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

At the meeting, Ward doesn't rebut that characterization. Despite piercing criticism from Morris and audience members, he says little, extending no olive branches and betraying no annoyance with facial expressions. The one time that Ward, a veteran educator who has served as Lancaster's superintendent for nearly a decade, speaks at length occurs early in the meeting, when he praises the district's new special-education director.

The trustees take a break to meet behind closed doors in executive session to discuss legal and personnel matters. "Consider Superintendent's Contract" is one of the to-dos listed on the agenda, which offers no further details. A possible buyout of Ward's contract, which extends to 2003 but must be renewed each year, was the subject of a story in the local weekly paper, which also reported that Ward has sold his house. Even though last week the board renewed all of its contracts except Ward's, board president Jo Carlin insists such talk is baseless.

During the intermission, several black parents voice dismay over the dispute. "If two kids fight, and the circumstances are similar, they should be punished similarly," says Dexter Simpson, a parent and president of Lancaster High's booster club. "What Ward needs to do is treat every child equally." Simpson is also upset that other board members aren't listening to Morris. "Stacks can ask questions, Morris cannot, without being accused of playing the race card," he says.

Pictured with his dog Justice, Lancaster City Councilman Vic Buchanon says the school system has given diversity short shrift.
Mark Graham
Pictured with his dog Justice, Lancaster City Councilman Vic Buchanon says the school system has given diversity short shrift.
Mayor Joe Tillotson worries that the shotgun fracas has needlessly damaged Lancaster's image.
Mayor Joe Tillotson worries that the shotgun fracas has needlessly damaged Lancaster's image.

Sitting near Simpson is Sheryl Chism, a fourth-grade teacher in DISD who lives in Lancaster. "It's horrible," she says. "People are angry." Her main complaint: Mostly white teachers in Lancaster ISD "cannot teach in a diverse learning style." What does that mean? "You can't teach different types of students the same way," she says. "African-American boys are more energetic, talkative, and learn better in a cooperative style."

Unlike Dallas educators accustomed to multiculturalism, Chism says, Lancaster instructors don't try to harness African-American boys' energy to their benefit. Energetic boys are disciplined quickly and overly harshly, she says, and if two or more happen to scuffle in the halls, they often don't go to the vice principal's office, but court, where they receive criminal records. School police officers regularly write tickets for offenses such as disorderly conduct, Buchanon confirms.

When it happened to Chism's son after a scuffle with his best friend, she was called at work to come and get him. "I was terrified," she says. Remarking on what she deems "pettiness," Chism recalls an incident where a boy who brushed his hair was sent to the office. Her son was also ordered to remove his braids, which especially angered Chism. "You can't make my son look like a white boy," she says, fuming. The question she asks herself: "Should I remove my kids or fight?"

Such complaints elicit little sympathy from the board. "You've got to have discipline in the classroom," trustee James Parks says at the meeting.

But what floors Chism and others, prompting them to attend excruciatingly long school board meetings after work, is that the one time the district's tough, unyielding line was relaxed, it was for a white trustee's son and his friend. It's a circumstance that black leaders say they have witnessed many times. "When they use their discretion," Lee Alcorn says, "there's more latitude for white than black. If it's a black student, there's no latitude."


Perceived flexibility for some and not others at Lancaster ISD has become a rallying point for Lancaster's black community. Buchanon points out that before the shotgun brouhaha, both Superintendent Ward and trustee Stacks were steadfast defenders of the zero-tolerance policy, despite protests from Buchanon and others for a case-by-case approach.

Stacks, Buchanon says, repeatedly reasoned that granting one exception would prompt everyone else to seek a break. "He said that so many times I can barely count them on hands, and Mr. Ward, too," Buchanon says. Parents with children who have clashed with school authorities also charge hypocrisy. At the January board meeting, parent Arvivian Roberts refuted Ward's claim that no one had ever appealed a disciplinary sanction to him before the Stacks case.

Roberts, whose daughter received an eight-day suspension for fighting two years ago, told trustees Ward's claim was false, because she once sought an appeal. She recalls pleading with Ward to lighten her daughter's punishment on grounds she was defending herself and didn't provoke the fight. No appeal was heard, and her daughter served the time. "When we try to communicate with Mr. Ward, he turns a deaf ear," she says.

Buchanon cites several examples of long sentences given to black students for arguably lesser crimes than shotgun possession. Last February, a girl was suspended for 15 days because she had alcohol in her car. Shortly after the gun incident, the boy who turned the shotgun-toters in was himself suspended for 90 days and sent to an alternative school in another gun-related matter. His crime: fighting with another student and then pointing a toy gun at him.

Buchanon, who represented the toy heat-packer at a disciplinary hearing where he counseled leniency, insists he's not making excuses for troublemakers. Rather, he says, he's trying to put the matter in perspective. "I'm not condoning what this student did. He didn't do right," he says. "But these folks had real shotguns. You figure the only reason Matt Stacks got five days is why? Because he was the son of a trustee."

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