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'I just want them to stop ...' 

A four-year study finds a nightmare of abuse, bullying and sexual harassment for Latino students in some Little Rock schools, with reports of complaints falling on deaf ears. What's going on, and can anything be done to stop it?

Dr. Terry Trevino-Richard's evidence of near-constant bullying, intimidation and violence aimed at Latinos at the hands of black students in Little Rock schools — including shocking sexual harassment of girls as young as fourth grade — has not been told until now. The sociology professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock says he's been waiting for a sign of improvement in the Little Rock School District since providing his research to the district in 2010 and again in 2011.

But, like study participants who said their complaints fell on deaf ears when shared with teachers and school principals, Trevino-Richard believes his survey, Operation Intercept, has also been ignored.

Trevino-Richard says he presented the findings of Operation Intercept three times to two different LRSD superintendents and several high-ranking administrators, making presentations with full summaries and recommendations to Superintendent Linda Watson in October 2010 and December 2010, and presenting the findings again for Superintendent Morris Holmes in September 2011.

The district was originally unable to find those summaries in its files, but did turn one up after being provided with a copy by the Arkansas Times. Trevino-Richard this week also provided the district, for the fourth time, he said, with summaries of his research. District spokesperson Pamela Smith said the district "will thoroughly review and verify the concerns and pointedly deal with the same. ... We want to drill into the heart of the matter and we will."

To be sure, the Operation Intercept study — responses to questionnaires and focus groups at five schools completed in 2007 and 2008 — is by now old data.

But Trevino-Richard, the president of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) is plugged into the Latino community and whose wife and study collaborator, Rocio Ortega-Richard, has kept in touch with students and parents, believes the district has yet to address the problems.

And a 2012 graduate of Hall High says it's his experience that black-Latino conflicts still exist.

Trevino-Richard has also provided the results to the Arkansas Times, in the hope that making it public will provoke a response from the district.

'I just want them to stop ...'

Trevino-Richard and Ortega-Richard conducted the Operation Intercept study (collecting additional data in 2010) with the cooperation of the Little Rock School District. Originally set in motion by former LRSD superintendent Roy Brooks, the study distributed questionnaires and held focus groups at several Little Rock schools with sizable Latino populations, including Chicot Elementary, Wakefield Elementary, Terry Elementary, Henderson Middle School and Hall High School, with some later work conducted at Baseline, Cloverdale and others.

Originally, Trevino-Richard said, the plan was simply to ask Latino students about their attitudes about school: which classes they liked, which learning styles worked best for non-native speakers, and so forth, with no questions about race or race relations. One question in the study, however, asked students to comment about the worst thing that had happened to them at school. That question opened a Pandora's box, with students repeatedly mentioning sexual harassment, violence, bullying and what the researchers came to see as a pattern of casual racism among both black students and some staff.

"We talked about bullying, and suddenly there's just this slew of stuff that's basically a black/brown issue in terms of being picked on," Trevino-Richard said. "The sexual harassment is stunning for fourth and fifth graders. One of the kids — a female — said: 'I just want them to stop doing this to me. I want them to stop.' She was constantly being sexually harassed."

Comments about black-on-Latino harassment, mocking and bullying were uniform across the board. At four of the schools, 34 of 44 Latino parents who participated in focus groups reported that their children had been bullied. Worse still was a pattern that would become troublingly common as the study progressed: near-constant sexual harassment of Latino girls by black males. Five of the six Latino elementary-school-age girls who took part in a focus group at Wakefield Elementary reported being sexually harassed or otherwise sexually threatened, and 16 of 19 elementary school-aged girls overall reported being sexually harassed.

The study was expanded to other schools that exceeded the "threshold" of a population that was more than 25 percent Latino. The patterns seen earlier continued. "We actually had to change the nature of the questions because it became so overwhelming in terms of the sense of predatory activity," Trevino-Richard said. "Sometimes — because there are ethical concerns, like a kid who was exposing himself — we actually found the name [of the perpetrator] and reported it ... . At that point the ethical concerns of confidentiality were challenged and we had an ethical duty to report the individual who was responsible."

The responses the study garnered from parents and students who tried to report the abuse find that they often felt nothing was done. Trevino-Richard recalled a parent at Henderson Middle School who said he'd reported the sexual harassment of his daughter. "His daughter had been harassed, so he went to the teacher," Trevino-Richard said. "The teacher went to the principal. The principal said I can't do anything about it — just blew it off."

From the translated response of a Latino parent at Wakefield Elementary: "My daughter was picked on by two black kids and when she talked to the teacher, the teacher ignored her. One time, she was in the bathroom and a black girl sneaked under the door and showed my daughter her private parts. My daughter ran out of the bathroom and went to her teacher, but nothing was done. I also talked to the teacher, but they don't want to hear it. I talked to my daughter about not having bad feelings in her heart toward these kids."

At Hall High, Trevino-Richard said, the pattern continued, only with the added element of prolific gang activity and drug dealing. There were around 160 Latino students out of a student body of over 1,000 at Hall at the time the study was conducted, Richard said.

