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Chavis in Hot Water

As accusations pile up against firebrand principal, Oakland school district demands an investigation.

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The Oakland Unified School District has launched an inquiry into several explosive allegations leveled against Ben Chavis, the celebrated principal of American Indian Public Charter School. As first reported here last month ( "Too Hot for School?," 5/9), Mills College prof Sabrina Zirkel and four of her grad students accused Chavis of calling grad student Unity Lewis "a fucking black minority punk" during the group's visit in March. They also complained that Chavis had asked one of his own female students if a certain boy "was still trying to suck your titties."

More allegations have now surfaced. A black parent complained that the school told her there was no room for her son, even though Chavis was accepting applications from white students. A former teacher accuses the principal of pushing her down the school stairs while calling her a "fucking bitch." Yet another cites a story that Chavis manhandled his own niece, threatened her, and called her a "slut."

Neither Chavis nor members of his school's board of directors returned calls seeking comment, but in an interview last month, Chavis denied details of the earlier allegations. "I called him a dumbass minority," he said of Lewis. "I said he was an embarrassment to his race." He also disputed the "suck your titties" comment.

Chavis has become one of the East Bay's most celebrated educators and a darling among conservatives because of his school's unbelievable test scores. Last year, American Indian middle school scored a perfect ten on the state's Academic Performance Index, and the Bush administration named it one of the top 250 schools in the country.

But some Oakland educators and parents have been quietly concerned for years about Chavis' over-the-top methods. He uses racially charged language and humiliating taunts to motivate his students. He describes minorities as "darkies" and derides underperforming students as "an embarrassment" to their race. "I use 'darkie' every day," he explained last month. "I use it in the context that I'm Indian and I'm black. I'm a darkie."

Speculation has swirled around the school for several years, however. Were the high scores due to Chavis and his academic rigor, or to a dramatic demographic shift in the student body? Was Chavis boosting scores by pushing out poor performers, or discouraging some students from applying?

Velda Clark would probably have an opinion on the latter question. In a June 9, 2006, complaint letter to the district, Clark, who is black, claimed that when she tried to enroll her son at American Indian, school officials rebuffed her. They told her, she wrote, that they were neither accepting applications nor placing students on a waiting list. But a white co-worker subsequently told her he had just put his child on the school's waiting list, and that Chavis had promised to put the kid at the head of the line because the school needed more white children. According to Clark, Chavis told the co-worker that there were too many "darkies" and Asians enrolled. "Needless to say, I am flabbergasted that this type of blatant racism still exists," she wrote.

If that's true, Chavis has violated state and federal laws — public schools, including charters, cannot discriminate by race. Full Disclosure obtained Clark's letter and others through a California Public Records Act request. Most of the letters contained the usual Chavis complaints — that he hurls racial epithets and swears incessantly — but at least two alleged physical abuse.

In one, Trisha McGovern, a former music teacher at American Indian, said that after Chavis fired her in 2005, he pushed her down some stairs. Chavis, she said, refused to let her retrieve her purse and her expensive violin from her classroom. When she tried to go downstairs and get them anyway, she said he grabbed her and then pushed her and she fell. "While all this was going on, Dr. Chavis is yelling in my face calling me a 'stupid bitch,' 'bitch,' 'fucking bitch,' etc.," McGovern wrote. "There was spit flying in my face as he yelled such things."

In an October 2005 letter, Rachael Huang expressed her concern about something she heard from her daughter, a former student. Chavis' niece, also a student at the time, allegedly told Huang's daughter of an incident at the school in which Chavis "called her a 'slut' and a 'lying bitch' and threatened to kill her if she didn't leave him alone." The niece lived with Chavis at the time, and when they got home later, "Dr. Chavis grabbed her by the arm and forcibly dragged her into the house," Huang wrote. Then, when the niece stopped coming to school, Chavis allegedly "bragged that he had 'flunked' her — that he had flunked his own niece."

"This guy was so frickin' nasty," Huang said in an interview. She removed her daughter from the school after Chavis demanded the girl repeat algebra even though she received a B in the course. Huang also said that members of the American Indian board of directors, who oversee Chavis, never responded to her complaint. "There was no evidence they investigated the allegation about the niece — nothing," she said. The only response she received, she said, was a note that Chavis had scrawled across her complaint letter: "To Ms. Huang: You and people who think like you need to get a life. I look forward to your continuous stupid letters!!!! — Dr. Chavis."

Zirkel, the Mills professor, also said the board has not fully investigated her complaint. Board members, who are also parents of Chavis' students, canceled a meeting with Zirkel last month and have not returned her weekly phone calls since, she said.

The Oakland school district, which has limited authority over charter schools, sent a May 22 letter to Rose Lee, president of the board, requesting a thorough investigation of the Mills allegations. The district letter, signed by Kirsten Vital, chief of community accountability, also demands results of inquiries into prior complaints, and hints that the school may be in violation of its charter if it fails to fully investigate. "The lack of response raises serious questions about whether the board is meeting its responsibilities under state law and your charter agreement with the district," Vital wrote.

Vital gave Lee until May 31 to respond. District spokesman Alex Katz said the school delivered a response packet by the deadline, but that the district would not make its contents public until "we've had a chance to look at it."

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