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Rally A Venue For Support, Frustrations Parents, Students Speak Up For Counselor, Complain Of Racism At Chase Middle School

A rally for a school counselor Thursday became a venting session for people who complain of racism in the Spokane School District and Spokane in general.

Dozens of children and parents took the microphone to express frustrations with what they described as a pattern of subtle and overt mistreatment at Chase Middle School.

George Jones, a black man, said he was angry because a school staff member kicked his son, albeit playfully.

“You kick a dog,” he said.

About 160 people attended the meeting at East Central Community Center.

Taking notes were two advisers from the state superintendent’s Office for Equity Education, who are gathering information about problems at the school and allegations by two school employees that counselor Lionel Harding-Thomas creates a hostile climate there.

Parents and students, both white and black, repeatedly voiced support for Harding-Thomas, who observed the meeting and encouraged people to speak out.

“It’s an injustice to him that the whole race issue in Spokane should be held on his shoulders,” Chase parent Rita Proctor said.

Proctor, who is white, complained of an unwelcoming attitude in the school district.

“I am considered an angry parent because I stand behind my children,” she said.

She then hoisted her young, dark-skinned daughter from behind the podium onto her hip and said, “My children are considered black. If you have an ounce of black in you, you’re black.”

Larry Parsons, a school district administrator, called the meeting “an important dialogue between Spokane and its schools about the way we treat each other.”

Parsons is the area director supervising Chase Middle School.

The equity advisers said they may return to Spokane for more fact-finding before they make recommendations on how the district should handle the situation.

They were invited to Spokane by district officials.

The new school, named for James E. Chase, Spokane’s first black mayor and a champion of children, is in a high-income area of the South Hill. It replaced a smaller, older building in the racially diverse, lowincome East Central neighborhood.

Some observers say the move disrupted the social order at the school.

During the bond issue campaign, district officials said they could not build a new school in East Central because there was no property available that was large enough.

Dozens of students got out of school early with their parents’ permission to come to the Thursday meeting. Vans from the community center transported them.

Both white and black students said they have been discouraged from talking to Harding-Thomas, the only black counselor at the school.

White students said teachers label them as headed for trouble because they have black friends.

At times, the statements were intensely personal and emotional.

Vivian Shields’ daughter sobbed in the audience while the black woman described a meeting she claims the girl had with Principal Rodger Lake.

When Lake asked the girl if she had a father in her home, the girl replied she had a stepfather, and that her birth was the result of a rape. Lake allegedly responded, “I see where the problem is coming from.”

In an interview Thursday night, Lake said he deals with many sensitive issues involving his students, and always tries to be supportive. “I just can’t imagine I said that.”

Parents and students also targeted Assistant Principal Dianne Fields. They said she grabs students roughly, interrogates them for information about their friends, once spanked a student and ignored a girl’s complaint that a male student was sexually harassing her and told her to quit flirting.

“She bribes, threatens and intimidates you to get private information,” said one boy.

Fields could not be reached for comment Thursday, but Lake strongly defended her.

“I don’t think those types of allegations deserve a response,” said Lake. “I think our whole staff believes in her.”

Comments in the meeting veered off occasionally into realms unrelated to racial tension at the school. A woman said Spokane police make unnecessary traffic stops when they see cars driven by young black males.

And three students said Lake touches girls in ways that make them feel uncomfortable.

“I was wearing a body suit and he touched my shoulder and said it made me look attractive,” said Tonya Bracey, 12.

Lake is widely known for being warm and caring, and is unafraid to show his concern with a pat on the back or to boost a student’s selfconfidence with a compliment.

When told of Thursday’s allegations, he said he was saddened that such simple gestures could be misinterpreted.

Warren Burton from the Office for Equity Education discouraged the crowd from castigating people.

“Let’s try to keep our comments as objective as possible,” he urged. “You don’t have to mention names so often. We’re not running a hate camp against certain individuals.”

Pat Marshall, a black Chase parent, encouraged parents to visit the school more often and make their support for their children known.

“My child is not here today,” she said. “He needs his education. I want him to go onto college and be somebody.”

Burton encouraged the parents to attend school board meetings, spend time at school and write to his office.

“You need to put pressure on the school board,” he said.

John Kostecka, a teachers union employee representing HardingThomas, said the situation at Chase can improve with staff training.

“The vast majority of staff working at Chase want to see problems resolved and in a positive way,” Kostecka said.

“If we are all able to put our heads together there will be some positive growth out of this - a better school district, a better school and better community members.”

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