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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.

Documents about the meeting between Holmes and Trevino-Richard received from the Little Rock School District via a Freedom of Information Act request are unclear. Included in those documents is a single page of handwritten notes by Dr. Karen Brodnax, the LRSD's head of multi-lingual services, who sat in on the meeting. In addition to notes about National Hispanic Month, mentoring programs and Latino teacher recruitment, one of the items in Broadnax's notes references Trevino-Richard talking about "going to schools to get information from the school principals, counselors [and] teachers," followed by a note which reads: "180 students and parents from 2005-2006." The phrase "Operation Intercept" is never mentioned, but Trevino-Richard contends the notes about "going to schools" and "180 students and parents" are references to their conversation about Operation Intercept, and said that number roughly squares with the number of parents and students who participated in the study. He said he can't explain why the dates included by Broadnax don't reflect when the study was actually conducted.

Also included in the FOI packet was a page of typed notes by Broadnax, attached to an e-mail describing them as being taken during the Dec. 6, 2010, meeting between former superintendent Watson and Trevino-Richard — their second meeting at which Trevino-Richard presented the executive summary of Operation Intercept to Watson, he says. The document lists several members of Watson's staff who sat in on that meeting, including Broadnax, assistant superintendent Junious Babbs, associate superintendent for elementary education Sadie Mitchell and Andre Guerrero of the state Department of Education. The administrators are still employed with the LRSD.

Broadnax's Dec. 6, 2010, notes do reference Operation Intercept by name, and include suggestions like providing cultural sensitivity training for support staff and developing a mentoring plan, but don't specifically mention sexual harassment, bullying or abuse. Trevino-Richard said he provided a copy of the Operation Intercept executive summary to every person at the meeting, and later provided Watson with specific numbers of Latino students who reported they'd been sexually harassed and bullied.

"[Holmes'] thing is saying that nobody in his administration has had a copy of the report?" Trevino-Richard asked a reporter. "Almost everybody in central administration had a copy of the report."

Another document in the FOI packet from LRSD is a single page titled "LATINO ISSUES & CONCERNS." The document, attached to a Sept. 12, 2011, e-mail from McClellan principal Marvin Burton to Holmes, doesn't include the phrase "Operation Intercept," but does discuss "perceived African-American prejudice and discrimination toward Latinos." One item marked "Request of LRSD by Researchers" asks the district to "permit continued focus groups of African-American, Latino and White student/parent groups" in order to "clarify issues involving bullying, sexual harassment and confrontational issues."

Asked to review the "LATINO ISSUES AND CONCERNS" document, Trevino-Richard said it was a set of talking points that he typed up and provided to Holmes during their September 2011 meeting.

Trevino-Richard said the executive summary he shared with Watson and Holmes is the purest distillation of the data. "It shows the patterns that are consistent through all of the schools," he said. "That's what you need to address. That's why you do an executive summary. That's what I keep telling people: If you want the full study, I'll get it. But after you go through it, you're going to have to say: What does it all mean? That's what an executive summary does. It puts it all together and says here are the key issues." Trevino-Richard said that in order to assure truthfulness among participants, the Operation Intercept study was completely anonymous — with researchers going so far as to pay participants in cash so there was no paper trail. He said it would be a breach of academic ethics to provide the names of those who participated in the study to anyone without the participants' written consent.

Trevino-Richard hasn't heard from Holmes since the press conference. In spite of Holmes' saying he'd made "repeated requests" for the study, Trevino-Richard said the only time the district has requested documents directly from him was a single e-mail on Sept. 17, the day before our story went to press, at which time he said he gave them a copy of the executive summary and some other documents. He said he reached out to the Little Rock School District after Holmes' press conference to provide the LRSD with all the school-by-school focus group summaries and transcripts in his possession, and would go "this minute, this second" to present the findings of the study to Holmes or the Little Rock School Board if they request it. He said Little Rock School Board President Jody Carreiro reached out seeking copies of documents from Operation Intercept and that he would provide him the same documents he provided the district.

Pamela Smith, spokesperson with the Little Rock School District, said that in seeking copies of the Operation Intercept study, she called the UALR Sociology Department and left messages for Trevino-Richard twice, contacted the UALR library and other sources, and e-mailed Trevino-Richard directly on Sept. 17 and was provided with a copy of the executive summary. She confirmed Trevino-Richard recently contacted her and provided more documents.

Smith said Holmes has created an ad hoc committee to "determine exactly what happened to the students according to these statements." Once that is determined, Smith said, the LRSD will assemble a committee or task force "charged with getting specific information to address those concerns." Smith said she couldn't provide the names of the members of the committee, but that Holmes could. The Times sent an e-mail to Smith to pass along to him, but we hadn't heard back by press time. Asked if Trevino-Richard would be asked to make a presentation for that committee, Smith said that the district welcomes input and further information from him.

"It's not just about the study," she said. "The study is the document that brings to light what has been purported to have happened. But it's a way to track down exactly what happened, how it happened, to whom it happened and who needs to be responsible."

Trevino-Richard said the goal for everyone involved at this point should be "developing a plan that actually addresses the problems. Rather than attack the messenger, the issue should be: Deal with the data."

Trevino-Richard said he'd welcome another meeting with Holmes, with the possible goal of setting up more focus groups to see if the situation has changed since the original research was conducted. Given that Holmes hadn't reached out to him as of Monday of this week, he said he believes the LRSD has "closed the door" to him because he spoke out, but added he's hopeful they eventually will meet.

"I would be glad to meet with [Holmes]," Trevino-Richard said, "because I really would like to think we could develop a way of looking at the data so we could deal with some of the positive elements and deal with the real issues of the harassment and bullying — that we could actually develop a plan. That's what data does. It allows you to take action. So rather than get defensive about it, or attack the messenger, the object should be to see what we can do."

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