Principal's Account of Being Attacked Exposes Tensions

Racial and ethnic strains have simmered over school's year-round schedule and bilingual issue.

A report this week by an elementary school principal that he was assaulted by two men who said they didn’t want a white administrator at a mostly Latino school has exposed a raw nerve both at the campus and at the highest echelons of the district.

Norman Bernstein had become a subject of controversy at Burton Street Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley. Racial and ethnic strains have been simmering at the campus for nearly a year, where a vocal group of parents has complained about the administrator’s management style and inability to speak Spanish.

Tensions eased somewhat Thursday as the parents backed away from their campaign to oust Bernstein, 65, and top Los Angeles school officials expressed support for the 40-year veteran of the school district.

“We wish he gets well and comes back to our school,” said Lorena Ayon, 26, whose 5-year-old attends the school.

Police, meanwhile, stepped up their investigation into the Monday morning incident in the school parking lot, which is being handled as a hate crime. They are interviewing neighbors and have doubled their patrols around the Panorama City campus. Investigators met for nearly an hour with about 20 parents behind closed doors Thursday at the school to bring them up to date on the probe.

Outside the school, representatives of the various school district unions held a news conference to condemn the violence.

Board of Education President Victoria Castro had angered the unions earlier this week when she failed to immediately criticize the violence and expressed sympathy with the parents’ desire for a Latino principal.

On Thursday, Castro called a recuperating Bernstein at home in Burbank to wish him a speedy recovery and a quick return to work. She also has introduced a motion calling for a $25,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the assailants.

Joe Hicks, executive director of the Los Angeles city Human Relations Commission, said the situation at Burton Street is emblematic of simmering racial tensions citywide. He said that as the ethnic composition of Los Angeles continues to change, Latinos and other emerging groups should not expect to be represented exclusively by people of their same race or heritage.

“Insisting that people in leadership roles reflect the ethnic makeup of a particular area or school is not tolerable–that road leads to Bosnia,” Hicks said. “There must be people willing to argue against that and for a new style of leadership.”

According to parents and school officials, Burton Street’s problems began nearly a year ago when the school faced the first of two major changes.

Bernstein supported a plan to place Burton Street on a year-round schedule, angering parents who did not want their children in school during the summer.

Parents suspected that the calendar change was a result of overcrowding caused by students from outside the attendance area flooding the school. They demanded an attendance audit, which showed that only 20 of the 750 students had come from outside the school’s boundaries.

School district officials said the calendar change was in fact mandated by the Board of Education to relieve overcrowding–and keep students off buses–at nearby Valerio Street Elementary School.

Burton Street converted to a year-round schedule in July.

One month later, the second tremor hit.

Like schools throughout California, Burton Street began implementing the anti-bilingual law, Proposition 227. Parents accused Bernstein of trying to thwart their efforts to obtain waivers so their children could continue in bilingual classes.

But Bernstein said he followed district procedures. The school granted more waivers than any other elementary campus in the area. Half of its 400 English learners were allowed to remain in bilingual classes–proportionately one of the highest rates of waivers in the school district.

Contacted at his home, Bernstein said he was pleased with how the school was able to accommodate parents’ wishes.

“With the cooperation of parents, teachers and students, we accomplished a great deal in a short period of time,” Bernstein said. “I was proud of the way we handled the transition.”

But the two issues polarized teachers and parents, lent a contentious atmosphere to campus parent meetings and fueled other unrest.

“The parents were angry about so many things,” said area administrator Gene McCallum. “If a teacher was late getting to school, if the principal was off campus, if a child fell in the schoolyard, it was a problem. It was like someone had opened a Pandora’s box. They wanted a perfect school.”

In November, about 12 parents met with Assistant Supt. John Liechty, who oversees instruction in the San Fernando Valley. Liechty and McCallum met with Bernstein last month. Liechty called the meeting constructive. Bernstein asked for recommendations on how to address the unrest. Liechty told Bernstein to review the school’s policies on attendance and student supervision.

“It was not about demotion, it was not about movement,” Liechty said. “It was about, ‘Let’s go forward and see if we can be proactive about getting in front of these issues.’ ”

McCallum, however, sent Bernstein a memo last week, directing the principal to continue building bridges with parents but also informing him that the district was considering his dismissal, demotion or transfer because he was unable to quell the ongoing unrest.

In the meantime, Bernstein had sought advice from the Anti-Defamation League about what he described as anti-white sentiment on campus. A league official sent complaint forms to Bernstein but said he has not yet returned them.

Bernstein also solicited support from parents, who have inundated Liechty and Supt. Ruben Zacarias with letters on his behalf.

“Mr. Bernstein asked if I would support him,” said Burton parent Roger May. “He said there were parents trying to get him replaced by a Spanish-speaking person. He wanted to show there were other parents who liked him. I like him a lot. He’s one in a million.”

Although police are taking Bernstein’s assault report seriously, some parents and officials at the school district’s headquarters have questioned his account of the attack.

But he and others stand by his story.

“I saw him shortly after he was admitted [to the hospital] until they released him,” said Sue Scott, a Burton Street kindergarten teacher. “I saw the blood. . . . That’s the honest to God truth.”

Liechty and other top district officials said they are looking forward to Bernstein’s return to work so that he can continue to mend frayed relations.

“Norm Bernstein has my full support and confidence to be able to do the job at that school,” Liechty said. “If Norm Bernstein fails at that school, then I fail at that school, and so do a lot of other people. We have to try to resolve the issues and heal the wounds.”

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Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein and Michael Luo contributed to this report.

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