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Meeting Addresses BUSD Racism Complaints

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday March 11, 2008

A community meeting Saturday focused on recent allegations of racism at Cragmont Elementary School. Organized by the People’s Institute of Survival and Beyond at its Bancoft Way office, the meeting was one of a series planned to bring together local activists, parents and teachers to discuss racism in the city’s schools. 

Rev. Daniel Buford, anti-racism educator and director of the People’s Institute West, described an incident that took place at Cragmont Elementary School last fall to highlight the lack of a racial incidents policy in the Berkeley Unified School District. 

According to Buford, a fifth-grade teacher at the elementary school castigated a 10-year-old African American boy in front of his class and accused him of being homophobic after the boy repeatedly used the word “fruity.” 

The remark was made as the student was responding to a passage in a classroom reading assignment. The teacher had read a quote from the scientist Gertude Bell saying, “I am so busy I need a wife to do the work,” Buford said. The boy had said of the quote, “That sounds quite fruity to me.” 

According to Buford, “the teacher told him that using the word ‘fruity’ was the same as her going to a black community and saying the n-word. And she didn’t just say the n-word, she said the word ‘nigger.’” 

Anthony Chavez, secretary of the Cragmont PTA, said the boy’s family had filed a formal complaint of racial harassment with the school district in December. He said that the family also filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights last week. 

“The word fruity can mean many things, but there’s only one thing that the word nigger means,” Buford said. “It’s unfair that the boy would be held to a standard to understand the nuances of the quote. It’s really unfortunate that the district has no racial incidents policy or a human rights-based curriculum to address these issues.” 

District spokesperson Mark Coplan said the district had completed its investigation of the complaint and was satisfied with the way the principal had resolved the situation. 

“The teacher might not have used the best example but she didn’t do anything wrong or derogatory,” he said. “The efforts that we took were to make sure that the kids really understood what had happened. In the end they understood what the purpose of the teacher’s comment was, that it is not okay to use derogatory words. I am sure the teacher in the next situation will use a different example.” 

In a letter to the Cragmont community about the incident in January, Cragmont principal Don Vu said that the teacher had explained to the student that “both words were offensive and should not be used.” 

“She actually said the n-word in her explanation, and, unfortunately, this caused much confusion and hurt with some of the students and, ultimately some of the parents,” Vu’s letter stated. 

His letter also said that he had held several meetings between the teacher and concerned parents and students in the class to resolve the situation and “ensure that the class was able to heal and move forward. ... Through these meetings, the teacher has expressed her regret and has realized the hurt caused by her actions …There is a strong commitment to diversity and equity here amongst the staff and community and it is my hope that we can move forward to become a greater school.” 

In an e-mail to the Planet, Russell Bloom and Marsha Hiller, co-chairs of the Cragmont PTA Diversity Committee, said they supported their principal in his handling of personnel matters. 

“However, we think it is critical to continue creating an environment in which there is awareness of and attention to concepts of bias and racism and their effect on our children and ourselves,” the letter stated. “We aim to make Cragmont the type of school where students can feel safe from daily oppression(s). Until that idea becomes realized, the committee will, as part of its programmatic work, focus on creating policies that address accountability on an institutional level.” 

The committee recently formed a working subcommittee to investigate and analyze racial incidents policies in other communities and school districts in an effort to implement a similar policy at Cragmont. 

School board member Karen Hemphill told the Planet that although she could not comment on this particular incident, she supported more sensitivity training for teachers in the district. 

“It’s so sad we don’t have enough education for parents and teachers,” said Diana Dunn, director of the People’s Institute in New Orleans, who participated in the meeting. “The teacher could have used the word to teach about the use of words ... We want such incidents to bring us together and not drive us apart.”