The New York Times, February 12, 2000
Blackboard Licking Spurs Controversy
By The Associated Press
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- The case of a 5-year-old who says her teacher made her lick a blackboard clean for misbehaving has renewed questions of fairness, race and competence in Oakland's troubled schools.
The questions are not new; a task force began reviewing the treatment of black students some years ago. But the answers may not have been heard clearly -- the task force's first report included the roundly criticized recommendation to embrace ebonics, or black English.
Task force chairman Sylvester Hodges says the controversy obscured some important findings of the committee, including the determination that black students were getting harsher punishments than students of other races for the same offenses.
``Everyone focused on ebonics when the issue wasn't ebonics,'' Hodges said.
The latest incident involves kindergartner Tiana Powell, who says her teacher at Lafayette Elementary School made her lick chalk off the blackboard last November after she disobeyed his instructions to stop writing on it.
Tiana is poor and black, the teacher white, and officials were disinclined, according to the family's supporters, to take action until Tiana's godmother, a successful businesswoman, started to ask questions two months later.
District officials and Tiana's principal, Ron Solis, refused to comment during the investigation; the teacher -- school officials refuse to name him -- has been put on paid leave in the meantime.
District spokesman Ken Epstein said officials take the complaint seriously. ``We don't condone humiliating children in school.''
The case is an unusual one -- officials at the National Association of Elementary School Principals said they had never heard of a child being forced to lick a blackboard.
But Tiana's godmother believes that what happened at Lafayette reflects an underlying pattern of problems. ``I know that if Tiana had been white or she was black and in the (well-to-do) Oakland hills schools, this wouldn't have happened,'' said Dorothy King, who runs a popular barbecue restaurant near Oakland's waterfront.
``I think they have a problem with teachers that have no clue about going into urban areas. You have teachers that are not qualified, you have teachers that are underpaid, you have overcrowding,'' she said.
The Oakland school district has about 52,000 students, close to half of them black. The teaching force is 64 percent white, according to its union. Black students comprised 80 percent of suspensions in 1996-97, a disproportionate statistic that was a subject of the task force review.
Hodges says the race issue won't go away until it is addressed across the district.
``They still have not done the kind of staff development that needs to happen,'' he said.
Critics of the Oakland schools are careful to note that the district's problems are not as simple as black and white.
The principal of Lafayette is Hispanic as is the new superintendent of schools. The last two superintendents were an Asian woman and a black woman. Hodges notes that some of the teachers found to have overreacted to black students' misdeeds were black themselves.
Some believe Oakland's problems stem from basic economics.
``We offer the lowest salaries in the Bay area,'' said Sheila Quintana, head of the 3,500-member teachers' union. ``We're not able to retain and recruit a teaching force of any consistency. When you have that swinging door situation, you have a lot of teachers that are basically new.''
Oakland has 800 teachers with emergency credentials, as opposed to full certification, she said.
``They're teachers in training,'' she said. ``They're winging it and they're winging it with children.''
At Tiana's school, the student body is 71 percent black, 15 percent Asian, 12 percent Hispanic and 1 percent white. The school received a score of 2 out of a possible 10 in new state rankings released last month. An accompanying survey found that 86 percent of the students qualified for federally subsidized lunch programs.
Tiana and her mom, Evangeline Jordan, have moved out of the shelter that once gave them a bed and roof and now live in a motel. Tiana has been moved to another class, a change her mother and godmother criticize as unfair.
And Tiana, a bright-eyed little girl with long, curly hair that flies up when she bounces, says she doesn't want to go to Lafayette anymore.
She was shy in an interview, almost whispering as she explained why. ``He made me lick the black chalkboard.''
How did that make her feel?
``Sad,'' she said.