Conflict? What Conflict?

Hispanic leaders on DISD's payroll go mum about segregation at Preston Hollow

Hector Flores isn't someone you'd expect to be apathetic about segregation. The immediate past national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, Flores often serves as the voice of indignation on civil rights debates. In Farmers Branch, where the city council recently passed legislation making it harder for illegal immigrants to live and work, Flores told a reporter that "the Statue of Liberty must be crying right now."

But when it comes to Preston Hollow Elementary School, Flores turns to stone. In November, a federal court found the North Dallas school was segregating students, but neither Flores nor most of his LULAC colleagues have anything to say about the judge's harshly stated ruling. In fact, Flores hadn't even read it. "I have other things to do in the community, like Farmers Branch," he says.

The judge found that Preston Hollow in North Dallas wrongly placed Hispanic and black students in English-as-a-second-language classes in order to keep the white neighborhood kids together in the same general education classes.

Jesse Diaz, one of the few Hispanic leaders to criticize DISD over Preston Hollow
Mark Graham
Jesse Diaz, one of the few Hispanic leaders to criticize DISD over Preston Hollow

Although the judge found only the school's former principal, Teresa Parker, liable for what had happened at the school, he didn't exactly let anyone off the hook. After portraying Preston Hollow as deliberately segregated at all levels, he criticized the district for being "asleep at the wheel."

So what could Flores have to worry about that's more vexing than segregation? How about his job? The part-time civil rights leader is a full-time employee of DISD, serving as its director of personnel. Like many local Hispanic leaders who either work for the district or have close ties to those who do, Flores finds himself in a tricky spot. Making their dilemma messier still is the fact that Hispanics dominate the leadership at DISD, starting with Superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

"It's interesting that there hasn't been general opposition to that type of segregation," says attorney and civil rights activist Domingo Garcia. "I think it's more of a deference to the superintendent."

Some say that's what led to this mess. Jesse Diaz, a local LULAC chapter president, is one of the few Hispanics to criticize DISD for what happened at Preston Hollow. He says that what makes the situation infinitely worse is that Latino leaders both in the district and outside did nothing when they first heard about allegations of segregation.

"In my lifetime I can't ever remember being involved in a situation like this," says Diaz, president of LULAC Council 4496. "Of all people, we should have caught this quickly. Everybody involved, except for the principal, was Hispanic, and they allowed this to happen."

In February 2006, after meetings with Latino parents and school officials stalled, a Preston Hollow teacher sent a letter to Superintendent Hinojosa stating that school "classrooms were segregated by race." Hinojosa would later testify that he forwarded the letter to his deputy superintendent, Steve Flores, who, in turn, passed the allegations off to a man below him on the DISD food chain by the name of Rene Martinez.

A member of LULAC, Martinez is paid nearly $100,000 a year to serve as the district's parent-student engagement executive director. But Martinez's advice to the parents was, in effect, to disengage.

"Rene Martinez told me, 'My kids came here years ago,'" says Donna Flores, who served as a translator for some of the Latino parents during meetings with DISD officials. "'The school has always been this way. It's always going to be this way, and nobody is going to change it.'"

Ana Gonzalez, whose daughter was placed in an ESL kindergarten class even though she scored a perfect five on an English language exam and tested as gifted, says that Martinez downplayed her worries.

"He said, 'Don't worry, it's a misunderstanding. We can work it out talking to administrators,'" she says.

That never happened. Gonzalez and another parent who filed the lawsuit, Lucresia Santamaria, say that nobody at Preston Hollow or at DISD explained to them why their kids were placed in ESL classes. Like Gonzalez, Santamaria's children scored well enough on a language exam to be in general education classes.

The Latino parents at Preston Hollow didn't have much luck with LULAC either. Joe Campos, who at the time was the executive manager for the national office of LULAC, serving as Hector Flores' chief of staff, met with Gonzalez and Santamaria and determined they merely wanted the principal fired. He later admitted that he jumped to conclusions.

"It was probably wrong of me, but I had already decided what the whole issue was about, and I had other things on my mind that I was dealing with, and I just tuned it out," he later testified.

Campos attended a meeting with the parents and school officials at the request of Rene Martinez. Both he and Martinez belong to the same LULAC chapter, which put Campos in yet another delicate situation of having to investigate the conduct of a DISD leadership team that included two of his civil rights colleagues. As Ana Gonzalez tells it, Campos wasn't happy about the job.

"He didn't want to be there. He said he could fix things by talking to the principal," she says.

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