Principal, 65, Badly Beaten in Alleged Hate Crime

Attack: Police say Latino suspects told victim, 'We don't want you here, white principal.' Anger at changes in bilingual classes may be a factor.

In what police called a hate crime, a Panorama City principal was beaten unconscious by two men who told him they didn’t want him on campus because he is white, authorities said Tuesday.

The attack at Burton Street Elementary School, which is predominantly Latino, may have been related to growing discontent by Latino parents over efforts to scale back bilingual education, police said.

As he arrived at the school Monday morning, Principal Norman Bernstein, 65, was ambushed as he stepped from his car by two men who held “a sharp object to his throat” and punched him in the head, leaving him unconscious in the car, said Los Angeles Police Det. David Escoto.

One of the attackers told Bernstein, “We don’t want you here, white principal,” according to the detective.

Bernstein described the attackers as Latinos in their 30s, Escoto said.

Bernstein was treated at Kaiser Panorama City Medical Center for bruises to his face and side and injuries to his neck and was released, Escoto said.

“We’re investigating it as a hate crime,” the detective said. “We label anything as a hate crime if something is said that may be considered race-motivated.

“We have reason to believe it’s part of an ongoing dispute with regards to Spanish teaching at the school,” Escoto said.

Bernstein said he did not want to discuss the attack because “I don’t want the negative publicity from this incident to affect the school. . . . We rarely have graffiti, let alone violence. I just want my life to return to normal.”

With an enrollment of 750 children, Burton Street Elementary is 90% Latino. As at all schools in California, administrators are replacing much bilingual instruction with the English immersion mandated by Proposition 227, passed by voters in June.

Under the proposition’s provisions, schools are required to offer bilingual classes when at least 20 students in a given grade are granted waivers from English-intensive classes. District records show that officials received more than 200 requests from parents at Burton to extend bilingual classes, said Gene McCallum, a regional school administrator.

About 70% of the school’s 700 students are considered limited English proficient, a school district official said. About 400 were enrolled in the school’s bilingual program before the advent of Proposition 227, she said.

School administrators and teachers differ over whether the animosity against Bernstein, principal there for seven years, is related to the language shift.

A teacher at the school, who asked not to be identified, said it “has nothing to do with bilingual education. It has to do with that he is not Latino and he does not speak Spanish.”

But another teacher, who also asked not to be identified, said tempers have been building since August, when the new limits on Spanish-language instruction went into effect.

Parents have written weekly letters to school officials since September, progressively making their way up the district hierarchy, expressing disapproval of Bernstein and his administrative practices, said the two teachers and a parent who asked not to be identified.

The parents recently presented school officials with a petition seeking Bernstein’s removal, the sources said.

“There is much more to this than just a bilingual education issue,” said Associate Supt. Carmen Schroeder. “It’s a personnel issue.”

The unhappy parents “wanted to share some concerns they had about the way the school was being managed,” she said. “Their biggest issue was divisiveness among staff and parents.”

Los Angeles school board President Victoria Castro said she had heard of the parents’ complaints and sympathized with them.

“Yes, some parents were seeking a Latino principal based on previous conflicts they had had with the current principal,” Castro said.

“I do not think that is an unreasonable request. Any time there is a community that feels they are in a conflict and they are primarily Spanish-speaking, they’ll ask for a Spanish-speaking principal and preferably a Latino.”

District spokesman Shel Erlich said security will be increased at the school.

“Appropriate measures will be taken to ensure the safety of staff and students at the school. We would do that in any situation that requires extra eyes and ears,” Erlich said.

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Times staff writer Louis Sahagun contributed to this story.

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