Pulling on the reins of racism

March 21, 2020

Madera County Historical Society

Ron Pisk, shown here, was involved with Perry Harper and Barry Crow in the 1974 incident at the MHS swimming pool but was not charged in the fracas.

The crisis began at the Madera High School swimming pool. It continued into the streets and finally into a courtroom in 1974.

 

Two MUSD administrators were accused of manhandling a Mexican-American youth who had caused a ruckus at the pool. The administrators were tried and found not guilty of misdemeanor battery in a Madera court. This set the stage for an outbreak of racial unrest in a city that was just beginning to come to grips with its own racial diversity.

 

After the trial of MHS Vice Principal Perry Harper and Learning Director, Barry Crow, vocal forces within Madera’s Mexican-American community made their displeasure known. Parents joined students in protest marches and boycotts of classes at the high school. Organizers filled the halls at school board meetings demanding the firing of Harper and Crow, but trustees held firm and soon there was “push-back” against the protestors.

 

On Sept. 25, Madera High School held a Parent Council meeting in which 250 parents attended. Contrary to the opinions expressed by supporters of the boycott at the school board meeting the previous night, the Parent Council gave a resounding vote of confidence for Harper and Crow. By a sign of raised hands, the group unanimously approved a motion, which stated, “The entire Parent Council of Madera High School goes on official record in complete support of Perry Harper and Barry Crow, and copies of this action will be sent to the board of education and school administration.

 

The Parent Council also served notice that it wanted a “get tough” policy adopted in dealing with the protesting Mexican-American students who had been boycotting classes since September 17. The group proposed giving the students five days to return to class or face expulsion from school.

Council member, Frank Gordon, asked board president, Kenneth Gill, “When is the school board going to get some backbone and cut off negotiations?”

 

“What the hell is there to negotiate over?” Gordon queried.

 

Gill responded by saying “We’re making progress with the executive board of Padres Unidos, and they are making sincere efforts to help school officials solve the problem.”

 

With the ball now bouncing back and forth between opponents and proponents of the boycott, the gloves came off. In a meeting with representatives of the school district on Friday, Sept. 27,  Padres Unidos de Madera rejected an offer to hire a human relations officer for the high school campus. Instead the group extended its demands. In addition to firing Harper and Crow and granting amnesty to the boycotting students, the group sought eight additional concessions from the board. They included the following: 

 

“— The school district adopt an affirmative action plan within 30 days that would aim for hiring Mexican-American personnel at all levels to match the composition of the community’s population.”

 

“— The district abolish the use of corporal punishment and replace the use of force with the guidance of qualified counselors.”

 

“— The district enforce and strengthen its policy regarding employment of immediate family members in the same school.” (This was presumed to point to the fact that both Perry Harper and his wife, Rose Harper, were employed at the high school and were involved in the incident of alleged abuse.)

 

“— The district improve the curriculum in all aspects affecting Mexican-American students, including the development of a La Raza studies program, a ‘real bi-lingual’ program, and adoption of a dropout prevention program.”

 

“— In-service training for teachers by outside experts in all aspects of Mexican-American life.”

 

“— Discrimination by administrators and teachers in the district cease and a Mexican-American human relations officer be hired.”

 

“— Review of suspension and expulsion policies at Thomas Jefferson Junior High School.”

 

“— Fluent Spanish-speaking personnel be employed at the school in positions such as receptionists and office employees and notices to parents be written in Spanish.”

 

On Oct. 8, 1974, the school board responded by hiring a temporary liaison officer to act as an intermediary for students at the high school. The temporary position was meant to fill the gap until a job description and salary schedule could be worked out to make the job permanent.

 

District Superintendent Duane Furman said the new officer would mediate disputes between students and administration and serve as a counselor for student problems. Meanwhile, picketing of the high school by students and parents continued but on a limited scale. Instead of marching every day, the protestors announced they would be picketing on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during the lunch hour. Protestors also continued sporadic picketing of the school district’s administrative offices.

 

One month later, Padres Unidos de Madera upped the ante. The group filed a protest with the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, charging that Madera Unified had failed to comply with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The complaint specifically charged that school officials in Madera violated Title VI of the Act, which prevented agencies receiving federal funds from “discriminating or denying benefits to persons on the basis of race, color, or national origin.” The parents’ group was represented by the Madera office of California Rural Legal Assistance.

 

And that is where things stood at the end of 1974. Shortly after the filing of the protest with HEW, the protests began to diminish in numbers and frequency. Likewise, the student boycott ended, and the school district prepared to meet the challenges that Madera’s changing demographics continued to pose in 1975 and beyond.

 

It had been an unsettling time, this first real outbreak of racial tension in Madera. the wounds had been exposed, and it took more than two decades to heal them.

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