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Cortines to reassign three teachers in Black History Month incident

Instructors won't be fired, though they used 'very poor judgment,' superintendent says.

March 12, 2010|By Alexandra Zavis
  • Parents wait at Wadsworth Avenue Elementary School, where students' Black History Month parade included photos of O.J. Simpson, Dennis Rodman and RuPaul.
Parents wait at Wadsworth Avenue Elementary School, where students'… (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said Thursday that he will reassign three South Los Angeles elementary school teachers who were suspended for having their students display pictures of O.J. Simpson, Dennis Rodman and RuPaul in a Black History Month parade.

Cortines said he had no evidence that the teachers' actions were racially motivated. But he said, "I think it was an exercise of very poor judgment."

"These were not novice teachers," he said.

The teachers, white men who teach first, second and fourth grades at Wadsworth Avenue Elementary School, were suspended without pay for three days and will be kept out of the classroom until they are assigned to three other schools.

United Teachers Los Angeles officials declined to say whether the suspensions or the transfers would be challenged, saying that personnel matters are confidential.

The teachers, who reportedly had a reputation as pranksters, have not publicly discussed their actions. But Cortines said he was told that one "understood my outrage" and accepted the suspension.

Some civil rights leaders had demanded that the Los Angeles Unified School District fire the teachers, saying their choices made a mockery of black history and reinforced racial stereotypes at a school that is more than 90% Latino.

Cortines said he did not believe that dismissals were warranted. But because of the public outcry, he was advised that returning the teachers to Wadsworth would be disruptive, said Robert Alaniz, a district spokesman.

"That exposes other children to the racist teachers," said the Rev. Eric P. Lee, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles. "That's the big problem. . . . They get teachers who engage in various violations, but because of due process, you can't get rid of them."

District officials said teachers selected names from a list of famous African Americans, photocopied from a 1985 book of classroom activities that wasn't intended as an official guide for Black History Month. The list was part of a lesson called "Who Am I?" that provided clues to help students identify those named, district spokeswoman Gayle Pollard-Terry said.

Simpson's name appears on the list of 60, a copy of which was provided to The Times, along with such conventional role models as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But the book was published before the ex-NFL player was acquitted of murder and convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping.

Nine teachers added names to the outdated list, including President Obama; RuPaul, a drag queen; and Rodman, a former NBA player known for wild behavior. The principal did not see the additions and was disciplining three students when the program occurred Feb. 26, Alaniz said.

Cortines said there had been a lack of oversight and letters of reprimand were issued to the principal and another school administrator. He added that the principal had been "highly cooperative" and "very professional" in dealing with the incident.

Last week, Principal Lorraine Abner apologized in a letter to the community for the "questionable decisions" made.

A team from the district's human relations office has worked at Wadsworth since March 3, the day the teachers were pulled from school and civil rights leaders demanded their dismissals.

Judy Chiasson, a team member, said they found a professional and dedicated staff.

"They are offended that society is looking at them as a racist school," her colleague, Holly Priebe-Diaz, said.

Staff members and parents said the children had prepared for days for the presentation. They wrote poems, learned songs and practiced dancing like zombies to Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

Some African American parents defended the suspended teachers, who were not identified. Elliott Wilson said Simpson and Rodman were star athletes.

"Even if they are fallen heroes, they are still heroes," Wilson said.

But he drew the line at a photograph of RuPaul in a blond wig. He said his 9-year-old son thinks the entertainer is a woman.

"That alone, to me, qualifies for a suspension," Wilson said.

Other parents said it would have been sufficient to discuss the choices with the teachers. They were more concerned about the disruption of substitutes in the classrooms; Cortines said permanent replacements would be found.

If the students were older, officials said, the examples of Simpson, Rodman and RuPaul might be used to discuss race relations, gay rights or the culture of celebrity. But, Chiasson said, "that's a very sophisticated discussion."

Joe Hicks, a former executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission, said he looked askance at the notion of Black History Month. The tradition dates to the 1920s, when the only African Americans featured in most U.S. textbooks were slaves.

"We've got a nation that's headed by a black president," he said. "This notion of segregating out black contributions in the shortest month of the year somehow seems a little archaic. And in some ways it does lend itself to people who may want to poke fun at that notion, whether that's proper or not."

Herman Clay, a principal who was formerly in charge of the district's secondary social sciences instruction, said African Americans' achievements are discussed throughout the curriculum. But there is value to such celebrations, he said.

"You want kids of all backgrounds to see people like themselves portrayed in a positive manner."

alexandra.zavis

@latimes.com

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