"There were these conflicts there that were the same kind of sexual harassment and bullying," Trevino-Richard said. "At Hall High, a lot of Latinos noted the emergence of [Latino] gangs, primarily as a protective device. In other words, the blacks would come in groups, and in order to protect themselves, the Latinos developed a kind of gang response." At Hall High, the study called sexual harassment of girls "a serious problem," with both black and Latino parents expressing concern that their daughters had reported being inappropriately touched by male students. Among Latino girls at Hall, the study said: "There was no indication from these students that any action was taken by responsible parties to stop this harassment."

"A most striking commonality among the Latino parents at all five schools is that there is a pattern of perceived discrimination by African-American employees (faculty and staff) toward Latino students and parents," the overall summary of the study says. "When asked about the worst experience that the parents had with the LRSD, the responses were staggering. This involved African-American bus drivers, cafeteria workers, security guards, as well as some teachers and administrators. ... Latino students also [corroborated] independently of their parents what they perceived as a pattern of discriminatory behavior by African-American students and employees toward Latinos." Trevino-Richard said reports from Latino students included everything from bus drivers who made Latinos sit at the back of the bus to Latinos believing that black cafeteria workers give African-American students bigger portions at lunch.

Trevino-Richard said that though blacks are a minority in America, they're a "numerical majority" in the student body, administration and employee ranks in most Little Rock schools, giving them the power to discriminate against the minority groups they see as being in competition with them.

"One of the parents [interviewed in a focus group of black parents] at Hall High School said, 'You know, it's just like survival of the fittest. We're in power now.' " Trevino-Richard recalled. "That was a statement ... . Once you get into power, it allows you to receive the benefits or the perks of that. In many cases you often either ignore or in many cases you really begin to scapegoat the other group that's in competition."

'They were just kind of hidden there ...'

Marco Martinez graduated from Hall High last spring. He said that there was constant tension between blacks and Latinos at the school during his time there, often escalating to violence. In March 2012, Martinez said he was involved in a fight in which he said he was trying to save his sister, who was "getting stomped by seven girls."

"The funny thing is that the outcome was, we got suspended for 10 days, and [the other girls involved] got suspended for three or five days," Martinez said. "Some of the girls who were actually involved in the fight, they didn't even get suspended." In his experience, Martinez said, when a Latino student reports being bullied by a black student, "they'll just ignore it."

"Ms. X" is a former Hall High School teacher who has since left the district but who was at the school during the time the Operation Intercept study was conducted. She spoke to the Arkansas Times on condition that we would protect her anonymity. Ms. X said that while she was a teacher at Hall, her experience was that black students were allowed to say almost anything without fear of real repercussions. "The blacks are extremely prejudiced," Ms. X said. "I've never seen anything like it until I started working for the Little Rock School District. They can say anything. They can call names. They can do anything they want to. Nothing ever happens to them." She said the constant abuse led Latinos and other minorities at the school to believe that what they do doesn't matter.

"They feel very intimidated, and the Hispanics as well as the white kids at Hall, they felt like what they think or have to say is not really important. They were just kind of hidden there." Part of the reason she left the district, Ms. X said, was because she often felt intimidated by students at the school. "Many times, I was called 'This dumb white bitch,' " Ms. X said. "Why do I have to be 'white'? Why can't I just be a 'bitch'? ... Why do I have to be 'a dumb white bitch'?"

In a later focus group with 11 African-American students at Hall High in 2010, after a reported fight between black and Hispanic students, students acknowledged there was bullying, but said it was playful at times, and mostly involved non-Spanish speaking students.

Asked if a reporter could speak to Hall High Principal John Daniels, district spokesperson Smith said: "To be frank with you, unless these were administrators who were at the school at the time, that wouldn't really be a fair assessment. Mr. Daniels is new to the school; however, I know that he's committed to excellence in education and behavior at Hall High." Smith said that since she's been in the communications office of the school, "there's been a significant focus on increasing communication and awareness in the Hispanic community."

"More work obviously could be done," she said, "but we feel very strongly about our commitment to trying to make education as inclusive as possible."

'It has gotten better'

Little Rock School Board member Melanie Fox said that she has spoken with Trevino-Richard about presenting the study to LRSD administration, but has never seen the full report. She was unaware it was presented to Holmes last year.

Fox said that while she didn't have specific knowledge of black/Latino relations at any of the other schools in the study, she often visited Hall High as a school board member. Fox said there was a time at Hall High when tension between Latinos and African-American students was running high, but she said she believes it has improved in recent years. "I think it has gotten better," she said. "I think the situation at Hall is not perfect, but it has gotten better. Is it where it needs to be? No, but it has gotten better."

Fox said that when someone calls to complain to her about an issue, she tells them they must follow the "chain of command" that eventually leads to the superintendent and the board. "I cannot solve or address their issues, really, until they follow that chain of command," she said. "If they tell me they're fearful of that chain of command and give me a good reason why, I can immediately say: Get me something in writing and I will forward it to the superintendent."

