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Teacher Put on Leave Over Letter About Black Students

Most misbehavior at Pasadena school is by African Americans, he says in predicting low API scores. Inquiry on his actions is planned.

October 23, 2002|Jose Cardenas | Times Staff Writer

A Pasadena high school teacher has been placed on administrative leave for disseminating a letter stating that, at his campus, most students who misbehave and are low academic achievers are African American.

Scott Phelps, a 12-year science teacher at John Muir High School, denied in an interview that his comments in the letter he placed in teachers' mailboxes were meant as racial insults.

Phelps, 39, said he was trying to predict that bad student behavior -- which, in this case, he said applies to many in Muir's large African American population -- will be responsible for the school's low Academic Performance Index scores next year.

The letter was also meant as a counterattack to the bad rap he said teachers in his district get from administrators about low student achievement.

"My intent was to get the district to stop blaming teachers or holding them solely responsible for performance," he said. "Different ethnicities are radically different.... I'm saying the behaviors are radically different, so we need to look at that. Nothing I said is false."

Phelps was put on administrative leave with pay and benefits, pending the results of an internal investigation, said Erik Nasarenko, a Pasadena Unified School District spokesman.

"Essentially, what the district will do is look at the material

The inquiry -- which the district aims to complete within a week -- will, among other things, consider whether the letter created an offensive and hostile environment for the students.

Phelps, a Caltech graduate and outspoken teacher, first posted the letter in an Internet chat room where the school district is frequently criticized.

On Friday he also placed copies of it in his colleagues' boxes.

The somewhat rambling letter touches on several points.

* It states that this year the school's improvements in its API scores were aided by two "good cohorts": the sophomore and senior classes.

* But then it warns that next year the school won't meet its goal because two "bad cohorts" -- this year's freshmen and juniors -- will hold back the scores.

* The reason why the two classes are bad cohorts, the letter says, is bad behavior.

"But overwhelmingly," part of the letter reads, "the students whose behavior makes the hallways deafening, who yell out for the teacher and demand immediate attention in class, who cannot seem to stop chatting and are fascinated by each other and relationships but not with academics, in short, whose behavior saps the strength and energy of us that are at the front lines, are African American."

"Eventually," the letter continues, "someone in power will have the courage to say this publicly."

The letter also says many African American students, those whose parents are involved with school, are well-behaved. It says that because Muir is almost half African American, most of the badly behaved students are African American.

The district acted after some teachers who received the letter complained, Nasarenko said.

Some in the community, rejecting Phelps' correlation of bad behavior and learning, took offense to what they saw as a racial sideswipe.

"If you're an African American student in Mr. Phelp's class and you read this, are [you] going to go up or down?" asked Bert Voorhees, a civil rights attorney and past president of the NAACP's Pasadena chapter. "Mr. Phelps contributes with his racism to some of the problems he says he wants to tackle."

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