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Latino coalition steps up pressure on Salem district

The group, which says Latino students receive unfair treatment, plans to rally today

Tuesday, June 13, 2000

By Cheryl Martinis, Correspondent, The Oregonian

SALEM -- An aggressive coalition of Latino parents and community members is increasing pressure on the state's second-biggest school district to do a better job of educating and keeping their children in school.

Tonight, Larry McMurray, interim superintendent of the 30,000-student Salem-Keizer School District, will outline what the district is doing to lower the Latino dropout rate and recruit more minorities as administrators and teachers, as part of his end-of-the-year report.

Those are among the main issues raised by the Salem/Keizer Coalition for Equality, a group that a year ago marched on the state Capitol to demand changes in the district.

Eduardo Angulo, who coordinates youth summits for the Oregon Commission on Hispanic Affairs and is a spokesman for the group, said that Latino students lead Oregon's enrollment growth but are taught and disciplined largely by white, middle-class teachers and administrators who don't understand their needs or their culture.

That cultural gulf caused a rift at the beginning of the school year that has yet to heal. Latino boys at South Salem High School were singled out for a lecture on sexual harassment delivered in Spanish.

School officials have apologized for what they say was a misunderstanding. They say that the talk was intended only for English as a Second Language students. But that hasn't soothed the feelings of some parents, who formed the Latino Parents Committee Against Racism in the school's committee, and who want the principal fired. They say that none of the boys in the session had anything to do with any incident of harassment and that some didn't even speak Spanish.

Parents plan to rally at 7:15 a.m. today in front of South Salem High School. A spokeswoman for the group, Audrey Durbin, said that the incident is "symptomatic" of larger problems.

"The students I've spoken to say the racism is extremely obvious at that school," Durbin said.

Districtwide, Latino parents point to statistics that show disproportionately high rates of dropouts and suspensions-expulsions among minority children as evidence of discrimination.

For example, about a quarter of the district's suspensions in 1997-98 involved Latino students, who represent only about 13 percent of all students.

The district asked a separate agency, the Portland-based Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, to review both dropout and disciplinary issues.

The laboratory recently concluded that the district's discipline policy isn't discriminatory, but the districts needs to make sure that discipline is enforced evenly among different schools and by different employees. The lab's analysis of why there is a disparity in the discipline meted out to minorities is due this summer.

Meanwhile, the district will consider alternatives to suspension that won't jeopardize its zero-tolerance stance on weapons and violence, said McMurray, the interim superintendent.

According to the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, such policies not only have increased student suspensions-expulsions nationwide, but also increased racial disparities in school disciplinary actions as well.

McMurray said that four of the eight new administrators and four of 36 new teachers hired so far for next school year are minorities.

He said the district is making progress reducing the dropout rate, particularly among Latino and Native American children, reflecting changes that have been under way for several years.

Since the 1996-97 school year, when 22 percent of Latino students dropped out, the district has seen steady improvement. Last school year, for example, 14 percent of Latinos dropped out. Figures for the current school year aren't available.

McMurray said administrators are working harder to track dropouts, counsel students who are struggling and create alternative programs to keep students.

Officials also are reviewing complaints that security people assigned to high schools single out Latinos as gang members because of dress that is cultural, McMurray said.

At McKay High School in Northeast Salem, which has a reputation for taking a tough stance on gangs, Principal Rey Mayoral recently met with students to discuss the dress code.

While neither hats nor hairnets are allowed, baggy pants are OK, within reason. Mayoral said that the school no longer will ban specific brands of pants that were popular with gang and nongang youth. "Their issue was that those are the only things they could afford," he said, referring to a work-style pant.

More important to student success, he said, is whether students attend school and do their homework.

"I don't think that any kind of a dress code will keep away from school; kids will keep themselves away from school and maybe use some of these dress policies as excuses," he said.

Mayoral said the activism surfacing among Latino parents and human rights groups is understandable. "For years and years, they were the quiet minority and didn't say anything, and those kids would take anything you gave them."

He said that while subtle racism exists in the school system, it is not significant enough to keep kids from getting an education. He said that everyone, including parents and students, needs to be accountable.


Do you have news of Marion, Polk and southwestern Yamhill counties? You can reach Cheryl Martinis at 503-399-8540 or by e-mail at