Counselor Lionel Harding-Thomas will return Monday to a polarized Chase Middle School, where he says he is under fire because he stands up for minority students.
Meanwhile, two advisers from the state superintendent’s office are writing recommendations aimed at soothing tensions at the school. The recommendations will be ready next week.
The school is split along racial and class lines following incidents of alleged racial discrimination and complaints of harassment from some staff members against Harding-Thomas, who is black. He returns to work after a two-week voluntary leave.
“I can sense tension in the halls,” said Chase teacher Tom Keating. “I see behavior and hear things verbally - the racial stuff - that I didn’t hear before.”
Harding-Thomas’ supporters say Chase staff members are retaliating against the counselor because he spoke out against mistreatment of minority students.
Detractors say he is covering his own faults by charging racism where none exists.
Both sides agree students are suffering.
“There are relationships between black students and white teachers that have been severed that can never be regained,” said Mary Langford, a black teacher trying to remain neutral.
The counselor’s return will be difficult for some staff members who signed complaints against him.
More than 25 staff members signed complaints about Harding-Thomas’ actions, said Chase teacher Danelle Elder.
The complaints allege Harding-Thomas berated teachers in public, encouraged racial polarization on campus and violated building procedures.
He also “publicly suggested that the private lifestyle of members of staff and administration is ‘The problem with Chase….’,” according to the complaint letter addressed to Superintendent Gary Livingston.
School sources said “private lifestyle” refers to supposed homosexuality of some staff members.
Harding-Thomas denied the accusations, and said he has not criticized anyone for being homosexual.
“Why would I say that about a minority when I’m an African-American, when I’m a person who is a member of a group that is not the majority in the community?” he asked.
He said he heard comments from parents about staff members being homosexual and always answered them with his opinion that if they are gay it doesn’t affect their job performance.
He said his supervisors never gave him the chance to respond to the individual complaints as they arose.
Responding to anonymous rumors that he has had continual problems at work, Harding-Thomas allowed a reporter to see his job evaluations with Spokane School District on Thursday.
The evaluations glow with praise.
His supervisors wrote that he worked well with other staff, produced changes in student behavior through his anger management groups and trained students in peer mediation skills.
He received the highest possible rating on all nine of his evaluation reports, covering 1976-1979 and 1990-1994.
He worked for Spokane Community College from 1979 to 1990. A spokeswoman for the community college said he left on good terms.
Spokane School District officials offered HardingThomas a transfer to another school late last week, but he declined.
“Why would I do that?” he asked. “What kind of a statement does that make to the kids who supported me at that meeting?”
A rally for Harding-Thomas last week drew more than 150 parents, other residents and dozens of students who left school to attend. Some students made charges against school administrators at the rally that are now under investigation by the school district.
Some charges were lies, said a Chase student who attended the rally. “Some of those people were just making things up to get out of school,” said the 13-yearold.
Harding-Thomas said he encouraged students to attend the rally, but he denied asking them to lie. “I told them to come and tell the truth,” he said.
The state recommendations will include both shortterm solutions to “stabilize the building without major distractions” and long-term ideas including “considerable training for the parties involved,” said Warren Burton, an adviser for the Office for Equity Education in the state superintendent’s office.
Transferring Harding-Thomas is still possible, but would not happen until after the school district examines the state recommendations, said Larry Parsons, an area director overseeing Chase Middle School.
“When the recommendations come in we’ll make those decisions,” Parsons said. “If anything is done to move him, that’s when it would be done.”
Cherie Berthon, a Spokane human rights specialist who has observed the situation, called it “a discouraging example of the racial tension existing in every community.”
“Unfortunately there is no single truth here because our realities are different.”