Single Barrel, Double Standard

When Lancaster's school superintendent ordered a lenient sentence for two white kids caught with shotguns, black parents said it was one more example of the suburb's bigotry

But most of the 100 or so adults present didn't come to break bread. Black parents and community members clustered on the left side of the room were there to vent furor. White board members, the majority of Lancaster's board of school trustees despite a burgeoning district enrollment of at least 70 percent African-American, offered no countercharges or explanations. Yet they retaliated passive-aggressively by brushing off the black parents' complaints like so much dandruff, judging their grievances not worth discussion, to be ignored or buried in lawyerly explanations.

Morris, one of two black trustees and a soft-spoken woman who roars at meetings, clutched a letter from the Texas Education Agency and excoriated her colleagues, especially Superintendent Ward. "This report shows there is no consideration for African-Americans," she exclaimed to murmurs of approval from fellow black parents and community members.

The contentious meeting came four months after Superintendent Ward overruled yearlong expulsions of the two seniors, including the son of school trustee Robert Stacks. Tonight, Stacks sat to Ward's right and said little. Stacks says a former student left the gun in his son's truck after a hunting trip. Black Lancaster didn't buy it. Earlier, state Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat who is black, requested a state investigation into the reduced punishments.

Superintendent Bill Ward, left, strictly upheld the rule of "zero tolerance" in Lancaster until school board trustee Rob Stacks, right, asked for an exemption.
Mark Graham
Superintendent Bill Ward, left, strictly upheld the rule of "zero tolerance" in Lancaster until school board trustee Rob Stacks, right, asked for an exemption.
A state investigation sought by Carolyn Morris, Lancaster ISD trustee, dubbed the shortened suspensions a "radical departure" from typical discipline policy.
Mark Graham
A state investigation sought by Carolyn Morris, Lancaster ISD trustee, dubbed the shortened suspensions a "radical departure" from typical discipline policy.

In a report dated December 1, the Texas Education Agency dubbed Ward's move a "radical departure" from Lancaster ISD's published policies. But tough talk is all TEA dished out, since it lacks the authority to overrule local authorities in such cases.

Still, the report bolstered the determination of Lancaster's black community to topple Ward, whom they see as an arrogant and unfair disciplinarian, a good ol' boy who is not willing to acknowledge how much the city has changed in the past decade. Housing starts in Lancaster topped 500 last year, and city officials estimate census figures due out soon will show a doubling of the black population from 1990.

In Lancaster's schools, change is even more dramatic. The 4,000-strong district is about 70 percent black, up from 44 percent in 1993 (Hispanics, whites, and other groups fill out the remaining 30 percent). In Duncanville, change is also evident: The 10,000-student district counts about 4,100 black students and 1,900 Hispanic students, up from about 2,600 blacks and 1,000 Hispanics in 1993.

Conversely, DISD's black population is steadily shrinking. Since 1997, black enrollment in DISD has declined by about 6,000 students--from 64,230 to 57,963 of 161,595 students districtwide this year. The steady migration of well to-do blacks from DISD--and virtual abandonment by whites, who make up about 8 percent of district enrollment--occurs as the district's Hispanic population swells. Latino enrollment has nearly doubled from about 47,000 in 1990 to 88,000 this year.

Although middle-class blacks in Lancaster say they understand attitudes are slow to change, they feel an urgency to seek fairness for pride's sake. If something is not done now, they say, bigoted attitudes will prevail. Arvivian Roberts, a parent and longtime resident, sums up the bitter sentiment: "In the year 2001, it doesn't matter how hard you work, what you accomplish, we still don't want you near our children."

Some black Lancasterites say they consider the turmoil so unbearable that they have paid to put their kids back in DISD, while others do so illegally using false addresses. Those who are staying say their efforts at reform will eventually succeed.

"The school board is in a state of denial," says Vic Buchanon, Lancaster's sole black city council member. "People are saying enough is enough."

For now, Buchanon and his comrades are taking it to the streets. Or to the cul-de-sacs, which are more appropriate for this quiet suburb that's two-thirds pastureland. Anti-Ward yard signs have been planted in front yards all across Lancaster. Early-morning pickets have been staged in front of Lancaster High, Buchanon says, "just to draw some attention and let them know we're still here."

The placards may prove an ideal way to get the attention of Lancaster school officials, since even some school trustees have trouble communicating with the paid staff. At the January school board meeting, citizens witnessed Superintendent Ward attempt to embarrass trustee Morris, who has chastised Ward for failing to diversify school staff. Ward seemed to slight Morris when he took her written requests for information and placed them in the meeting agenda verbatim, bad grammar and all.

Morris had sought district criteria in reporting discipline data. A state audit found that Lancaster omitted discipline data pertaining to about 50 black students in a submission to the state, which officials insist was an oversight (TEA officials visited the district on February 6 to investigate). In writing, Morris demanded an explanation of how the district reported data relating to students sent to juvenile justice and alternative education programs "and how do this district come up with the amount of time that is spend."

Ward's decision to leave Morris' grammatical errors in the agenda appeared to highlight a deep hostility between the two leaders. In another part of her request, Morris had demanded an incorrect set of data, yet Ward never bothered to point Morris in the right direction before the meeting. "You did not call me," Morris told Ward. "You felt you did not have to communicate with me." In a remark intended for everyone present, Morris said, "I don't think Mr. Ward has a problem with anyone's request but my request."

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