Mifflin insiders say racial discrimination suit was act of retaliation

Several people with ties to an East Falls elementary school sharply dispute the allegations in a quartet of civil rights lawsuits filed recently against Philadelphia School District officials.

In early May, four white teachers at Thomas Mifflin Elementary School each submitted suits in federal court alleging that they were harassed, intimidated and discriminated against because of their race.

At the center of those claims is Charles Ray III, an African-American principal who headed the Conrad Street school from July 2008 through 2009.

The teachers – Nicole Boyd, Marta Ciccimaro, Debra McKibben Marenbach and Colleen Yarnell – allege that Ray told them they were unfit to teach black students, showed favoritism toward black teachers, and tried to find reasons to fire or transfer them to other schools, among other things.

The suit also alleges that Ray “impermissibly” gave Shirl A. Ishmael, a teacher leader at Mifflin at the time, access to private personnel files for the purpose of “investigating” their homes and personal lives.

The teachers are each seeking $150,000 in damages.

Ray could not be reached for comment. The district did not respond to a request for an interview with Ishmael or her attorney.  And the plaintiffs’ attorney declined to make them available for interview.

But several people who’ve spent time in the school told NewsWorks that the allegations against Ray and Ishmael are unwarranted.

‘The truth will come out’

Linda Norris, a white noontime aide at Mifflin, said the lawsuits will eventually be exposed as a collective sham.

“When it gets into the court, trust me, the truth will come out and this is all going to be cleared up and Ms. Ishmael’s name will be cleared and hopefully justice for Mr. Ray will come,” said Norris.

The long-time employee described Ray as “a fine man” who wanted to unify a school that had been stewing in racial tension for years. Ray’s efforts to that end, however, were often stymied by members of a mostly white teaching staff who didn’t want to cooperate, she said.

That struggle, said Norris, took its toll on Ray, a newcomer to the school district and one of four principals the school has had since early 2008.

“When he left there he looked like he aged 20 years,” said Norris. “He looked like he came out of a battlefield.”

Norris said none of the allegations against Ray are true, including a claim that he made teachers read an article that said white teachers couldn’t teach black students, the vast majority of Mifflin’s 238 enrollees.

“It never said that white teachers couldn’t teach black children,” said Norris of literature that all school employees were required to read as part of mandatory diversity training that year.

Norris said the suits similarly mischaracterize Ishmael, who she said was also given a hard time by the suits’ plaintiffs.

“[Ms. Ishmael] is very respected, a very good educator and definitely very professional,” said Norris.

Asked why those teachers worked against Ishmael, Norris said she suspects they thought she had helped remove former principal Allyssa Schmitt. She said they were resistant to Ray, in part, because he was another Schmitt replacement.

Speculation of retaliation

Schmitt, who is white, left Mifflin in January 2008 amidst allegations that she and other white teachers made racially discriminatory remarks about black students and parents.

“Some parents indicated that their children were being referred to as monkeys,” said Ralph Wynder, former Democratic leader of the city’s 38th Ward. “Other parents felt as though their children were being discouraged from walking to school through the neighborhood – that they should catch the bus. Another parent who was Islamic said she was criticized because of her dress and head gear.”

Wynder said he attended meetings at Mifflin up to three times a month to address racial discrimination complaints. He initially tried to work with the School District when the claims started, but eventually turned the issue over to Philadelphia City Council.

Concerns about Schmitt were aired most publicly during a 2009 meeting at the Abbotsford Homes in East Falls – a public housing complex where a number of Mifflin’s black students live – and a City Council subcommittee hearing in 2007.

Investigations by both the district’s central office and its inspector general cleared Schmitt of any wrongdoing.

Still when Schmitt “left under pressure”, said Wynder, some white teachers made life difficult for anyone they suspected had helped influence that decision.

“They began to target the individuals that were still at the school that they felt were responsible for her leaving,” said Wynder.

NewsWorks was unable to reach Schmitt for comment. She is currently the principal at the Philadelphia Academy Charter School, an independent K-12 school in Northeast Philadelphia.

Wynder said Ray was thrown into a very “volatile”, “no-win” situation and that Ray simply wanted to try to move the school forward and leave its conflicted past behind.

“I never saw Mr. Ray do anything close to discrimination,” said Wynder. “This appears to be a classic case of the perpetrators claiming to be the victims,” he said.

An ‘unhealthy’ learning environment

A former Mifflin parent and teacher agreed with Wynder and Norris’ assessment of the suit. They both cut ties with the school in the wake of Schmitt’s departure.

“I couldn’t deal with it anymore,” said Tammy Robey, a black parent who took her daughter out of Mifflin and out of the district. “It was like a living hell.”

Robey said that Marenbach, Boyd, a school counselor and a noontime aide – not Norris – all gave her daughter a hard time. She said they would tell her she couldn’t learn, tried to fail her and would “write up” her daughter for acting out.

“All of a sudden she had behavior problems,” said Robey, who testified against Schmitt in City Council.

She said she doubts the allegations in the lawsuit are true. 

A former Mifflin teacher, who asked for anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said she left Mifflin after a few years because the school’s learning environment had become “unhealthy”.

She said Ray, like two principals before him, was sent in to try and quell racial tensions inside the building, but struggled to find a foothold to address a problem that had been underway long before he hit the door.

“He was trapped in a situation where he really did not know who he could trust,” said the source.

She said the lawsuit is a “slap in the face to the folks that were involved from the beginning.”

Addressing the retaliation claims

Asked to address opposition to the suit, Patricia Heenan, one of the lawyers representing the teachers said, “I don’t know what the retaliation would be against.”

Heenan told NewsWorks that her clients were not available for comment.

Shana Kemp, a district spokesperson, said she and other officials could not comment on ongoing litigation.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is also a named defendant in the suit. The teachers claim that the union failed to represent them after they filed grievances regarding Ray’s alleged actions.

After looking over the lawsuit, PFT President Jerry Jordan said the claims are “unfounded” and that he “looked forward to being able to clear up the misunderstanding.”

“Any issue that has been brought to the attention of Federation staff has been followed up,” Jordan added.

Two unnamed district officials are also listed as defendants for allegedly conspiring with Ray and Ishmael.

Breaking away from a racial divide

As the lawsuit moves forward, Norris said the racial tension hasn’t faded from Mifflin Elementary.

“It’s not a new day, that’s for sure,” said Norris, who added that she was concerned about the possibility of moving forward in the future.

Norris said she worries that a lot of the school’s new teachers may lose their jobs as the school district continues to search for ways to close a multi-million dollar budget gap. She says these are new teachers that could help the school break away from its history of racial division.

“They’re not into the negativity and it saddens me that they have to leave because this is what the school needs: new people that aren’t involved that don’t want to continue on following in with the ones that are still keeping this going,” said Norris.

Leslie Mason, the school’s current principal, who is white, would not comment for this story.

A court date has not yet been set. A representative for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers says it could take up to eight months from the filing date for a trial to start. 

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