California school district's funding in danger over teacher's comments

April 28, 1991|By New York Times News Service

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- A rural Northern California school district accused of failing to punish a teacher who parents say slurred black and American Indian students is fighting for its existence.

Hearings have been under way in Sacramento by the state to determine whether officials of the Susanville Elementary School District knowingly ignored complaints that a teacher had used derogatory racial names in referring to black and Indian students.

At stake is the district's state financing, about $3 million annually, without which officials say the 1,350-student district would have to shut down.

The district, about 200 miles north of Sacramento, near the Nevada border, has an annual budget of about $5 million.

The teacher in the case, Edward Frank Murin, 45, is a native of Susanville who has taught at Diamond View Elementary School since 1973. Mr. Murin also coached basketball and football at Lassen Union High School until 1989.

Both schools were under the administration of the same superintendent, Marshall Leve, until last year, when the high school selected its own superintendent.

Mr. Murin is accused of slurring black and American Indian students in a dozen incidents and harassing parents and children who complained of his behavior.

Lawyers representing him said Mr. Murin would not discuss the case with reporters.

Lawyers for the State Department of Education argue that Mr. Leve and the Susanville Elementary School District Board of Trustees violated a state law that forbids racial discrimination in state-financed programs by willfully ignoring Mr. Murin's behavior. Susanville has about 9,000 people, of whom 2 percent are black and 6 percent Indian.

Testifying before an administrative law judge, parents and students have recounted Mr. Murin's behavior that brought the complaints.

The students testified that Mr. Murin repeatedly called Indian students "Tonto" and "wagon burner" and black students "niggers," "jungle bunnies" and "Tootsie Rolls."

Amee Harmon-Craig, 15, a white student who was in Mr. Murin's seventh-grade science class in 1989, testified that once he began his lecture with a joke about blacks. "I cried in his class. He was just so mean and vicious, how he could make one person hurt so much."

Last June, Lassen Union High School agreed with the state not to employ Mr. Murin for the next five years and to adopt an anti-discrimination policy.

But the Susanville Elementary School District's board has repeatedly refused to discipline either Mr. Murin or Mr. Leve. Mr. Murin is continuing to teach seventh-grade science and physical education.

Frank Cady, president of the board, testified that Mr. Murin's language, while "inappropriate," did not necessarily deny students the benefits of a state-financed program, which is how the Department of Education defines discrimination.

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