Friday, January 8, 1999

School racial
incident stirs
ouster call

An attorney asks that
Iao School's principal be
removed from the job

By Crystal Kua


HILO -- An attorney has called for the removal of Iao School's principal, citing a racism complaint filed by an African-American student at the Maui school.

Andre Wooten, vice president of the Afro American Lawyers Association of Hawaii, said that Iao principal Elizabeth Ayson sent out a "racially discriminatory message" in a viewpoint piece she wrote earlier this month in a Maui newspaper.

"This person is incompetent to administer a state of Hawaii school," Wooten told the school board during its meeting here. "This person has stated that either she does not know the law ... or she does not intend to apply the law."

An attempt to reach Ayson was unsuccessful.

Wooten and Sandy Ma, American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii legal director, called for racial tolerance training in Hawaii public schools.

"Without a doubt, racial discrimination and harassment permeate the institution of public learning," Ma said.

Education officials said that discrimination of any kind is unacceptable and that schools are doing what they can to make sure the campus environment is safe.

"The only way to keep this from becoming commonplace is to respond to it in a serious way," state Schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu said after the meeting.

"We will be working with the department (of education) to make the best possible response to these kinds of activities," school board Chairman Mitsugi Nakashima said during the meeting.

The department is working on gathering from other parts of the country examples of tolerance and sensitivity programs and materials.

"This is an issue that must be addressed," LeMahieu said.

"It's moving along. It's happening," he said.

Philliep Knox, an Iao School 8th grader in special education classes, was punched and suffered racial slurs.

He and his mother filed a complaint last month with the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education in Seattle.

The school has investigated each of four alleged incidents and disciplined students, school officials have said.

LeMahieu, who visited Iao School on Wednesday, said an investigation has shown that Knox has been the victim of harassment, and he offered an apology to the boy.

"Philliep has every right to expect a safe environment. Iao Intermediate has a responsibility to provide such an environment," LeMahieu said.

LeMahieu, however, declined to discuss Wooten's request to remove Ayson as Iao School principal or the details of the Iao incident because of the potential for a lawsuit to be filed in the matter.

"Whether a lawsuit is filed depends on what you do," Wooten told the board.

Both Ma and Wooten reminded board members of other examples of racial insensitivity in the schools that have included offensive portrayals of African-Americans in a high school yearbook and a student wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume at another school.

Wooten said Ayson's viewpoint conveyed "that she didn't intend to do anything about it."

"Ayson's viewpoint said in part, 'Indeed it is a shame that some children have not been taught racial tolerance at home and, worse, it is a travesty to expect schools alone to fix this major community problem.'"

But the viewpoint also said, "I myself pledge to lead and participate in this process of change."

Ma said after the meeting that her organization doesn't believe that it's their place to make recommendations on personnel actions such as the firing an employee.

Her goal in going before the board was to get them to take action to end discrimination in the public schools, she said.

"From what I can tell, they're not willing to do that, she said.

"I'm not really sure why. I'm not sure what they want.

"We're giving them an opportunity to do something without being dragged into court," she said.

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