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For 34 years Lillie C. Evans Elementary had been an all-black school. That changed last year when thirteen Anglo and eighteen Hispanic students, as well as nearly a dozen suburban black children, volunteered to be bused to the Liberty City school of more than 700. Some of the children came from as far away as Coconut Grove, others from Hialeah and North Miami Beach.
The students, and their parents, were drawn to the school by the prospect of a "magnet" program that promised smaller class sizes and a specialized curriculum emphasizing math and science. Such magnet programs, though new to Lillie C. Evans, have existed nationwide for more than a decade, an alternative to forced busing as a means of complying with federal mandates to desegregate the public education system. The concept has been popular with school district administrators but is not without its inherent problems. Among those is the fact that guaranteed enrollment in the special classes is restricted to those students being bused in from outlying areas. Only when space permits can a few students from the host school participate. Sometimes this leads to resentment and friction.
Still, the inauguration of a magnet program at Lillie C. Evans was hailed as a milestone. "Once-segregated school has become model of unity," proclaimed a headline in the Miami Herald shortly after the project began this past September. Goodwill and optimism may have marked the beginning of the school year, but by its end they had been replaced by acrimony and distrust. With only a couple of weeks left before summer vacation, nearly half the Anglo and Hispanic children were abruptly withdrawn by their parents. The parents of many of the remaining magnet students announced that while they were willing to finish the term, they would not return their children to Lillie C. Evans for the upcoming school year.
Parents and teachers have described numerous incidents with racial overtones in which they claim students -- many as young as five or six years old -- were verbally threatened and physically mistreated by the school's staff. "It happens all the time," says one teacher, who requested anonymity for fear of losing her job. "I've seen security guards doing things to the real little kids, the kindergartners, that was just wrong. They would twist their arms behind their backs and then shove them up until you could see it hurt. They were treating these kindergarten kids like they are some kind of felons. And these are large security guards. I saw this one security guard, she must have weighed over 300 pounds, knocking around one little boy who couldn't have weighed more than 40 pounds."
Six parents interviewed by New Times say they are furious it took weeks of calling and meeting with school district officials before anyone would scrutinize their claims. Now both the district's own police department and the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services are conducting separate investigations. Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Octavio Visiedo has promised to forward results of the police investigation to the State Attorney's Office for review. But in hindsight, Visiedo admits, the entire affair has been seriously mishandled.
Some administrators working for Visiedo, however, dismiss the events of the past year as simply a clash between two strong personalities: Lillie C. Evans principal Dorothy Mindingall and the school's magnet program leader, Joan Kuperstein. Egos and poor management, not race, were the source of the problems, they contend.
While there may be some truth to assertions of a personality conflict, the allegations themselves clearly do have racial overtones, but not in the way one might expect. For it was not the Anglo and Hispanic students who were allegedly mistreated, but rather the local black children who were being victimized by the school's predominately black staff.
And it was the Anglo and Hispanic parents, shocked by actions they say were taken for granted within the school, who reported the allegations. Furthermore, the parents contend it was obvious that a double standard existed. As Michael Garcia, a nine-year-old Hispanic student, later explained: "They never touched any of the white children. I guess they figured if they did, they could really get into trouble." If such behavior was officially sanctioned, parents wondered, what message was being received by the students? That Anglo children are special? That Hispanics are worth more than black children? Imagine the resentment among the black students, they thought.
In time the Anglo and Hispanic mothers came to view the circumstances as intolerable and began to protest. "I've always been attracted to kids," says Nola Garcia, Michael's mother, "and when there are kids in situations that are not healthy or happy for them, I'll speak up. I think as adults that is our responsibility, to stand up for all kids. Every kid deserves the best, and I will not stop until things are changed."
The response from the Liberty City neighborhood around Lillie C. Evans Elementary? Anger and bitterness toward the Anglo and Hispanic parents. "I really think they are trying to destroy our community and our school," charges Brena Wadley, a black parent with two children at the school. "I wish I knew why."