. Despite the possibility of losing needed state funds, the school officials have shown no sign of retreating from their support of Murin.
In charges first filed with the Department of Education in 1987, Murin is alleged to have engaged in repeated instances of derogatory treatment of black and American Indian students over a period of years.
In affidavits filed with state investigators and at local hearings, parents and former students quoted Murin using derogatory terms when talking about blacks on school teams. "We don't have (racial slur) who can chew gum and bounce a basketball at the same time," a Lassen High basketball player quoted Murin as saying during testimony at a 1988 hearing.
On one occasion, when forest fires were burning in the region, the coach reportedly told American Indian players, "Why don't you give us a rain dance? Why don't you go over there and pile up some sticks and grass and dance around it for us?" This incident was recounted in another parental affidavit included in the Department of Education charges.
Murin has not commented publicly on the charges against him. His teaching credential is not in jeopardy as a result of the present hearing. The proceeding, before an administrative law judge, seeks only to examine the conduct of school officials.
"The key here is not Murin's actions but the district's inaction," said Joseph R. Symkowick, the department's general counsel.
But attorney Robert A. Galgani, who is representing the elementary school district at the hearing, said, "They are claiming the district had knowledge of this, but I don't think they did."
State education officials have charged Murin and others in Susanville with attempts to retaliate against Murin's accusers, including verbal abuse, disclosing confidential medical reports of children of the accusing parents and not allowing accusers' children to play for the Lassen High Grizzlies football team.
Galgani denied these allegations.
Murin's most persistent accusers are Ted Pratt, a Susanville dentist, and his wife, Janice. Their son, Tad, went out for the Lassen High football team in 1985 and encountered, Janice Pratt said, "both verbal and physical abuse" from Murin, who was an assistant coach at the time.
Murin called Tad a string of obscenities and "dragged him down the field by his face mask," she said.
When the Pratts complained, she said, they found that many other players, especially blacks and American Indians, had previously been treated similarly.
The dentist and his wife, who are white, then began what has become a six-year campaign to rid the Susanville schools of Murin, taking their complaints to the local police chief, the district attorney, child protective services, the state attorney general, various state legislators and the U.S. Department of Education, among others.
So far they have had the most luck with the state Department of Education.