Fox said the LRSD board is undertaking a complete "cover to cover" review and revision of the student handbook this year. "They have a committee formed to take that book apart and look at it page by page," she said. "Hopefully that is going to lead to some new and improved rules and regs as far as student behavior, teacher behavior and employee behavior."

Fox said that Holmes has taken steps this year to try and address the "language barrier" issue, including emphasizing bilingual education. "This year, everything is being printed in Spanish and English now, and that's new," she said. "The handbooks were deployed to every school with Spanish copies. That's new. I do know that the district has taken some steps this year to address those issues."

Told about the incident in which students at Chicot Elementary reported they were punished for speaking Spanish by being forced to sit outside in the cold without their jackets (see page 16), Fox called the incident "shocking." She said she would call Trevino-Richard to ask him to present the study to the Little Rock School Board so specifics like that incident could be addressed.

"I'm shocked. Dismayed," Fox said. "No student, no matter what — no matter what color or race — should be treated that way."

Zone Six school board member Charles Armstrong was similarly shocked by some of the reports in the study, particularly the accounts of sexual harassment. "I don't believe in sexual harassment, nor bullying. If it was my daughter, I'd be out there and they'd probably have me in jail ... . I have talked on this subject since I got on the board: We will not accept bullying. If the bullying is going on, you need to stop it and you need to stop it now. This is the first time I've heard about this study, but it would not be tolerated by the board." Armstrong said that the board should look into creating a bilingual liaison office to hear parent complaints, and the district should work harder to bridge the language barrier between teachers and Latino parents so they feel comfortable bringing their concerns to the administration. Armstrong said that once when he was visiting Chicot, he stood outside a classroom and listened while a bilingual student tried to translate between a teacher and a set of Latino parents who spoke little English.

"They had a child trying to interpret to those parents," he said. "Even if you don't have interpreters for all schools, you should have one that you can call up and say: 'We need you over here now.' You might not have enough money to have a full-time person for each school, but you need rovers anyway — people who can be there in 10 minutes or less to talk to these people."

'The racial card'

Terry Trevino-Richard and Rocio Ortega-Richard said they didn't make the results of Operation Intercept public until now because they wanted to give the LRSD time to make changes, and because they feared releasing the information could make a bad situation worse.

"We feared that the 'racial card' was going to come out," Ortega-Richard said. "How do we avoid hurting the community but at the same time do something about it? One way we found to be more gentle would be to present the bullet points to the next superintendent. Well, they read it. But it's obvious they're not going to do anything about it."

While Trevino-Richard said there are good teachers and administrators in the LRSD who are protective and appreciative of Latino students (he said one recurring theme among teachers who were surveyed was that they wanted more Latino students, reporting them to be mostly well-behaved and attentive) there is clearly a widespread problem with reports from Latino students not being taken seriously enough or ignored altogether. After awhile, Trevino-Richard said, even teachers who do report Latino students' complaints to the administration can develop "cognitive dissonance" about complaints from Latinos. "Often when they have reported [claims of harassment and bullying], nothing gets done," Trevino-Richard said, "so they just go through this thing of: 'It happens, it happens in all the schools, kids are kids, even in the past when we went to school.' But it was never at this level. Certainly, the sexual harassment has never been at this level."

Trevino-Richard said that there are likely "sub-cultural issues" at work in why the school district hasn't done more to address the bullying and harassment uncovered by the Operation Intercept study, including problems with lack of leadership at an administrative level. While Trevino-Richard said he's confident that many of the problems revealed by Operation Intercept continue to this day (he said his wife is still in contact with many teachers and administrators in the Little Rock School District, and they have reported no changes in response to Operation Intercept), he said he believes that Dr. Roy Brooks — who had his contract bought out by the LRSD in 2007 — would have attempted to find solutions.

"Given his leadership style, I do believe he would have actually intervened," Trevino-Richard said. "I think he would have developed some programs to address this. Certainly workshops on sensitivity training and things like that would have been initiated."

Trevino-Richard said that there is likely to be some fallout for him because he released the results of the study to Arkansas Times and because he speaks frankly about what he sees as the issue of racism revealed by Operation Intercept. As he said a friend recently told him: "They're going to want to kill the messenger, and you're the messenger."

Still, Trevino-Richard said that he was troubled by the fact that he wasn't able to do more to help the students he spoke with during the study. If he can help Latino students in the district, he said, any repercussions he might feel will have been worth it. Many schools in the LRSD, he said, have become a "toxic environment" for Latino kids, where learning isn't the primary focus anymore.

"You're so concerned about your security that learning becomes a secondary issue," he said. "You can imagine for a young girl to be sexually harassed in the fourth or fifth grade, and then having to carry on classes for the rest of that day or see this kid [who harassed her]. This is an environment which can produce such a high level of alienation and disengagement from the process of learning that it actually impacts on the talent and potential of these kids."

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