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Disputes, Debate Continue At Chase Middle School Office Of Civil Rights Also Will Investigate; District’s Effort Criticized

Debate about tensions at Chase Middle School continued to be divided along racial lines at a Spokane School Board meeting Wednesday.

“I would ask that we don’t have any more rallies and demonstrations,” said Mike Murphy, a white parent. “They foster hatred.”

“Our children are not treated as your children are treated sometimes,” replied Carrie Ann Evans, a black parent who complained of ongoing harassment of students at the school.

Parents on both sides of the Chase dispute said they still have serious concerns about the way the district is handling the situation.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights will conduct its own investigation of alleged discrimination at the school, adding a third level of fact-finding.

District- and state-level officials already have questioned teachers and parents.

The school has been polarized for the last two weeks by a complaint from staff members alleging school counselor Lionel Harding-Thomas created a hostile work environment. Other complaints from parents of alleged discrimination at the school added to the tension.

The district invited two advisers from the state superintendent’s office to assess the school climate. They interviewed people involved in the dispute and are preparing recommendations which will be ready late this week or early next week.

Murphy, who represents a parents group supporting the school administration and teachers, questioned the objectivity of Warren Burton, one of the advisers.

“He was rude and abrupt with parents. He was more interested in having his hamburger and watching the clock,” Murphy said.

Reached Wednesday at his home, Burton denied Murphy’s statement.

“Anything I would say would escalate the situation,” Burton said. “I’m sorry he feels that way and I’m sorry he said it, but that’s the way it is.”

Evans, the mother of a child involved in a locker search earlier this school year, asked for an independent investigation of allegations made at a Feb. 23 rally she helped organize for Harding-Thomas.

“We do not trust the school district to do a fair investigation,” she said. “It’s like the police investigating the police.”

At the rally, students claimed mistreatment by staff members. Later, one student who attended the rally said some students were “just making things up to get out of school.”

The school district is conducting an internal investigation of charges made at the rally.

Evans praised area director Larry Parsons as “the only one I can talk to. He will listen to us.” She asked for cultural diversity training for the school staff.

The Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education is investigating a case involving the school, said Gary Jackson, the office’s regional director in Seattle.

The case includes charges that a conference with a black parent was tape-recorded without her knowledge.

The office plans an investigation, but has not yet scheduled it with the school district. That will occur “in weeks, if not days,” Jackson said.

During his brief presentation, Murphy said the new Chase Parent Support Group has hundreds of supporters.

The group wants equitable discipline standards, a stable atmosphere and resolution of the hostile work environment.

The group is seeking parents from all racial groups, but so far has no African American parents, said Ken Kirstein, another parent.

Murphy asked the board to support the school’s administration. “Simple discipline issues have been blown out of proportion,” he said.

Bichha Pham, an attorney with the Spokane Legal Services Center, was with Evans at the meeting. Pham said Evans came to the center for help.

“We’re trying to see what we can do for Mrs. Evans,” Pham said.

Board President Rob Fukai said the board must stay “at arm’s length” from personnel disputes, but expressed hope for a speedy resolution to the problems.

“I appreciate those members of the community who are willing to come forward in a positive fashion and collaborate on the work ahead,” he said.

“To those who feel things have not moved fast enough, we understand the frustration that comes from that.”

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