Valley Commentary : When Unity of Minorities Threatens an Old Majority : Keiko Hentell lost her post as Burbank High School principal because her efforts to ease racial and ethnic tensions proved uncomfortable to some whites.

John G. Simmons is a Lutheran minister and president of the Burbank Human Relations Council

"I am here today to publicly defend my greatest asset--my reputation--which you have so cavalierly tossed away without reason or forewarning."

The was the first sentence of the statement of Keiko Hentell, the ousted principal of Burbank High School, to the Burbank Board of Education after it notified her that she would be demoted--i.e., fired--from the job she had held for 2 1/2 years.

Hentell was the first nonwhite administrator of any Burbank school, the first woman principal of a Burbank high school. Why was she removed? A brief history may put it in perspective.

As Hentell noted in her statement, Burbank High School has undergone a major change in its ethnic and racial mix of students. This year, for the first time, more than 50% are nonwhite. When she arrived, the school had many tensions that needed nonviolent, creative solutions.

I came to know Hentell because she asked the Burbank Human Relations Council, a 36-year-old volunteer organization, to assist in developing a program to involve the parents and the students in promoting a cooperative unity-in-diversity program at Burbank High School. This would promote unity of all students while allowing for an appreciation of differences. This was done with the support of Burbank school Supt. Arthur Pierce.

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The council arranged a series of evening meetings, off campus, with the principal and the parents of the various ethnic and racial groups. They shared their concerns, asked her questions. They wanted a healthy human relations environment in which their teen-agers could achieve academic excellence and go on to college or enter the world of work better prepared.

The students formed an All Cultures Together Club with teacher advisers. Other clubs--the Latino Club (37% of the student population is Latino) and the Black Scholars Club--were organized with parents, teachers and Hentell's support.

What went wrong? Only one issue was raised with her in a negative way, and it was directly related to her work with minority students. Her first-year evaluations by the school superintendent, in June, 1992, has these very interesting remarks:

"Frankly, I think you have made significant strides in the necessary outreach to students and parents that have previously felt outside the mainstream. However, that process has caused some members of your staff, some members of the Board of Education, and some members of the community at large to be concerned that the traditional (translation: white) population served by Burbank High School is being overlooked."

There is nothing in the 1992-93 evaluation of Hentell that raises this issue. It appears again in a final evaluation, dated Feb. 14 of this year, halfway through the school year and just two weeks before the demotion. "Although you have attempted to address the needs of the increasingly diverse student body at Burbank High School, the decision-making process and relationships with the community-at-large, need considerable improvement."

The Board of Education meeting of March 3 clearly demonstrated that Hentell had the support of the faculty and staff of the high school. More than 300 students, representatives of clubs, parents, the Human Relations Council and members of the community signed petitions or came to the school board meeting in her behalf.

The civil rights and human relations organizations sent a strongly worded letter requesting that the board reconsider its decision and reinstate her. This coalition of nine organizations saw clearly the real reasons for her termination.

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Burbank school policy calls for equality of educational opportunity. In her response to the board's action, Hentell said: "You have stated many times that the real reasons for your decision are confidential and cannot be divulged. The only problem is that you also kept those reasons confidential from me. . . . So I can only surmise that the real reason I have been fired is that I took your own philosophy too seriously."

This treatment of a talented principal was unilateral, unjust and unfair to her and to everyone who serves all the students in our city's increasingly diverse environment. Education for our children to enter the 21st Century in Burbank has suffered a devastating blow.

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