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In 2004, Victor Reinoso was elected D.C. Board of Education representative for Wards 3 and 4, becoming the top elected Latino official in the city.
Reinoso is a thoughtful, soft-spoken guy who stays out of the spotlight. But a controversy at MacFarland Middle School in Ward 4 has drawn the upstart into modern D.C. racial politics. MacFarland students are three-quarters African-American and one-quarter Latino, and the lines between the two have become stark over the past school year.
The troubles began last fall at an assembly called by Principal Antonia Peters to discuss proper conduct at the school. What happened at the meeting is in dispute, but journal entries written after the assembly and obtained by LL reveal what some Latino students heard that day. Here’s what they wrote on Sept. 20, 2004.
•“On Friday I heard the principal saying that the Spanish speakers can’t speak Spanish in school because the African-American kids can’t understand it.”
•“A girl…was saying bad words in Spanish to a group of black students. Then Dr. Peters said hey stop talking toki doki in Spanish to my black students.”
•“In the auditorium Dr. Peters said that the Spanish kids could not speak Spanish.”
•“On Friday Dr. Peters was saying a lot of bad stuff to the Latino and then she started to curse the Latino and the black people felt more powerful because the principal was agreeing with them.”
Eighth-grader Olga Arias says that after the assembly, several African-American students told the Latino kids in the hall to stop speaking Spanish. “They said, ‘Didn’t you hear Dr. Peters?’” Arias says. “To me it was clear. We can’t speak Spanish in the school. It came right out of her mouth.”
Ever since the assembly, many of Reinoso’s Latino constituents have accused Peters of catering to one side of the school’s demographic split.
For Latino parents, the solution is simple: They want to talk to D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, and they want a new principal. Through a translator, Maria Arias, Olga’s mother, says Peters “is not qualified to be principal in the school” and that meetings with the principal have amounted to a series of condescending lectures. She recounts that Peters recently told Latino parents that “if the children are misbehaving, it is a result of how they are being raised by their parents.”
Peters, who is African-American, says the reports of her Spanish ban are lies—a personal attack fomented by a fired teacher. Some students back Peters up. MacFarland students interviewed on June 10 say the “no Spanish” comment never happened. Two Latina eighth-grade girls who refused to give their names said they didn’t hear it. One Latino boy who said his name was Anthony called it a lie. “We all get along just fine,” he says. African-American seventh-grader Maisha says, “It’s all drama.”
As further evidence of Peters’ credentials on the tolerance front, the school’s English-as-a-second-language (ESL) program has grown under her seven-year watch. Jill Antal, who taught at MacFarland from 1999 to 2003, says the school had only one ESL teacher when she arrived and five by the time she left. “It certainly didn’t seem like there was any crusade against Latinos,” Antal says.
Peters blames the dust-up on “outside agitators,” activists who are using unfounded claims to further their own political ambitions and stir up trouble at the school. She won’t name names but says, “I know who they are.” Peters says Latino and African-American students at MacFarland relate well to one another. “I’m shocked,” she says. “The students are not a problem here—the parents are.”
The manual for building trust between parents and school administrators probably would not have recommended that response. Particularly when meetings with disgruntled parents are conducted through a translator.
Reinoso has spoken with all concerned parties, including Peters, and received conflicting reports. He says the principal has been very cooperative and explained that she regularly meets with parents. “I think it is really hard to balance this,” he says. “At the end of the day, there is probably a grain of truth on both sides. As a board member, I am not in a position to sort this out by myself.”
Reinoso is calling for a swift investigation into charges that Peters has created a hostile environment for Latino students. In a June 10 letter to Janey, Reinoso addressed a concern of the school’s Latino parents: that Peters’ alleged favoritism of African-American students poses a safety risk for their kids. Reinoso requests that the school system “address allegations concerning student safety.”
Reinoso is no street fighter out to make a name for himself. But now he’s caught up in the kind of battle that has dragged D.C.’s school system through the dirt for years.
“I want [Janey] to meet with the school parents within the week,” Reinoso says. But he has no illusions about the system’s ability to get the job done. “I’m not aware of the capacity to quickly address concerns. Basically, we need an auditor, an inspector-general function. My guess is we don’t have sufficient capacity internally to conduct the number of investigations we need to conduct.”
Latino leaders say the conflict shouldn’t have happened at MacFarland, where people are sensitive to such issues. In late 1996, before Peters arrived, a Latino student at the school was disciplined by being bound and having tape placed over his mouth. His parents threatened to sue, and a federal civil-rights investigation was conducted.
A resulting agreement between DCPS and the feds led to the formation of the DCPS Office of Bilingual Education. The system guaranteed that DCPS would provide equitable services to diverse schools and created the Office of Civil Rights and Multicultural Affairs.
Reinoso isn’t the first high-level government official to press for a closer look at MacFarland. The mayor’s director of the Office of Latino Affairs, Gustavo Velasquez, also wants Janey to step into the fray. He recently met with the superintendent on behalf of MacFarland parents and urged him to personally address the issues. “You hear a lot of anecdotes about the principal making comments that are quite offensive to the bilingual students and bilingual parents,” he says. “If that is in fact true, I think it’s a very serious offense, and I think the central office of DCPS needs to take this matter into very serious consideration.”
