Oakland charter school principal Ben Chavis is one of the most celebrated educators in Northern California even though he uses racially charged language and humiliating taunts to motivate his students. And while it's no secret that the controversial principal, whom Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger once called a "perfect example of great leadership," has a volcanic temper and a foul mouth, a university professor and a group of her graduate students now claim Chavis has gone too far.
In a series of complaint letters, Sabrina Zirkel, a Mills College professor of education, and four of her graduate students, say Chavis repeatedly called Unity Lewis, a 25-year-old black Mills student, "a fucking black minority punk" during a recent visit to Chavis' middle school. They also claim that Chavis, after Lewis arrived fifteen minutes late, screamed that he was going to kick the grad student's ass, and called him a "worthless piece of shit."
The letters are signed by Zirkel, Lewis, Terry Pollack, Deborah Long, and Shrimathi Bathey. They allege that Chavis, who says he is an American Indian with some black heritage, also remarked to a white female Mills student: "You look like a mix breed." When the student responded that her ancestors came from throughout Europe, Chavis said, "Well, your people sure fucked around a lot." He also referred to his minority students as "darkies" and allegedly called a parent of one of his students a "prostitute."
Finally, the visitors said that during their March tour of American Indian Public Charter School, the principal asked one of his tenth-grade girls if a certain boy "was still trying to suck your titties." Zirkel said that after the girl whispered "no," and walked on, Chavis explained to his tour group that the girl had told him the boy "wanted to suck her titties." Chavis' visitors claim he then told them he had forced the boy to stand in front of his class while the principal announced that the boy wanted to ... well, you know.
Over the years, Chavis' boorish behavior has been tolerated because of his school's incredible test scores. When he arrived in 2000, the school, which serves sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders, was one of the worst in Oakland. Chavis single-handedly kept it from closing, and by last year its scores were off the charts much higher than any other public middle school in the city, and nearly as high as Piedmont Middle School. It scored a perfect 10 on the state's Academic Performance Index.
In 2006, the Bush administration named American Indian a "Blue Ribbon School," as one of the top 250 private or public schools in the nation. Schwarzenegger is so enamored of Chavis that he has twice held photo ops at his school. Chavis even appeared in one of the governor's reelection ads last year.
Some educators, however, are quietly questioning whether Chavis' success may hinge upon a dramatic demographic shift. In 2000, Native Americans made up about 65 percent of the student body, but as the school grew more popular, that percentage declined to just over 13 percent last year. Many of the new students are Asian kids from the Laurel neighborhood.
Interviewed at his school last week, Chavis said it's not surprising more parents want their kids at American Indian because of its academic rigor. He called the Mills College complaints "a witch hunt," saying they were out to get him because Zirkel was teaching race relations and that he openly derided it. "What they're doing is a joke," he said. "We don't need more race relations. We need blacks with math degrees; we need Mexicans with math degrees."
He also repeatedly declared: "Liberals are worse than the Klan." ... "They pretend to be concerned with you," he said, "then they hide behind their multiculturalism and bilingualism." Chavis also made a big deal of grammatical errors in the complaint letters, including the misspelling of his name as "Chavez." "These are graduate students?" he said. "They're idiots. They can't even write."
The principal admitted to the "mix breed" and "fucked around a lot" comments, but laughingly denied that he threatened to kick anyone's ass: "What I said was, 'You're going to look funny if you jump me and a sixty-year-old man kicks your ass.' " He also denied calling Lewis "a fucking black minority punk." "I called him a dumbass minority," Chavis said. "I said he was an embarrassment to his race."
Chavis is an erratic character who gets inches from your face during conversation and changes moods on a dime. One moment he's yelling, the next laughing heartily. The principal also seems to view the world through a racial lens: He even asked about Full Disclosure's ancestry. He openly admits to reprimanding what he called "lazy and ignorant" students by telling them they're "an embarrassment to blacks," "an embarrassment to Mexicans," or "an embarrassment to Chinese." He believes "liberal" public schools "coddle" students, and that humiliating them with racial and cultural taunts is key to unlocking their educational potential. "I'm teaching them to be warriors," he said, "and the modern-day warriors' weapon is academics."
He defends his use of "darkie" as similar to blacks using the N-word. "I use 'darkie' every day," he said. "I use it in the context that I'm Indian and I'm black. I'm a darkie."
At least two of Chavis' white staff members said that while they also are tough disciplinarians, they never use racially charged language. "Coming from me it's not going to have the same effect," explained site administrator Carey Blakely. "It's not that it's racist. It's just not going to work." Blakely defends her boss' methods as "raw and real." She and the other teachers are not given so much freedom, however. "I'm the only motherfucker around here that gets to cuss," Chavis said, laughing.
He got mad when asked about the alleged "titty" incident. "It's a lie. What I said was, 'You better watch out that boy over there is a leche baby,'" he said, using the Spanish word for "milk." He explained that the boy wanted the girl to coddle him. The girl, whom Chavis pulled out of class to talk to Full Disclosure, backed up his story, saying her principal had told her in Spanish, "He's a titty boy."
In a phone interview, Zirkel contradicted both accounts. "It's not what we heard, nor is that the story he told us afterward," the professor said emphatically. She also disagreed that it's okay for minorities to use racially charged language. "These are children. That, to me, makes the difference," she said. "I don't know of any evidence anywhere that using racial slurs and derogatory language is helpful to students."
Zirkel sent the letters to Kimberly Statham, the state administrator in charge of Oakland's public schools, and Alameda County Superintendent Sheila Jordan, and copied them to state and federal departments of education and the five board members of Chavis' school. It's unclear what, if anything, will come of it. Last week, the charter school board said it planned to investigate. In a short interview, board member Hilda Alvarado said, "I don't want to comment until we determine exactly what happened." But Zirkel said the board later canceled its scheduled meeting with her.
Statham and Jordan have no real jurisdiction over Chavis. Under state law, charter school principals are independent and answer only to their boards. Earlier this year, however, Statham had an opportunity to rein in Chavis a bit, and didn't: In February, she overruled a recommendation by Liane Zimny, Oakland's charter school czar, that Chavis be denied his application to open a third campus. "It became my belief," said Zimny, who left the district last week to become a consultant, "that the district was not going to limit the schools' expansion because his test scores are so high."
Ex Post Facto
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris dropped criminal charges last week against Oakland's leading black newspaper, the Oakland Post, and its publisher and editor Paul Cobb. Harris, who is black and has aspirations for higher office, had come under intense criticism from Bay Area black leaders for her prosecution of Cobb in a case that he had nothing to do with. "It's a relief," he said. "I have been fighting this for more than two years."
Harris' office had gone after Cobb for the illegal dumping of old newspaper ink in San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood ("Ink-Stained Hell," Full Disclosure, 2/7). Even then, prosecutors acknowledged that the dumping occurred in 2003, well before Cobb bought the paper. But Harris' office wouldn't back off.
Cobb smelled a conspiracy and claimed earlier this year he had evidence that Harris' mother, Shyamala Harris, was a bridge partner of Velda Berkley, who owned the Post when the ink dumping occurred. He claimed that was why the DA went after him and not Berkley. Mother and daughter Harris denied this.
Harris' spokeswoman Bilen Mesfin would not say what prompted the turnaround. But Cobb and his new attorney, Walter Riley, credited stories in the Express and the SF Weekly for prompting an outcry from the black community.
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