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LRSD responds to study claims 

Forming committee to investigate abuse of Latinos.

click to enlarge Little Rock School District Superintendent Morris Holmes image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Little Rock School District Superintendent Morris Holmes.

The UALR sociology professor whose study uncovered reports of bullying and sexual harassment against Latino students in the Little Rock School District says the district hasn't reached out to him for more information since our story about the study appeared last week, but said he's willing to provide the district with more documents and help develop a plan to try and address the problems. The district says they're putting together an ad hoc committee to investigate the validity of the study.

Dr. Terry Trevino-Richard and his wife, Rocio Ortega Richard, conducted the study, "Operation Intercept," between 2007 and 2010, holding anonymous focus groups of Latino students and parents, black students and parents, and teachers at Little Rock public schools with a sizable percentage of Latinos, including Wakefield Elementary, Chicot Elementary, Terry Elementary and Hall High. Though the purpose of the study was originally to ask Latino students general questions about school, Trevino-Richard said that reports of discrimination and "predatory behavior" by African-Americans against Latino students soon became overwhelming, so that the focus group questions were reconfigured. Some Latino parents and students told researchers that their attempts to report abuse were often ignored by teachers and administrators.

Trevino-Richard said that he has presented detailed summaries of the Operation Intercept study to the LRSD administration three times — twice to former superintendent Linda Watson in 2010, and once to current superintendent Morris Holmes in September 2011 (a claim Holmes disputes).

Trevino-Richard and Ortega-Richard said when it became clear that the LRSD wasn't going to make any changes in response to Operation Intercept, they agreed to talk to Arkansas Times. He says he forwarded the district another copy, along with more information from the study, on Sept. 17.

The Times detailed many of the raw-interview accounts from Operation Intercept focus groups in a cover story about the study last week, including reports of sexual harassment and one instance in which Latino students reportedly told researchers that they were punished as a group for speaking Spanish by being forced to sit out on a cold playground in the wintertime without their jackets. For that story, we sought comment from the Little Rock School District, but were never able to speak to anyone other than spokesperson Pamela Smith. Finally, just before press time, we were told that without seeing the "full study" the LRSD wouldn't comment. We had previously forwarded them Trevino-Richard's summary of the study, and offered to provide details from other Operation Intercept materials in our possession during an interview.

The day our story appeared, Holmes held a press conference in which he said the issues were serious and would be investigated. He said he had met with Trevino-Richard on Sept. 9, 2011, but not about the study. He said he and his administration were unaware of Operation Intercept until Arkansas Times began asking questions about it.

"I do not know of this information," Holmes said. "I have never heard this. I have never received this. I have never received a report." Holmes went on to say that "there is no administrator on my staff who has seen this report." He said he'd made "repeated requests" from Trevino-Richard for a copy of the study, but hadn't received one.

Nevertheless, Holmes said "I suspect there's a lot of truth in" the study, and said he would pursue "like Ahab pursued Moby Dick" anyone who had harmed students. Asked by a reporter at the press conference if he had plans to meet with Trevino-Richard, Holmes said: "I have no plans to meet with Dr. Richard right now. We want his study."

Trevino-Richard acknowledged that while his September 2011 meeting with Holmes "was not as focused" as the earlier meetings with Watson, he said he went through the "executive summary" of Operation Intercept with Holmes "point by point," before asking Holmes for permission to hold further focus groups in LRSD schools to see if the problems were continuing. During that meeting, Trevino-Richard said he provided a copy of the Operation Intercept summary to Holmes, just as he had with Watson and her staff.

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