MacFarland may be the flash point, but school officials say Janey faces similar problems in schools across the city. “We have a system in crisis,” says Arnoldo Ramos, a community liaison with the DCPS Office of Civil Rights and Multicultural Affairs. Ramos says he believes some parents at MacFarland do feel like outsiders.
Ramos says Latino parents’ demand to talk to the top man “is a sign of powerlessness…. This is a D.C. hangup,” he says, adding that Janey should leave the task of diffusing problems with parents and evaluating staff to officials “directly responsible for managing principals.”
Ramos is urging patience. “The leadership of the schools is aware of these issues and is asking for time to put in the place effective measures.”
Janey says he is trying to get a clearer picture of the situation at MacFarland. “You’ve got to separate opinion from fact,” he says. But he also recognizes that the reaction to whatever happened at the assembly—and the fallout from other actual or perceived slights—can’t be ignored. “I want to hear, to understand, the feeling around it.You can’t dismiss that aspect of it,” he says. The superintendent says he’s trying to schedule a meeting with concerned Latino parents at MacFarland before the end of the month.
Reinoso says he’s pleased that Janey plans to meet with the parents, but adds that “a full investigation is still needed.”
“It’s all going to come down to what happens after the meeting,” Reinoso says. “A good ear and empathy only get you so far.”
THIS RACE IS PERSONAL
The first candidate to announce plans to run for the Ward 3 D.C. Council seat is getting personal in his quest to unseat incumbent Kathy Patterson.
His efforts are more seductive than destructive.
On June 12, dental-company manager Jonathan R. Rees sent an e-mail to LL announcing his candidacy. But a quick glance at the D.C. personals section of Craigslist reveals that Rees thinks another good place to kick off a campaign is among romance seekers.
On the same day, Rees posted his campaign announcement and a link to his Web site in several Craigslist categories, including the personals. Under the “Women Seeking Women” heading, Rees wrote “SUPPORT A GAY RIGHTS CANDIDATE” In “Men Seeking Men,” his tease was “YOUR KIND OF GUY” In the “M4M Forum” he coyly queried, “WARD 3 DC RESIDENT?”
Further research reveals that Rees’ unique approach to making a big political impression seems to have wandered a bit off track. He had previously posted on Craigslist on April 9. In the “Queer Forum,” under the “Threesomes” category,“Jrrees” posed a probing question that’s on the minds of many city residents these days: “In D.C. why is it so hard for a bi guy to arrange a threesome with another guy and gal? Geez, with D.C. being 26% GLBT surely there is someone for everyone!”
Rees calls that post “a test question” to gauge how many responses he would receive “from a nonpolitical posting.”
Rees, who describes himself as a “49-year-old straight widower” who has remarried, says he “went to those places on Craigslist where I would get the highest amount of traffic. I’ve got 192 hits so far.”
But he says one Craigslist category drove most of the traffic to his campaign Web site: the “Politics” section.
•Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ chief spokesperson, Vincent Morris, appears well-positioned should Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans be elected mayor. Reporter-turned-flack Morris has one of those low-numbered license plates that connote political connections in D.C. The coveted No. 880 tag came to Morris as a thank-you from Evans, according to a list obtained by WTOP radio’s Mark Segraves of all council-awarded low-number tags. An Evans staffer says Morris requested and received the tag in 2002, when he was a national political correspondent for the New York Post. “I used to live in Ward 2,” Morris says. “Both my wife and I were supportive of Jack….I covered the White House, so I didn’t feel there was any kind of conflict for me to be involved in city politics.”
New York Post Political Editor Gregg Birnbaum—who was Morris’ editor at the time—says that he was “unaware that one of the reporters from the New York Post had obtained a low-number license plate. And, if you know me, you would know I don’t like to be unaware of those kinds of things.”
•At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown spent 20 months on the campaign trail to build the name recognition he rode to victory in 2004. Early on the morning of June 12, he found out that face recognition can be even more handy.
According to Brown, two Hawk One security guards wouldn’t let him into the John A. Wilson Building when he arrived without his electronic pass and wearing a T-shirt and shorts, at 1 a.m. “They laughed at me,” he says. “They yelled from behind the desk: ‘You need to go home and get your pass.’” Brown pressed his council ID card against the glass doors and yelled that he was a D.C. councilmember, to no avail. Brown described his demeanor at the time as “hot.” He then drove back to his Hillcrest home, got the pass card, and drove all the way back to his office. Council Secretary Phyllis Jones says the officers did not follow proper procedure, which requires the officers to check Brown’s ID, and in the case of a councilmember or council employee, let them in. She also says the Department of Protective Services (DPS) has pictures of all the councilmembers. The guards and the DPS have since apologized to Brown. So what important duty took Brown to his office, and home, and back again in the wee hours? Brown says he had promised some Nationals tickets to Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray and had never gotten around to passing them along.—James Jones
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.