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Hamilton High teacher returns to the classroom

Wednesday, May 19 1999
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Photo by Jenafer Gillingham

Three weeks after being removed from his Hamilton High School classroom following a campus demonstration targeting him as racist, magnet teacher Gregg Beytin was cleared on Monday to return to work.

A Hamilton parent group called the African-American Parent Coalition for Educational Equity (AAPCEE) helped orchestrate the April 16 protest, sparked in part by an incident in which Beytin lost his temper with students. Early rumors held that Beytin threw a chair and yelled obscenities at a group of black students, and the AAPCEE named Beytin as part of a cadre of teachers who had precipitated racial conflict.

It was quickly determined that Beytin did not throw a chair, and had yelled specifically at a white Jewish student, but district officials nonetheless reasigned Beytin from the classroom to a nearby administrative office. District administrator Merle Price says the move was not disciplinary — that’s still to come — but an attempt to ensure Beytin’s safety, as well as give Hamilton a "cooling down" period after a year of rising tensions.

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Though clearly relieved to have won the battle, Beytin says the war is hardly over. The fact that the district bureaucracy and the teacher’s union caved in so quickly to the unsubstantiated charges of AAPCEE is a symptom of the inertia and ineffectiveness that has plagued the district for years. The reputation of Hamilton, both the main school and its two magnet schools, has been badly damaged by ongoing accusations of racism.

Beytin says these problems must be vigorously addressed if the school is to avoid another showdown with disgruntled parents in the future. "If we don’t change anything when we [the magnet teachers] go back, this is going to happen five years from now," he says. "The ax is still over our heads.

"The good thing is that there is an activism of alumni and students and parents in place now."

That activism was in full force Monday afternoon at Hamilton, where more than 100 students and parents gathered in front of the school on Robertson Boulevard and staged a rally in support of Beytin, and in condemnation of AAPCEE’s charges of magnet-school racism.

The multiethnic student protesters chanted slogans such as "Stop harassing teachers!" and waved placards that read "Magnets = Minority Achievement" and "Honk for Integration." The protesters say even though their chief concern has been resolved — Beytin is back in the classroom — the whole incident brought to the fore other, larger issues. "It’s time we stop blaming teachers for our problems, and focus on parents and students taking responsibility," says Sara Lieb, a music-magnet senior. "We need this to be a long-term project."

Despite Beytin’s return, protest organizer Nefertiti Takla, a humanities-magnet senior, says "the defamation of these teachers is still going on, as well as the investigation of these absurd charges of racism."

As they have done since the charges first arose, magnet students heatedly defended both Beytin and his magnet colleague Alan Kaplan, who are known for their high academic standards and unorthodox teaching styles. "Our success as minority students says clearly that the teachers are not racist," says senior Tiffany Wallace, who is African-American.

Juresha Maples, also a senior and also African-American, says the real problem lies in years of "social promotion" of black students with which high school teachers must then cope. "If Beytin and Kaplan were black, they would be praised for what they did,"she added.

AAPCEE chairman Wil Wade did not return calls for this story.

The protest was scheduled to take place just before a monthly school-based management meeting, which school officials abruptly canceled Monday morning. Principal David Winter could not be reached for comment, but he was quoted by at least one student as saying that now, with Beytin restored and plans for mediation in place, there was nothing left to say. Beytin himself contends that nothing could be further from the truth.

"This is a big moment," he says. "We have to get things on track. If we’re successful in addressing real issues, Wade’s group won’t have any reason to do this anymore."

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