April 05, 2005

She's probably against corporal punishment, too

Most of us would agree that a good teacher should also be a good role model. But how many times have we heard from teachers and maybe even from parents: "Don't do as I do -- Do as I say."

This parent, herself a teacher in a nearby school, arrived for an unscheduled and rather unorthodox parent-teacher conference which, by the way, also violated student confidentiality, since it was held in front of an entire class of seventh graders.

Paulette Baines, a North Dallas High School teacher, left her campus Friday morning and showed up angry and unannounced in the classroom of Mary Oliver at nearby Travis.

The police report says Ms. Oliver was sitting at her desk when Ms. Baines walked into the room and grabbed her by the hair. She hit Ms. Oliver in the face repeatedly with her fist and dragged her across the floor as the class of seventh-graders watched. Ms. Baines also kicked Ms. Oliver several times in the side while she was on the floor.

I wonder if the student who complained about her teacher to the counselor was proud of how her mother defended her. The sad part is that there are those who blame the school's lack of sensitivity for black students for this parent's outburst. While the student alleged that she and another black student had been singled out, Ms. Oliver said
that she had not singled out any of the girls but had told them "y'all" need to get back to class.

The trigger on this incident apparently was pulled earlier that morning. Ms. Oliver has said she saw Ms. Baines' daughter and other girls in the hallway at their lockers during class. She told them to get back to class. Ms. Baines' daughter got upset and went to the school counselor, who called Ms. Baines.

Neither teacher could be reached Monday. I was told that Ms. Oliver was asleep and recuperating at home from her injuries. Ms. Baines has been charged with assault.

On Sunday, Ms. Oliver told reporter Margarita Martín-Hidalgo that she had not singled out any of the girls but had told them "y'all" need to get back to class.

Some parents say race may have played a part.

I talked to Rossi Walter, who is black. He serves as president of the Dallas Council of PTAs and happens to have children at Travis.

Mr. Walter told me that he spoke with Ms. Baines, who is black. Here, in a nutshell, is what she told him:

Ms. Baines' daughter and a friend, who is black, were in the hallway during class. Ms. Oliver, who is white, directed them to get back to class but ignored a white girl who also was in the hallway in violation of school rules.

Let me stress that no one has established what role race may have played in Friday's incident. Ms. Oliver had taught science to Ms. Baines' daughter in past years. So, maybe there was a history there that had nothing to do with race.

But racial tension has plagued Travis since it opened in 2001 in Oak Lawn.

"It was foreseeable that something like this would happen," said Kenneth Walker, a black lawyer and parent of a Travis child from 2001 to 2003.

More than two years ago, I met with Mr. Walker and other black parents about their concerns that white administrators and teachers at Travis were not sensitive to black families and children.

They said they believed their children were treated differently when it came to grades and other forms of academic recognition.

"They put their heads in the sand instead of taking positive steps to address our concerns," said Mr. Walker, who described the Travis campus as "hostile territory" for black families.

Travis is a magnet school for academically talented kids. Kids apply for admission based on test scores, grades and recommendations. Competition is tough. The student body is evenly divided between black, white and Hispanic students. But the teaching staff is overwhelmingly white – 70 percent in the elementary school and 75 percent in the middle school.

At a school like Travis, where excellence is the goal, there's a lot of talk about who can cut it academically and who can't. Sometimes, the talk turns to students who should return to their less-than-rigorous neighborhood schools.

To Mr. Walker and other black parents, it seems that the question of belonging and ability was asked too often about minority students.

Mr. Walter, the PTA president, said he believes some white teachers have unconsciously created the impression that they expect less of black students than white students. The result is less faculty attention and interaction with some black students, he said.

"I don't think it's racism, but I can see how some people might see it as racism," he said.

Mr. Walter described Ms. Oliver as a strict teacher. For the record, he said his son had a good relationship with her when they were student and teacher.

The source of the violence at Travis on Friday morning must not be written off as just another isolated incident, Mr. Walter said.

I wanted to ask Mari Smith, Travis' principal, whether it's time for a serious, extended dialogue about race at Travis. And whether she believes more minority teachers are needed there. Or whether she and her bosses think yet another sensitivity training course will do the trick.

She declined to be interviewed Monday.

Posted by Susan R at April 5, 2005 04:01 PM