Madera confronted racial diversity at Madera High
Madera County Historical Society
Duane Furman, shown here, had been MUSD Superintendent for nine years when racial unrest erupted at Madera High School.
In 1974, President Nixon resigned the presidency as a result of the Watergate scandal; Jack Benny died, and the Miami Dolphins won Super Bowl VIII. Meanwhile, Madera was getting to know itself.
From the beginning decades of the 20th century, Madera’s Hispanic population had continued to grow, and as the percentage of Latinos increased, so did the need for the community to recognize its changing demographics. It didn’t begin smoothly.
The racial cleavage that had become more pronounced in Madera every year, erupted in a spirit of dissension that engulfed young and old alike. It started at Madera High in 1974.
The trouble began on Thursday afternoon, June 6, when a 16 year-old male student at Madera High threw a young coed, fully-clothed, into the school swimming pool. Unfortunately for him, two female high school teachers, Rose Harper and Sharon Weldon, observed the incident and attempted to ask the youth to identify himself.
The perpetrator refused to give the teachers his name and ignored repeated request to report to the office. When he proceeded to leave the campus, he was followed by the two women, and somewhere in the vicinity of 5th and O streets, he “moved or shoved one of the women in some way,” according to Chief of Police, Gordon Skeels.
A moment or two later, the women and the student were joined by Perry Harper, Madera High School Vice Principal, Learning Director, Barry Crow, and teacher Ron Pisk. Before the afternoon was over, the youth had a bloody nose, a bruised face, and a cut lip, and the Madera County District Attorney’s office had a police report that contained two different versions of the incident that led to the youth’s injuries.
The student claimed that Harper threw a rock at him, so he assumed a fighting stance. After that, Harper and Crow assaulted him, the youth maintained.
Harper, however, had a different story. He and Crow had also followed the boy down the street while Pisk proceeded up the alley. Harper was the first to reach the student and ordered him to return to school. With that the youth dropped into a karate stance and began to swing, Harper said. He denied ever throwing a rock.
Harper did explain that the youth could very well have suffered a bloody nose in the scuffle that followed because he and Crow had to “take him (the student) to the ground and hold his arms and legs to subdue him.”
After reviewing the complaint, the Madera County District Attorney’s office decided to file criminal complaints for misdemeanor battery against Harper and Crow. Deputy District Attorney Charles Hoffman had notices sent to both of the administrators for them to appear on June 17 at the Madera Justice Court.
Meanwhile, Madera High Principal Bob Warner announced that the school district would seek a complaint against the student for disturbing the peace and two counts of assault on behalf of Mrs. Weldon, Vice Principal Harper, and his wife, Rose Harper.
At that point, some very vocal community members took up the case. An estimated 30 citizens showed up for a meeting with Warner and District Superintendent Duane Furman to demand that Harper and Crow be suspended. The group pointed out that the student had been suspended, but the district had taken no action against the two administrators.
Furman and Warner informed the group that neither Harper nor Crow would be suspended until the courts had decided the case.
On June 12, cars owned by Harper and Crow were egged while parked at the High School. The next day, as a precaution against rumored violence, Madera High School dismissed its students two hours early. It did so without incident. The next night, 387 seniors went through commencement exercises, and most everyone breathed a sigh of relief. They were, however, just a bit premature.
Madera Unified hired attorney Paul Martin to represent Harper and Crow, and they entered pleas of not guilty at their June 17 arraignment. The trial date was set for August 27, 1974. In the meantime, Harper and Crow suffered more acts of vandalism, aimed primarily at their automobiles.
While opposition to Harper and Crow continued to grow in the Mexican-American community, considerable support from other sources began to gather around the two accused educators. At a meeting of the school board on July 2, 1974, trustees passed a resolution stating that the action of Harper and Crow in pursuing and apprehending the youth was within their duties as school administrators.
Richard Atchison, owner of the Casa Grande Motel read a statement and presented trustees with a printed copy containing 59 signatures. The petition read in part, “Harper and Crow deserve the full backing of all parents and citizens interested in maintaining order on campus so that education can proceed in an orderly manner.”
The next act in the building drama came when the school board received a claim for $125,000 on behalf of the youth who had been the subject of the chase and alleged abuse.
Speaking for the school district, board president Kenneth Gill denied the claim. The board also refused to discuss their hiring of defense counsel for Harper and Crow.
On August 27, the trial of Harper and Crow began in the Madera Justice Court, which held a standing room only crowd. Judge Darrel Day of the Ponderosa Justice Court in Auberry presided, and on the first day, a jury of seven men and five women was sworn. While jury selection was going on, someone once again slashed the tires on Harper’s car, which was parked behind the County Government Center.
Such was the publicity generated by the trial that Judge Day sequestered the jury. They were locked up in rooms at the Madera Valley Inn.
After hearing five days of testimony, the jury brought back a verdict at 12:45 on Sunday, Sept. 1. Harper and Crow were found not guilty. At the time the courtroom was filled to capacity, and spectators overflowed into the hall outside. As each “not guilty” verdict was read, there were mumblings of disappointment from the audience, which was composed primarily of Mexican-Americans. Afterward the crowd milled in the courthouse parking lot for a few minutes and then dispersed.
After hearing the verdict, Harper said he was tired but felt great. He said he was “ready to go back to work.”
“We owe a great deal to the people of the community,” said the Vice Principal.
“It’s a good system, and it proved it today,” said Crow. “We believed in it.”
Little did he know, however, that this was just the beginning.