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Principal apologizes for Black History Month celebration that included O.J. Simpson, Rodman, RuPaul

March 5, 2010 |  8:15 am

In a letter addressed to parents and community members, a South Los Angeles elementary school principal apologized Thursday for “questionable decisions” about which prominent African Americans to highlight in a parade marking the culmination of Black History Month.

Lorraine Abner’s letter did not name the individuals. But her apology came after three teachers at Wadsworth Avenue Elementary School were suspended while the Los Angeles Unified School District investigates allegations that they had their first-, second- and fourth-grade students carry pictures of O.J. Simpson, Dennis Rodman and RuPaul at last Friday’s event.

“Unfortunately, questionable decisions were made in the selection of noteworthy African American role models,” the letter said. “As the principal, I offer my apology for these errors in judgment.”

Abner could not be reached for comment Thursday. 

LAUSD spokeswoman Gayle Pollard-Terry said Simpson appeared on a school-approved list of Black History Month figures, which dates back to 1985. But she said the names of Rodman and RuPaul, among others, were added in pencil when teachers were selecting which prominent African Americans their classes would honor in the parade.

Pollard-Terry said the principal did not see the amended list, which LAUSD Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines called a lack of oversight. Some civil rights activists and groups, including the Los Angeles branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, protested Wednesday that those choices made a mockery of black history and reinforced racial stereotypes at a school that is predominantly Latino. They want the teachers, who are white, to be fired and the principal, who was not on campus last Friday, to be reprimanded.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa expressed “shock and outrage” at the teachers’ alleged actions. “These teachers undermined the school's well-intentioned celebration, and they did so at the expense of elementary school students,” Villaraigosa said in a statement. 

But some parents said the incident had been blown out of proportion. “I don’t see why they chose them and not Barack Obama, but I don’t think it is worth firing them,” said Lizeth Santos, who was collecting her 4-year-old daughter from Wadsworth on Thursday afternoon.

Other students carried pictures of Obama, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman in the parade, which took place on the school playground, Pollard-Terry said. Abner said the school would be working with the district’s Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity to help students and adults learn from the experience; providing lessons that reflect “a multicultural curriculum that is culturally relevant"; and maintaining open communication with parents and the community to “grow from this experience.”

The teachers have not been identified and could not be reached for comment.

-- Alexandra Zavis