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Students' Racial Identities Altered

Magnet Principal Tried To Remedy Imbalance

March 15, 2006
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

Administrators at a Hartford magnet school, facing state guidelines requiring more white students, changed the designations of at least six biracial students from African American or Hispanic to white in school documents, in some cases without parents' permission.

Eduardo V. Genao, principal of the Sport & Medical Sciences Academy, said officials made the changes only after calling each student's parents to determine whether school records were correct, and only in cases where mistakes had been made.

But the parents of two students who said their classifications were altered told The Courant they were never called and would not have approved the change.

"I do not like what I'm hearing. I do not like it at all," parent Rufus Gartrell said. "At least the gentleman should have come to me."

And an angry anonymous letter, purportedly sent by aggrieved parents to city and state officials, complained that Genao and his former assistant principal called students to the office and pressured them to change their designation to white without parental approval.

"Mr. Genao called our children into his office one at a time and spoke to each of them of how the school will get `millions of dollars' if the child would just let him change their ethnic background in the computer from minority to white," said the letter, which was sent to Mayor Eddie A. Perez, the city school board and state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. "He did not call the parents to get permission. He thought he could just change these facts with the permission of 14 and 15 year old children."

Genao conceded that he asked teachers to help him identify biracial students and that he called the students to his office. In the course of discussing their racial classifications, he acknowledged, he spoke with them about the school's funding. "I did indicate to the students and the parents how the formula works," he said.

In fact, state guidelines tie the funding of magnet schools that opened before this year to residency, not race. Bill Magnotta, the state Department of Education's magnet school manager, said that to qualify for magnet school funding, schools must draw at least 30 percent of their students from the suburbs - a standard Sport & Medical Sciences Academy meets.

Race becomes a factor, for schools established before this year, in regard to compliance with the Sheff vs. O'Neill school desegregation settlement. It says 28 percent of a magnet school's students must be white in order to count toward reducing racial isolation. With just 89 white students in a population of 400, or 22 percent, Sport & Medical Sciences falls far short.

Genao, who is in his first year at the magnet school and is new to Hartford, said he did not realize the state law linking funding to racial quotas applies only to new schools and not to established schools such as his. He denied, though, that the change in the students' racial classifications was linked to money.

But two students whose racial classifications were changed, as well as the anonymous letter, said Genao and his now-retired assistant, Norma Lavoie, mingled race and funding in their conversations.

"He said, `Is it OK if I change your ethnic background to white to get some funding?'" recalled freshman Brandon Gartrell, 15, who is biracial. "It was like $2 million or something like that."

Fifteen-year-old sophomore Dylan Doughty remembered a similar conversation with Lavoie, who has moved out of state since retiring and could not be reached for comment. "She said they need some-odd kids to be white so the school can still operate. So I was thinking my skin color is white so I may as well be white. This is how I recall it."

The parents of both students say they were not consulted - although Brandon said Genao assured him otherwise. "I said, `Did you call my father?' He said, `Yes.' Then he started typing something in the computer," Brandon said. "I didn't really want it to be changed. I would like to be African American."

Brandon's father, Rufus Gartrell, said that he wasn't aware of the change until this week and that no one from the school called him to ask permission. Had anyone called, he said, he never would have agreed to the change.

"I think I would remember something like that," Rufus Gartrell said. "I never talked to Brandon about it. My son, he could pass for white, but I've taught my son he's also black. I've taught him to be proud of what he is."

Dylan's mother, Jerilyn Fabiani, also objected to the change. "He's not of legal age and they shouldn't have been asking him," she said. "It's not his decision to make at this point in his life."

She said she registered her son as black "because we thought for him to be accepted in Hartford it would be better for him and for us for him to be perceived as black."

The school provided the name of one parent whom Genao called to ask for permission to change a child's designation to white. The parent, who asked not to be named, said she did not feel pressured by Genao and was comfortable with the change because her child is biracial and if one designation helps the school more than another, she doesn't care how the school counts her son.

The school would not release a list of names of children whose racial classifications were changed. Genao said Brandon was not among them. But a teacher in the school, who would not let her name be used, said she saw documentation that Brandon's race had been changed.

Genao said that the staff gave him the idea to change the codes for biracial children and that former principals had done the same thing.

But teachers' union President Cathy Carpino said that teachers are outraged and that she asked Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry to investigate.

Henry said he ordered an investigation. He said Genao told him he had contacted the district's magnet office and was told that as long as parents agreed to the change, it was OK. Then, Genao told Henry, he met with the children and called their parents.

Henry said he took Genao at his word that all the parents were contacted and he took no further action.

Carpino said when Henry gave her the explanation, she asked for evidence that parents gave permission, but Henry didn't give her any. "If a child has filled out an application and put down their ethnicity, that is who the child believes he is," Carpino said. "It doesn't seem right to ask the child to change that."

Andrea Comer, a school board member, expressed dismay upon hearing that changes were made to students' racial identification.

"We shouldn't be trying to tinker with the numbers for any reason," she said. "It's sinister. It smells like ethnic cleansing and I don't like that."

Perez, who is chairman of the school board, said he would defer comment until he sees Henry's explanation in writing.

Blumenthal was less reticent, saying he was appalled by the prospect of changing student identification data.

"I am very troubled by the possibility that such highly significant and sensitive data could have been altered as claimed in the letter," Blumenthal said. "We are by no means near a conclusion, but there is reason for an immediate investigation."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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