White teachers sue East Falls school for racial bias

Thomas Mifflin Elementary School in East Falls is at the center of four racial discrimination lawsuits filed by white teachers alleging that a former principal suggested they were unfit to teach black students because of their race.

The four teachers filed suits last week claiming that former principal Charles Ray III, who is black, created a hostile work environment based on race while he was principal at the school from July 2008 to 2009.

The four teachers – Nicole Boyd, Marta Ciccimaro, Debra McKibbin Marenbach and Colleen Yarnell – still teach at Mifflin.  They seek $150,000 each in damages.

The federal suits allege that Ray forced white teachers to read an article that said “white teachers do not have the ability to teach African American students” as part of required professional development activities.

The teachers also claim that Ray set up an “atmosphere of distrust and favoritism” by publicly undermining the authority of white teachers and “openly reprimanding them in front of staff, students and parents.”

Ray could not be reached for comment.

In a prepared statement, the School District of Philadelphia said it has not yet been served notice of the discrimination lawsuits. 

“Once we have been formally served, we will take a close look at the allegations and respond accordingly,” the statement read. “The District’s goal is to maintain an atmosphere of equality for all, and allegations of discrimination, on any basis, are taken seriously.”

Patricia Heenan, one of the lawyers representing the four teachers, said the teachers had a tough year in 2008 and are taking a stand to prevent this type of behavior from happening in the future.

“These four teachers were systematically harassed over the entire academic year and intimidated and openly told they couldn’t teach African American students,” Heenan said.

She added that Ray would randomly reassign these teachers to new classrooms after they had prepared the spaces for class. One of the teachers claims that she asked to be given a classroom on the first floor because of a disability, but was given a room which required her to take the stairs instead.

Heenan said whenever one of the teachers would question Ray’s authority, he would allegedly write them up and say “you can always leave.”

According to the suit, Ray also allegedly let black teachers ignore the rules that white teachers had to follow.

The teachers also claim that Ray invaded the teachers’ privacy by giving Shirl Ishmael, an African American lead teacher at the school, access to personnel files and revealing the teachers’ personal information for the purpose of “investigating” their homes and personal lives.

“Their personal information was distributed and people were engaged in spying on them,” said Heenan. “They would find out what they did in their private lives and follow them around, baiting them a lot.”

Heenan claimed the teachers received a letter from a Mifflin staffer who apologized for having cooperated with Ray in these actions. 

The suits also claim that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) failed to represent and assist the teachers with their complaints.

PFT President Jerry Jordan said he has not yet seen the allegations and can’t comment on specifics but noted that, to his knowledge, there was “no time where we failed to represent them.”

He did recognize that this is a school that “has had a number of problems internally for a few years” which involved allegations of “questionable behavior by African American and white staff.”

One incident involved the stepping down of a former principal, Allyssa Schmitt, following allegations of racial discrimination and insensitivity from black parents and teachers. Investigations found the allegations to be unfounded.  

Jordan said he looks forward to seeing the lawsuits and addressing the issues.

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