4 white teachers file racial-bias lawsuits

May 18 2011 - 12:57pm

PHILADELPHIA -- Four white teachers at a Philadelphia elementary school that has a history of racial division have filed suits in federal court alleging that Philadelphia School District officials, including a former African American principal, violated their civil rights.

The four suits, filed in U.S. District Court last week, allege that district officials engaged in a pattern of harassment, intimidation, and discrimination against white teachers at Mifflin School during the 2008-09 school year based solely on their race.

In the complaints, the teachers allege that former principal Charles Ray 3rd told them they were "unfit to teach African American students at Mifflin" because they were white.

They say Ray harmed their reputations by giving them low scores on evaluations, and defamed them by making false and disparaging comments to others.

The suits contend Ray also invaded their privacy by disclosing their personal information to Shirl A. Ishmael, an African American lead teacher, and to an individual Ray allegedly hired to "intimidate, harass," and find reasons to fire the white teachers or force them to transfer to other schools.

Ray consistently said he had a relationship with top district officials "indicating that his conduct was part of an approved policy or was part of a pattern of practices sanctioned and supported by 'higher authority,"' the suits say.

The teachers said they feared not only for their jobs but also for their personal safety and for their families.

Ray could not be reached for comment. Ishmael did not return a phone call.

Shana Kemp, a district spokeswoman, said the district had not yet received formal notice of the discrimination suits, which were filed May 10.

"Once we have been formally served, we will take a close look at the allegations and respond accordingly," she said. "The district's goal is to maintain an atmosphere of fairness and equality for all, and allegations of discrimination, on any basis, are taken seriously."

Kemp said Ray joined the district in July 2008 and left one year later.

The suits also allege that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers failed to assist the teachers when they filed grievances that outlined how they were being treated.

The teachers who filed the suits are: Colleen Yarnell, a learning-support teacher who has taught at Mifflin since 1998; Nicole Boyd, who joined Mifflin's staff in 2005; Marta Ciccimaro, who has taught at Mifflin since 2007; and Debra McKibbin Marenbach, a teacher at Mifflin since 1999.

The husbands of Marenbach and Boyd have joined the suits, alleging they suffered a loss of companionship since 2008-09 because their wives have been "unable to fully participate with familial relationships. ..."

There was no information in the lawsuits on the timing of the filings.

PFT president Jerry Jordan said he could not respond to the suits because he had not yet seen them.

"I will say that when a grievance is filed, we investigate and pursue it," he said.

Jordan added: "The federation has spent a lot of time over the years dealing with issues at Mifflin. I look forward to responding when we see the alleged suits."

Mifflin, a predominantly African American school in a mostly white neighborhood, has had racial issues before.

Allyssa Schmitt, a white principal, stepped down in January 2008 amid allegations of racial insensitivity and discrimination that ultimately were deemed unfounded.

Among other things, African American parents accused her of insensitivity for allegedly saying Muslim children looked like "flying nuns" with their traditional headgear.

That racial dispute was the focus of an East Falls community meeting and a City Council subcommittee hearing.

Two internal investigations -- one by the administrators in the district's central office and another by its inspector general -- found that the allegations against Schmitt were unfounded.

(c) 2011, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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