Inquire Practice

Ana Issa and Josefina Najera are two mothers who have complaints against Kenilworth Elementary and its principal, Dr. Ruth Ann Marston.
Paolo Vescia

A hint of nervous excitement creeps into Ana Issa's voice. Her words slip seamlessly from English to Spanish and back again as she explains her anxiety.

"It's not in our nature to do things like this," she says.

Issa has just been notified that she will be interviewed by the Phoenix Elementary School District's lawyer, who was hired to investigate complaints about Kenilworth Elementary and its principal, Ruth Ann Marston.

"The system here is just different," Issa says. "Anglos -- they go to court, they speak up. My people, Hispanics -- at least Mexicans -- we're not used to it."

Over the past two years, the 39-year-old Issa has gotten used to speaking up. In 1996, Issa worked as an instructional assistant at Kenilworth while her only daughter was in second grade at the school. She began documenting what she believes is abuse of students, and she began to organize Hispanic parents who have myriad complaints. She believes there are serious problems at Kenilworth, a stately old school on North Fifth Avenue.

Others say Issa and disgruntled teachers have organized a witch hunt and pressured other parents to climb on board. School board president Susan Bliss says rumors are rife throughout the district, and the accusations against Marston may be just that.

"If you don't like someone, you make up something that is just unbelievably nasty," says Bliss.

Some of the problems at Kenilworth undoubtedly stem from cultural misunderstandings, language barriers and Hispanic parents' beliefs that their concerns are ignored. Eighty percent of Kenilworth's students are Hispanic, many of whom are new immigrants.

Other problems may be violations of law. Complaints submitted to the board range from allegations of school policy violations to alleged cover-up of abuse. Last year, an unsigned 39-page letter that purports to document this incident and others was drafted by a Kenilworth teacher who has interviewed parents with grievances.

One specific complaint alleges that a janitor locked three girls in a restroom and told them to undress. The letter to the school board claims Marston was told about the incident and did nothing. Another allegation states that Marston has done nothing about a teacher who has physically abused kids, grabbing them by the neck, pinching and leaving bruises.

Marston claims no parent ever told her about the janitor, and she investigated the teacher as soon as the problem was brought to her attention.

Nearly a year ago, the parents turned to school board member Julian Sodari.

"If I'd gotten one complaint, I'd say maybe. But I've gotten 10 and 12, and about four teachers saying that things are happening at Kenilworth -- especially to Hispanics," Sodari says.

The teacher who wrote the letter still works in the district and requested anonymity, but her letter summarizes incidents of alleged sexual harassment of students, drug abuse on campus, falsification of attendance records, violation of bilingual and special-education laws and physical abuse by two teachers.

Bliss says the teacher who wrote the letter is a disgruntled employee with a vendetta.

Paul Mohr, superintendent of Phoenix Elementary District, inherited this problem when he came on board in August. Mohr says the best thing to do is have an outside law firm sort through the allegations in order to lend objectivity to the matter. He says emotions run wild when parents think their kids are being mistreated, and in this case, there is one parent who is pursuing this with a passion.

"I've never seen someone get so worked up -- you'd think they were flogging kids at Kenilworth," Mohr says.

There are no allegations of flogging, though he does admit if proved true, some of the allegations are alarming. However, Mohr says he's not drawing any conclusions, and that complaints from parents are common. When he was an assistant superintendent in Mesa, he worked in an office that received more than 400 calls a year from upset parents.

"We get beat up for things that are so far removed from educating kids," Mohr says. "It's kind of a tragedy, and one of the reasons there's a shortage of teachers, educators and principals."

Mohr says an outside investigator is needed in this case because the complaints about Kenilworth have persisted.

In Issa's opinion, there is another important distinction: The parents who have come forward are challenging barriers and putting a lot on the line. Many of them are undocumented, don't speak English or know how to navigate the system. Issa says many mothers are attending interviews with the investigator without their husbands' knowledge.

She says challenging Marston was something they all entered into with trepidation.

"They [concerned Hispanic parents] do have to swim against the current. Lack of documentation, the language barrier, the cultural belief that teachers know what they're doing -- it's been a growing process," Issa says.

Mohr concedes that racial tensions also complicate the investigation.

"Unfortunately, it stems around racial lines. When you feel like you're being singled out and discriminated against, you have a hornet's nest on your hands," he says.

Issa agrees some of the issues at Kenilworth may be indicative of a culture clash between new immigrant parents and a system that doesn't know how to handle them.

"Most of the parents are coming from Mexico, and the school system is run by Anglos, blacks and second- or third-generation Hispanics," Issa says. "They compare themselves to us who just came from Mexico. We have different values, we have different ideas.

"We put up with a lot because we think they are more educated, they know more. It comes to a point where you get to know it's not right. Where somebody else might say, 'These are my rights,' it's difficult for us to speak up and make our voices heard."

It was easier for Issa to come forward because her command of English is better than many of the other parents', and she has been here for 20 years.

"I started speaking up and talking to the principal," Issa says. "She seemed surprised that I would speak up. She probably thought I was just another lady with an accent."

Marston has a very different take on the investigation.

"We've asked for the investigation -- it's not being imposed on us," Marston says. "We've asked for it. We believe we're being subjected to job harassment."

Marston says anonymous letters have been coming to Kenilworth for at least nine years, since before she became principal. She says she asked Robert Zinser, the interim superintendent who preceded Mohr, for the investigation.

But both Zinser and Mohr say that Marston never asked them for an investigation. Zinser says the school board called for the investigation because of persistent allegations.

However, board president Bliss says Marston's version of the story is correct, and that two other principals before her were harassed.

"I have had my children in that school for 11 years, and she's the third principal in that school that I have known," Bliss says. "The first one was transferred out of the principalship at the request of Hispanic parents by a Hispanic board member because she [the principal] was racist. The next one was a Hispanic man . . . and he was harassed very much while he was there."

Senior school board member Linelle Kersting says regardless of whether you believe the principal or those making allegations, the situation must be looked into.

"It's outrageous that we would allow anything like this to continue if it's true," Kersting says. "This thing should have been handled a year and a half or two years ago. If it had been handled two years ago, people might not have gotten as upset by now."

Marston declined to comment on any further allegations because there are legal issues at stake, but says, despite the investigation, all is well at her school.

"We're having our 80th birthday today, and we're all having ice cream and cake and having a great time," she says.

"We're getting all kinds of good awards, grant money coming in, parents seem happy. There's just this ongoing problem that we want solved finally."

Meanwhile, the investigation continues, and some insist there are serious problems lurking beneath the surface of this celebration.

"What I want is for justice to be restored to these families," Sodari says. "If it entails removing the principal from the position, then that has to be done."

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