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Complaint hits 'black, brown' drum corps

Harvey Scott School principal says district equity policy protects program inviting to minorities


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - 'All the other kids say I can't be in the class because I'm white,' Trevor Vandeberg says, referring to the lunchtime drum corps class at Harvey Scott School. Three weeks ago, Trevor Vandeberg walked into the office at his school and asked the secretary if he could join the lunchtime drum corps.

“My friends say it’s a pretty fun class,” says Trevor, in eighth grade at Northeast Portland’s Harvey Scott K-8 School. “I’d get to be in the (Junior) Rose Parade, and I think it would be kind of fun to learn how to drum.”

So the 13-year-old asked — and was disappointed at the response.

“She said no, because it has something to do with my class period,” Trevor says.

Yet he suspected that might not be the real barrier, because one of his Spanish-speaking friends has the same schedule except for one morning period, and was able to enroll in the drum program.

Trevor believes the reason he was rejected is that he’s white.

“All the other kids say I can’t be in the class because I’m white,” he says. “I’m not black, Hispanic, African or anything like that. I kind of find it stupid I can’t be in the class just because I’m white.”

The irony is, Trevor has a pale complexion and brown hair but is part Native American. He lives with his father, who works full time, and his mother is out of the picture. Robyn Rains, his grandmother, helps raise Trevor and has been a longtime volunteer and PTA leader at Scott.

“Race, I really think, shouldn’t matter,” says Rains.

Trevor is not identified as an “academic priority” student by the district (based on grades, attendance, test scores and other factors), but he does have family struggles, Rains says.

She thinks the “black and brown drumming corps,” as Harvey Scott Principal Verenice Gutierrez calls it, “smacks of discrimination.”

She’s not the only one to think so. Since a Sept. 6 Tribune story highlighted the drum class, Gutierrez has maintained that the class is “appropriate,” per PPS’ equity policy. She refers to it as “our drumming corps for black and brown sixth- to eighth-grade boys.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Enrollment at Harvey Scott School is dropping, partly due to parents like Melinda Zinda (left), who took her daughter out of the school. Robyn Rains (right) is trying to advocate for her grandson Trevor Vandeberg, who says he was kept out of a drum corps class because he is white.Last week, a teacher at Scott filed a civil rights complaint via the American Civil Liberties Union because of the drum corps’ alleged exclusion of girls and boys of other races.

The ACLU takes about three weeks to investigate whether to take such complaints.

“I filed it on behalf of the women, girls, whites, Asians and Native Americans at Harvey Scott,” said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

The teacher says two Somalian girls came to her last year and one Asian girl came to her this year, asking to join the drum class.

The teacher referred them to principal’s office, where they were asked if their parents would approve, considering their culture. No matter what their culture, “they shouldn’t have to ask,” the teacher says. “It should be open to everybody. Why are we setting kids up so they have to fight for what they deserve?”

Righting a wrong

The drum corps is in its second year at Scott. It is offered twice a week and serves 30 boys for 35 minutes at lunch time. A schoolwide fundraiser, “Run for the Arts,” pays for the program. The school raised $2,259 in the fundraiser last year.

As teachers and parents raised complaints about the drum class last school year, Gutierrez consulted PPS legal counsel Jollee Patterson, and sent staff a March 5 letter citing parts of the PPS equity policy to show the drum group was “appropriate.”

Principal Gutierrez also cites the racial achievement gap, a problem the district has taken on as its top priority. And, she says, drum instructor Chuk Barber’s “caveat is always that he will work with boys of color,” Gutierrez wrote in her letter.

After the Tribune story focused on the issue again, Gutierrez told her staff at a Sept. 17 meeting that the drum corps was an “affinity group,” like the Future Hispanic Leaders, Asian Appreciation Group or Gay/Straight Alliance, however the drum class is the only group being “targeted” by the media.

At one point, a teacher asked during the meeting why girls weren’t included, and Gutierrez answered: “We’ll get to that later.”

The issue wasn’t mentioned again, according to meeting notes.

The teacher who filed the complaint knows her action could raise sensitive issues, but that’s what she’s hoping for.

“I worked for Jesse Jackson in Chicago,” she says. “I’m a girl of the ‘60s. A wrong needs to be righted.”

Karl Logan, Gutierrez’ supervisor, told the Tribune Wednesday morning that there is now a written criteria for the drum class.

“It is for boys specifically because that’s the area of expertise that the instructor has,” Logan explains. “It’s catered to students we deem are ‘academic poverty.’ If any girls wanted the opportunity, they would be given a drum class of their own or would join the boys,” just like PPS opened a boys’ academy at Jefferson along with the girls’ academy (both now closed).

‘Highest need for boys’

Melinda Zinda, a Northeast Portland mother, sent her daughter to Harvey Scott for seven years before pulling her out of eighth grade this year because of concerns. Among them: that taxpayers and families who helped raise money for Run for the Arts in good faith are supporting the possibly discriminatory program. At other schools, local organizations have pitched in with grants to support the drum class.

At Scott, the Run for the Arts funds are administered through a nonprofit called Young Audiences. The organization has a “general expectation,” but no written policy or requirement that all students benefit from Run for the Arts funds at any school, according to its executive director.

Jim Oleske, a constitutional law professor at Lewis & Clark College, says the drum corps could raise red flags.

“Depending on what the principal means by her description of a ‘black and brown’ drumming corps, the selection process for the corps could be subject to legal challenge,” Oleske says.

Gutierrez often says the class is for “highest-need boys,” and for her academic priority students. Yet once, she recounted to staff how she told boys on their first day of the drum group that “you are all in here due to you are boys of color.”

Logan, the regional administrator, says he has received complaints about the drum class but hasn’t been able to close the loop because they were anonymous letters.

The bottom line for the community at Scott, he says, is the big picture: closing what he calls the “instruction gap.”

“It really isn’t an achievement gap — that puts the onus on the student,” he says.

The challenge has been to educate “black and brown students, particularly black and brown boys,” Logan says. “So far we haven’t done a good job of it at all. You have to be reflective on your practice. If they’re willing to do that, I’d say you’re welcome to stay at Scott or any PPS school. If you’re not willing to, I don’t think Scott or any school is the right school for you.”