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Students decry racism at school

Amanda Holt MillerWestern Garfield County Staff

RIFLE – Some Latino students say racism at Rifle High School might be getting out of hand. The students called in to a show on Radio Tricolor, a local Spanish-language station. La Mision, a monthly bilingual newspaper distributed from Aspen to Parachute, also featured the students in an article.The students complained about mistreatment from the school’s English Language Learners teacher, racist remarks scrawled on the school’s bathroom walls, and racially motivated fights.Problems with teacherDenisse Espino, a junior at Rifle High School, grew up in Rifle and speaks English fluently. She wanted to start a diversity group in order to bring Latino and Anglo students together. When she approached Rifle High School’s ELL students, she said they asked her for help, so she began working as a translator and liaison for the students.Espino said she worked with several students who had problems with Lucy Zeledon, the only ELL teacher at the school. She arranged and interpreted at meetings with principal Dave Smucker and vice principal Danny Gentry. “I went to the office countless times, and they just didn’t listen or they didn’t do anything,” Espino said. “That’s why we went to the radio station.”Smucker was unavailable for comment, and Zeledon declined to comment.Garfield Re-2 superintendent Gary Pack said he’s certain that administrators at the high school listened to the students, but that what they can share with students is limited.”When a student brings a concern to Dave Smucker, he will investigate it. He’s very concerned about all of his students and has a sincere interest in making sure their concerns are addressed,” Pack said. “But there are limits with regards to what he can divulge, especially in personnel matters. If the students don’t think he’s listening – it can seem that way, I know – he is.”Having a sayZeledon resigned as the school’s ELL teacher. The Re-2 board approved her resignation at its April 26 meeting.Pack said Smucker is in the process of finding a new ELL teacher for next year.Junior Jesus Marin said that was what he wanted – a new ELL teacher. He said he hoped the next teacher would be respectful and easy to work with, and he would appreciate having a say in who the next teacher will be.Pack said hiring decisions are typically the province of principals, who are familiar with staff and what kind of person is necessary to fill a certain position. And while comments from students is considered, students are not usually included in the hiring process.Marin said he also thought the school needed an ELL classroom. He said there was not one big enough for the students.Pack said the students do have a classroom.Graffiti in the bathroomsLast week, a group of about a dozen Latino students met with Marychuy Regaldo, a reporter for La Mision. Not all of those students had problems with the ELL teacher, but they all indicated that the atmosphere at Rifle High School was unfriendly.”Even at the homecoming dances, no Hispanics are elected to the court,” Espino said. “Even if they do get votes, it’s as a joke. They don’t get to be on sports teams.”Nohemi Arredondo, a junior, said she tried out for the basketball team with four other Latino girls, and none of them made the team. However, she and another girl did play soccer for Rifle. Arredondo and other students also talked about graffiti in the bathrooms. Espino said there were phrases like, “Stupid beaners, go home” and “You stupid Mexicans, I want to kill you,” scribbled on the bathroom walls at the school. She said the graffiti goes both ways, however, and Latino kids have also written remarks about Anglo kids.”We don’t want it to become like another Columbine,” Espino said. “The Anglo kids write things in the bathroom, and the Hispanic kids get mad and there are fights.”Change is necessaryVice principal Danny Gentry said graffiti of any kind is cleaned off or painted over as soon as it’s spotted. He said he hadn’t heard about the racial slurs on the bathroom walls.”Sometimes, the content of the graffiti is reported to us, and sometimes it’s not,” Gentry said.Pack agreed that the graffiti should be cleaned off immediately so it’s not there long enough to upset people, but Espino said she wants more action.”They cover the graffiti with paint when they should do something about it,” she said.Pack said the district is trying to address diversity issues with programs such as Bringing Down The Walls, a nationally recognized program to bring minority and majority groups together and to help people get to know one another individually. He said the district has implemented the Safe School Ambassadors program to encourage tolerance. And the staff has been trained in a zero-tolerance policy for racism and intolerance.He said he hopes to begin meeting with members of the Latino community on regular basis. The district used to have meetings at St. Mary’s Catholic Church because it was a comfortable location for Latino community members, but he said those stopped.”We all have rights and responsibilities and we all need to be treated with respect,” Pack said. “But there are growing pains and that’s what we’re dealing with now. This community is changing and the school reflects what’s happening in the community. There are issues here that need to be addressed. We’ve got to get some resolve and if people don’t feel like they’re being listened to, we have to do better.”Espino said the students hoped their public outcry would inspire change. She said the school would benefit from a Spanish-speaking counselor who had time to work with students and could be a liaison for students who don’t speak fluent English. Espino said the students also hoped the school would make a better effort to educate students and staff about cultural differences and foster more open communication.Contact Amanda Holt Miller625-3245, ext. 103ahmiller@postindependent.com


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