Tuesday, April 18, 2006

White family dismayed by the racist treatment of their children in public school

Terry Bibo:

Up to the point a fourth-grader brought a box cutter to school and threatened to kill their daughter, Joe and Jessica Sweeney wanted to give Glen Oak Primary School a chance.

"'This is our neighborhood. This is where we live. Let's give the public schools a shot,'" is the way Joe describes their reasoning. "We've lived here six years. Let's give it a shot."

So they transferred 9-year-old Alexis and 8-year-old Jacob out of Peoria Christian School - which was "nice, but too expensive" - and opted for Glen Oak last September.

From the beginning, it was uncomfortable. Both children were taunted with racial slurs, particularly Alexis. The Sweeneys tried to make this a life lesson, coaching their kids to respond appropriately. They advised the children to report any threats or poor treatment to teachers, assuming the adults were addressing the problems. And they prayed their kids were simply learning the uncomfortable truth that life can be tough. But the incidents didn't stop, despite a lot of back-and-forth with the school. The kids kept their grades up, but they got pretty quiet.

In mid-March, matters came to a head during an after-school program. Alexis was alone in a bathroom when she was threatened by three other girls. Jessica went to the principal, who brought the ringleader in and made her apologize. Days later, the same girl was back - with a box cutter - threatening to kill Alexis. On the ride home after that incident, Jacob displayed a large bruise on his arm from being shoved to the ground and called a "stupid white boy."

Jessica pulled both kids out of the school immediately.

"I'm done," she says. "I'm done putting her life at risk because you won't do anything."

"This is beyond standard fourth-grade stuff," agrees Joe. "This is becoming racial now. They're not going back."

He feels this is a two-part problem. First and most importantly, they feel the school has failed to ensure the children's safety. But, second, they don't think Peoria School District 150 offered much in the way of alternatives or support. The Sweeneys were given the option to switch to Kingman Primary School. They refused. Alexis and Jacob would still be a small part of the handful of white children there.

"It's racial harassment. It's just the other way," says Joe. "There needs to be a zero-tolerance policy of any type of harassment."

One suggestion was that the family move. Again, they refused. Four houses along their street near Midtown Plaza belong to members of Jessica's family. The kids have plenty of friends - and cousins - in the neighborhood. Their grandmother runs a small business up the block.

"This is our home," Joe says. "It may not be in the best area, but this is our home."

Unlike other families who have pulled children from Peoria schools in favor of Catholic education or more upscale neighboring districts, the Sweeneys are in a unique position to publicly explain why. They are not fleeing the inner city. This is not a knee-jerk reaction against District 150. And it's tough to brand them as closet racists.

They actually have three children. Their oldest son, Caleb, is bi-racial. He has attended District 150 schools and thrived.

"My son is in Von Steuben," Jessica says. "He's mixed. He doesn't have one problem."

So in the hope that their story might teach us all a few lessons, I called District 150 for the other side. Given spring break, few people were readily available.

But Associate Superintendent Cindy Fischer stepped in and researched the situation, making repeated phone calls to people on vacation until she could determine what happened.

The bottom of the official line is that the district has policies that were followed in each of these instances. Every one was addressed, in large part through a nationally-recognized program that teaches and reinforces appropriate behavior. District-wide, 150 has four committees exploring various aspects of discipline problems. And for this family, offering Kingman is a respectable option: It is late in the year, so the district is reluctant to make any transfers. But Kingman has fewer discipline problems and several openings. Hines Primary School, which is the Sweeneys' choice because Caleb did well there, has none.

"It certainly is our regret that we were not able to bring satisfaction to this parent," Fischer says. "As consumers, when we're not satisfied with one product, we go to another. I think that is what this parent has done."

That is a fair overall assessment of the situation. But considering the controversy around plans to close the school - and an ever-increasing awareness that the school district is the key to the future of the city - the Sweeneys' story offers another perspective.

"It's just frustrating," Joe says. "We wanted to give it a chance. But everything people said about District 150 and that school ended up being true. And when it did, District 150 wouldn't back us or support us or help us."

"And I don't think the answer is closing the school and putting two of the worst schools together," Jessica adds.

With family support - and, they emphasize, a great deal of help from Monsignor William Watson - they are sending Alexis and Jacob to St. Thomas Grade School beginning Monday.

So much for integrated education.


At 3:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any White parent that sends a daughter to a majority black school should be jailed for abuse.The multi-culti diversity crap only leads to sexual assult,beatings,and miscegnation.Guess who's coming to dinner-TYRONE!


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