Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A case of modern-day racial segregation

At Preston Hollow, principal tried to appease affluent parents, halt white flight, judge says

10:04 PM CST on Saturday, November 18, 2006

By KENT FISCHER / The Dallas Morning News

For years, it was an open secret at North Dallas' Preston Hollow Elementary School: Even though the school was overwhelmingly Hispanic and black, white parents could get their children into all-white classes. And once placed, the students would have little interaction with the rest of the students.

The result, a federal judge has ruled, was that principal Teresa Parker "was, in effect, operating, at taxpayer's expense, a private school for Anglo children within a public school that was predominantly minority."

Judge Sam Lindsay's opinion paints an unflattering picture of the elementary school and a principal who was so desperate to appease the school's affluent white parents that she turned back the clock on school desegregation 50 years.

In April, Hispanic parents sued, claiming illegal segregation. The three-week trial concluded in late August. On Thursday, Judge Lindsay declared that the school's principal violated the rights of minority children by assigning them to classrooms based on race.

The judge ordered Mrs. Parker to pay $20,200 to Lucrecia Mayorga Santamaría, the lone named plaintiff, who sued on behalf of her three children.

Although the judge did not find the Dallas school district liable for Mrs. Parker's actions, he strongly criticized DISD administrators for being "asleep at the wheel."

"The court is convinced that several of the area superintendents knew, or should have known, about the illegal segregation at Preston Hollow," the judge wrote in his 108-page ruling.

The district has until Jan. 17 to remedy the segregation at the school. Mrs. Parker did not return messages left at her home and school Friday.

District spokesman Celso Martinez said Mrs. Parker would remain the school's principal "until further notice."

Mr. Martinez said the school has undertaken steps to comply with the court order, namely relying on student language scores to place students.

"The truth is we have initiated quite a few changes at the school already," he said. "We need to compare those changes with the court order. We may well be in total compliance."

However, when asked if there are still classes at Preston Hollow containing only white students, Mr. Martinez replied: "That's a good question. I don't know the answer to that."

Desegregation plan
In 2003, a federal judge released the district from its court-ordered desegregation plan. That plan, however, focused on the allocation of resources and treatment of black students. In the 30 years the district operated under the order, whites fled and Hispanics have grown to become the majority. Blacks make up less than a third of the district; whites about 6 percent.

Preston Hollow's unwritten policy of clustering whites together was known for years among parents and teachers, according to testimony. In fact, Mrs. Parker's subordinates – including teachers and her assistant principal – raised concerns about it multiple times. One even wrote a letter to Superintendent Michael Hinojosa about it. Those complaints fell on deaf ears, the judge wrote.

"I began to see something very strange," Ms. Santamaría. "The difference was that the Anglo students would go to lunch together while the Latinos went with the Asians and the African-Americans." That, she said, raised a question in her mind "because the children don't know what segregation is."

Once the Hispanic families sued, Mrs. Parker tried to cover her tracks, according to testimony. For example, on the day an investigator was to observe classes at the school, Mrs. Parker "reshuffled" the student's classroom assignments, according to assistant principal Robert McElroy.

Mrs. Parker also asked members of her staff to sign confidentiality agreements about how students were assigned to their classes, and paperwork detailing the classroom assignments was destroyed under mysterious circumstances, according to the judge's ruling.


Principal uncooperative
The judge also took exception to Mrs. Parker's apparent unwillingness to cooperate with the court. At one point during the trial, the judge noted, Mrs. Parker testified that she didn't know whether Preston Hollow is a predominantly white neighborhood.

"The court finds it astounding that Principal Parker, who has served at Preston Hollow for five years, would testify that she knows nothing about the ethnic makeup of the immediate neighborhood surrounding her school."

The school's attendance zone is mostly north of Northwest Highway, east of Preston Road, south of Royal Lane, and just east of North Central Expressway. It includes affluent, mostly white single-family homes, as well as middle-class homes and apartments that are predominantly minority.

The judge also had sharp words for the district's attorneys, who argued that segregation would cause no harm to the minority students because their teachers used the same curriculum as those teaching white students.

"The court is baffled that in this day and age, that [DISD relied] on what is, essentially, a 'separate but equal' argument," the judge wrote.

Mr. Martinez, the district spokesman, said the district doesn't believe Mrs. Parker was segregating students, but he acknowledged that classrooms at the school need to be better integrated.

"It's our opinion that we were not segregating students at all," Mr. Martinez said. "In fact the judge found that we were not violating the constitutional rights of anybody. Do we need to integrate the classrooms? Yes, and we're doing precisely that."

Although the judge ruled against the school's principal in her personal capacity, he did not find the district, its trustees or Mrs. Parker liable in their "official capacities."

David Hinojosa, the parents' attorney from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said he apparently didn't convince the judge that the district knew the segregation was happening.

"You just have a certain legal standard you have to meet, and unfortunately, the court didn't find that," he said. "We might appeal the issue if need be ... but we got the ultimate relief we wanted. The parents wanted to stop the segregation that was going on there."

PTA chief criticized
Judge Lindsay also criticized Meg Bittner, the school's PTA president, who wanted to lure more affluent white families out of private schools and back to Preston Hollow.

More white families would result in a healthier PTA, she testified, bigger fundraisers and, ultimately, more money for the school. The best way to lure back white families, teachers and others testified, was to put white children together in the same classrooms.

Teacher Janet Leon told the court that "neighborhood classes" were predominantly made up of white students because "the people who live in the Preston Hollow neighborhood, who are the majority being white, would want their children grouped together."

To aid in the recruitment of more affluent whites, the school's PTA created a brochure for parents that featured almost all white students. Hispanic parents had shown up at the school the day photos were being taken for the brochure, but the principal blocked their entry into the classroom where the photos were being taken, the judge's ruling states.

Additionally, the PTA, in conjunction with the school, held separate open houses and kindergarten recruitments for white parents. And when PTA members gave prospective parents tours of the school, they were never taken down the "Hispanic halls" where the minority classes were housed, teachers testified.
Mrs. Bittner and other PTA officers did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.

FROM THE RULING
"The court is left with the distinct impression that the primary objective of fairly educating students was lost and substituted in its place was an effort to prevent white flight from Preston Hollow. In reserving certain classrooms for Anglo students, Principal Parker was, in effect, operating, at taxpayer's expense, a private school for Anglo children within a public school that was predominantly minority."

The court also found that many English-speaking Latino students were inappropriately assigned to ESL classes, amounting to illegal segregation.

"In the end, the court found that principal Parker had intentionally segregated the Latino children on account of their race and national origin. Not only that, she had done so in a reckless and callous manner," said attorney David Hinojosa.

For parents, vindication.

"We are very happy, because we won. For us, this is a victory, because we can say to all parents that together, we can do a lot of things," said Ann Gonzales, a parent.

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