Sunday, March 12, 2000

Racism 101: Madeira schools learn painful lesson

Slurs led to teacher's resignation, city's soul searching

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jean-Robert Cadet sits in his living room with a painting of Haitian children.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        MADEIRA — A veteran teacher and administrator, Madeira Public Schools Superintendent Michele Hummel had seen them all. But there was one four-letter word she thought she'd never have to deal with in this seemingly idyllic suburb.

        After the very public resignation of a respected black teacher amid claims of racial harassment, however, the issue of race has been a main topic for Mrs. Hummel and other administrators in this high-achieving system where only 5 percent of the students are members of minority groups.

        “It never entered our radar screens,” Mrs. Hummel said. “But now all of our antennae are up ... and now that it's out there, we're not going to avoid talking about it.”

        Police have been called in to investigate racial slurs left on the teacher's voice mail. A letter went home to parents explaining the situation last week.

        And Tuesday, administrators held an assembly at Madeira Junior/Senior High School to discuss the situation and condemn racism and other forms of harassment, although no one has been caught.

        Some parents are questioning why a district that has suspended students for joking about blowing up a toilet or throwing cookies out a school bus window haven't taken stronger action.

        But given the reverence that area residents give the schools for their ability to keep academic standards high and problems to a minimum, many in the community are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

        “I was very surprised that it happened, because Madeira is not that kind of place,” said Carol Wellinghoff, the parent of a senior at Madeira Junior/Senior High. “But I believe wholeheartedly in the administration, and they are taking this as serious as you can take an issue.”

A teacher who cared
        French/history teacher Jean-Robert Cadet, known nationally for writing a book about his experiences growing up as a child slave in Haiti, was loved by many of his students, and he loved them back.

        The 45-year-old was known for his quick smile, demanding standards and wearing a dress and woman's hat in class as part of a vocabulary lesson.

        But in October, the only black teacher in the system found a racial epithet scrawled on his blackboard, the first such incident in recent memory at the predominantly white school.

        School administrators said it would be investigated. The teacher was told to lock his door so it wouldn't happen again.

        This month, he resigned abruptly, citing a pattern of racial harassment that included at least 10 more epithets left on his voice mail. He initially saved all of them, but eventually erased them, saying it was too painful to have to hear them repeatedly as he checked for new messages.

        Mr. Cadet did save the final one, which he forwarded to Mrs. Hummel when he submitted his resignation letter. Investigators have since determined that the message was left on the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 19.

        Mr. Cadet says he expected some abuse when he came to Madeira four years ago. He was, he realized, probably the first black male authority figure for many of his students.

        Other than being referred to as “the black teacher” by students who Mr. Cadet says didn't know better, there were no problems the first three years.

        But that was when he taught exclusively in the junior high — when he started teaching high school students earlier this year, the troubles began.

        Even though he thought there could be problems, the initial epithet on his blackboard was painful. And it was embarrassing when a student yelled in November from a crowd to his wife, who is white and also teaches at the school, “Is this a black thing with you or what?”

        But what hurt worse was his perception that administrators didn't care, created when he felt as if his complaints over the chalkboard incident were “blown off.”

        “I truly feel that they didn't want to deal with this, and ignored it until they couldn't anymore,” said Mr. Cadet, who gave up a $51,000 annual salary when he resigned. “The assembly and all that is too little, too late. Well, now they don't have to deal with it anymore.”

Pursuing the truth
        Zach Cuni, a 15-year-old student of Mr. Cadet, said his teacher gave no indication that anything was wrong until his tearful announcement last Tuesday that he was leaving.

        “He would still laugh and smile,” Zach said. “He's just that kind of a guy.”

        Zach said the school is so small (just under 700 students) that there must be students who know who's responsible.

        Mr. Cadet even suggested a particular student as a suspect in his resignation letter, but Mrs. Hummel said Friday that she wasn't going to make any accusations or call the student in for a conference without concrete evidence.

        She did say that the phone message has been traced to a nonresidential phone in Amelia, and that administrators are tracking down any connections individual students may have to that village.

        Also, she asked students for help in identifying the culprit during Tuesday's assembly and said she would pursue criminal charges in addition to suspensions against whomever left the message.

        “We appear to be not doing anything, but we are still aggressively pursuing this even though Mr. Cadet has left,” Mrs. Hummel said. “You'll see our zero tolerance come into play when we catch whoever did this, believe me, because we will not tolerate someone being chased out.”

        Madeira attorney Jeff Corcoran, who has represented other parents whose children have been punished under the district's tough zero-tolerance policy, said the district is very thorough in its investigations.

        “If they say they are investigating, they are doing their damndest to catch whoever did it,” Mr. Corcoran said. “They take every incident seriously, even those at a minimal level, and I can't believe that they would have ignored this if they knew about it.”

Measured response
        Mrs. Hummel has asked her teachers and principals to keep their ears open for any kind of harassment — racial or otherwise.

        “We want to see if there is a problem, and what our response should be,” she said. “I'm not going to have a knee-jerk reaction and demand eight weeks of diversity training for everyone when that might not be the answer.”

        And despite their abhorrence at the acts themselves, many residents and parents agree with this response.

        “We've heard that we have our heads in the sand and that we're not dealing with this like we have with other things,” said Barbara Buchholz, Madeira School Board vice president and a teacher in another district. “But the specifics on this case are very different, and the administration is doing the right thing in not jumping off the handle.”

        Mr. Cadet said he has received two or three cards or letters a day since news of the reasons behind his resignation became public. Many feature messages of support or apologies for the actions of others.

        • “My heart hurts for you and your family. God is not smiling on those who hurt you,” wrote a West Chester woman who does not know Mr. Cadet.

        • “Our hearts are heavily burdened with what has happened,” wrote another person, who included a novena in the card.

        • “The failure of the Madeira Schools to act promptly and decisively to condemn racism is tragic,” parents of one of Mr. Cadet's students wrote in a letter to administrators.

        Mr. Cadet said he has yet to receive any negative messages. He also said that he will not ask for his job back.

        Mrs. Hummel said she won't ask him back, saying she respects the thought that must have gone into the decision to resign.

        In the meantime, he hopes the experience turned a light on a potential problem brewing in this otherwise quiet and homogeneous community.

        “This will probably open their eyes to something they probably never even knew existed,” said Mr. Cadet, who lives in the district and still volunteers at his son's elementary school.

        “Maybe the kids will learn something from this.”


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