- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2001

In a meeting at a D.C. school where parents claimed some teachers had physically and mentally abused their children, teachers accused parents of blowing up matters and creating a race issue.

At a gathering late Tuesday night at H.D. Cooke Elementary School in Northwest, teachers gasped and shook their heads as several Hispanic families spoke about the problems their children have faced.

"I am afraid to hug the children I love. I have been asked not to touch them, otherwise it could be taken as abuse," said physical education teacher Annette Thornton.

The aggrieved families including a total of 26 from the Hispanic community claim that teachers and Principal Emma Bonner have insulted their children and used corporal punishment against them over the past several years. More than half of the school's 501 students are Hispanic.

"This is just not true, just not true," said teacher Shirley Cox, shaking her head as parent Cesile Valladeres spoke about an entire third-grade class at the school being made to stand in the sun for a half-hour as punishment.

"I am sorry they are taking the family feeling we have and using it to distort issues," Miss Cox said. She added that while racial discrimination had never been the issue, "they are now making it one."

But the angry Hispanic parents say some black parents whose children attend the school have similar complaints.

The parents at the meeting said that while some teachers at the school are "excellent," their complaints are directed toward a few who have consistently abused their children, both physically and verbally.

They also said Mrs. Bonner has refused to listen to their complaints, or to act on them. "She is not very receptive to people who do not speak English," Mrs. Valladeres said.

One parent, Martha Portillo, accused Mrs. Bonner of hitting her son on the head with a walkie-talkie and of calling him "ignorant" and "illiterate."

Mrs. Portillo said that often when she visited the school she would witness Mrs. Bonner hitting other children on their heads with her walkie-talkie.

Parents said when they complained about teachers, their children faced repercussions. Mrs. Portillo said her son, Ricardo, 8, wasn't allowed to go to bathroom during class, even in an emergency. "Now he gets so nervous, he urinates in bed every night," she said.

Mrs. Portillo said that her children are growing up to be emotionally disturbed, and that the distractions are interfering with their education.

Mrs. Bonner said yesterday that "99.9 percent of it [the complaints] were untrue."

"H.D. Cooke is a scapegoat for a larger political agenda," she said, but declined to expand on that comment. She added that the charges had led to an unhealthy atmosphere for children at the school.

Mrs. Thornton, who has been with the school for 27 years, described Mrs. Bonner as a "wonderful principal."

"She is always thinking of the children. If we want to do something, her first question always is: 'Is this for the children?' " Mrs. Thornton said.

Superintendent Paul Vance, who met the parents last Saturday, said it was "shocking" to hear the complaints of abuse.

"It was more disappointing than anything," he said.

The superintendent said the school will now have a full-time bilingual worker to talk with parents when they come in. He also said that "before this week is over" he is expecting a report from a special team that is investigating staff at the school.

One teacher at the school, Odessa Banks, was suspended in March after students said she threatened to kill a child.

Arnoldo Ramos, executive director of the Council of Latino Agencies, which is helping the Hispanic parents organize a protest, said he hopes the incident illustrates the need for better communication between teachers in D.C. schools and non-English-speaking parents.

The war of words, he said, is an illustration of how frustrating matters can become when people don't communicate.

"The protesting parents are seen as extremist, unbalanced … both parties seem to be pursuing two completely different [objectives]," he said.

The parents are hoping there will be more bilingual programs in the District's schools to keep pace with the "demographic explosion" of Spanish-speakers in the area, he said.

"We are trying to recruit more bilingual and Hispanic employees both for principal and other staff positions," said Mr. Vance, who also is trying to increase the number of Spanish-speaking teachers in the city's pubic schools.

There also needs to be a proper system of redress "so parents are listened to if they have complaints," he said.

Mr. Vance said the school system will send a recruiting team to Puerto Rico this spring to interview graduates of the University of Houston's satellite program for teaching positions.

"We will go far afield in our effort," he said.


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