Controversial Principal Is Transferred

Times Staff Writer

In the end, like Adam and Eve, school principal Dennis Duylea lost out because of a snake.

The beleaguered principal of Robert Hill Lane Elementary School, who has been at the center of a controversy over his administrative practices and alleged acts of racism, has been transferred to another school.

But even as he starts his new job as principal of 15th Street Elementary School in San Pedro, parents who support him are planning to petition the school board to have him reinstated at Lane.

Duylea was removed from Lane after a raucous battle in which a group of parents accused him of prejudice against Hispanic students, of placing children in inappropriate classes and refusing to communicate with them about school problems.

But the last straw, they said, was the snake.

Duylea kept a pet python--an 11-inch-long ball python named Spencer--in his office, and some parents alleged that Duylea showed the snake to children with behavior problems.

"It was intimidating. He would feed it mice and the snake would crush them. I don't know what the children thought, but the parents didn't like it," said Dorothy Carrillo, a spokeswoman for the parents whose complaints led to the transfer.

Duylea, who has taught for more than 20 years in Los Angeles, called the charges "ludicrous, absurd and unfounded."

Los Angeles Unified School District officials, who conducted a formal investigation of the charges, say they found no wrongdoing on Duylea's part. They say the transfer was ordered to ensure "a quiet operating environment" for the students.

"He is a good instructional leader and principal and we feel confident he wasn't making racial statements or decisions and will do a good job as leader at 15th Street School," said Sidney Thompson, district deputy superintendent.

"There is nothing to substantiate that he is guilty of any charges that were made by parents against him."

As for the snake, Thompson said "there is no evidence he used the snake in a threatening manner. It was a scientific instrument."

Merina de la Rosa, who has two children at Lane, is among "the many parents who believe in him." She said Duylea was instrumental in improving Lane, which had academic problems when he took over seven years ago.

During Duylea's tenure, achievement test scores rose enough to boost Lane into the top 3% of schools in the district, officials said. Duylea also instituted a model science education program, they added.

Still, there was enough controversy surrounding Duylea's leadership that school officials felt they were forced to make a change.

One parent said there had been complaints about Duylea "for years," but no formal complaints were lodged with the district until last school year.

In one instance of alleged racism, Carrillo said, Duylea made a "racial slur" to an Hispanic special education aide who tried to talk to him about a Hispanic child who kept running away. The aide alleged that Duylea remarked, " 'If you have to run to Tijuana to get him, do it,' " said Carrillo, who has four children at the school and also worked as an aide there.

The parents who pushed for Duylea's ouster said their complaints got no response from the school administration, so they turned for help to the Hispanic Parent Coalition, an East Los Angeles activist group that provides support for Hispanic schoolchildren.

Horacio Quinones, coordinator of the parents' coalition, said the group found that the "parents had a legitimate complaint and we took the matter up with the school district."

He charged that Duylea "abused" Hispanic handicapped children by placing them in the wrong setting. One example, he said, involved a disabled Hispanic child who was placed in a class for mentally retarded students even though he was mentally competent. In other cases, Spanish-speaking students were placed in special education classes instead of bilingual classes, he alleged.

Carrillo said some parents were also upset because their English-speaking Hispanic children were placed in bilingual classes.

Duylea bristled at the charges of racism, saying that the placement of students in the bilingual classes was the real reason the parents were upset.

He explained that, as part of the district's new bilingual program, students with limited English proficiency are to be placed with those who speak English.

"That upset a lot of parents," he said.

As for the snake, Duylea said he and other instructors organized a reptile study program in which experts came into the school each week to teach "what good the snakes do for our environment."

Duylea denied ever frightening children with the snake. "He was not used to intimidate people. He's a nice guy. He's not dangerous. Yes, he did eat mice, but that is a fact of nature. Snakes eat live mice."

Duylea begins his new post as principal of 15th Street School in San Pedro next week. He'll take the snake with him. Meanwhile, Carrillo said that she and other parents are happy that he was transferred. "Things can get back to normal now."

But De La Rosa said that many other parents are not satisfied with the outcome and will attend a school board meeting next week to ask that Duylea be reinstated at Lane.

"He is a very good principal. We want Mr. Duylea back," she said.

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