Madera’s long, hot summer of ’74
Courtesy of The Madera County Historical Society Duane Furman, shown here, stood his ground in 1974 against pressure from some quarters to suspend two Madera High administrators before they could have their day in court. Furman and the MUSD school board were vindicated when vice principal Perry Harper and learning director Barry Crow were found innocent of misdemeanor battery.
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, the year was abundant with progress in Madera. The new Courthouse Museum had its grand opening, and the Del Biancos rebuilt Lucca’s.
Not everything in town, however, smelled of roses. The racial cleavage that had become more pronounced in Madera, erupted in a spirit of dissension that engulfed young and old alike.
The trouble began on Thursday afternoon, June 6, 1974, when a 16 year-old male student at Madera High threw a young coed, fully clothed, into the school swimming pool. Two female high school teachers, Rose Harper and Sharon Weldon, observed the incident and demanded that the youth 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 of 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 out, 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, and Harper said 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 sent notices to both of the administrators ordering them to appear on June 17 at the Madera Justice Court.
At that point, some very vocal community members entered the fray and demanded that Harper and Crow be suspended. District Superintendent Duane Furman and Principal Bob Warner informed the group that neither Harper nor Crow would be suspended before the courts had decided the case.
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 Aug. 27, 1974. In the meantime, Harper and Crow suffered several acts of vandalism, aimed primarily at their automobiles.
While opposition to Harper and Crow continued to grow in some quarters, 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, presented the school board with a petition, which assailed “pressure groups that tend to seize upon any incident to create a controversy.” 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,” Atchison added.
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 alleged abuse. Board president Kenneth Gill denied the claim, and trustees refused to discuss the hiring of defense counsel for Harper and Crow.
On Aug. 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 at the conclusion of the first day’s proceedings. 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, September 1. Harper and Crow were found not guilty. At the time the courtroom was filled to capacity, and spectators overflowed into the hall outside. 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.”
It wasn’t long after the trial before someone began to count the costs. Martin’s fee for defending Harper and Crow was $5,941. The original allocation for the legal expenses had been set by the board at $2,700. When expenses for police and sheriff’s deputies, witness fees, and court clerk’s overtime were added, the cost of the trial to Madera Unified exceeded $7,000, but this was not the only expense the community paid.
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Next week we will take at look at the aftermath of Madera’s long, hot summer of 1974.