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Racial Strife Permeates School Scrap : Scuffle with journalist puts D.C. principal, government effectiveness under spotlight.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Schoolhouse scuffles break out every day, but they don’t lead to grand jury investigations, result in front-page newspaper stories, expose raw racial tensions or rock the very foundations of local government. Usually, they are over as quickly as they begin, with the offending parties hauled off to see the principal.

Not so the shove-fest that took place in December inside the Marcus Garvey Public Charter School in one of Washington’s poorer neighborhoods--in part because this fight included the principal.

A grand jury has indicted principal Mary A. T. Anigbo, charging her with assaulting a reporter from the conservative-leaning Washington Times. The newspaper has trumpeted the incident on its front page, stirring up interest from the rest of the media. Besides the press-freedom aspect of the case, coverage has focused on the incident’s racial dimension.

Anigbo is black; the reporter, Susan Ferrechio, is white. Ferrechio, who was researching a story on Marcus Garvey, says Anigbo egged on students as they struck her and forced her out of the school amid a flurry of anti-white jeers. Anigbo says Ferrechio and other white critics are hyping a minor incident to try to shut down her Afrocentric school. In a metropolis where the lines between a black-majority city and white-dominated suburbs are firmly drawn, the school fracas has become for many a symbol of this larger polarization.

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“I’m not commenting on the case itself, but it exposes the racial divide, not only in the city but in the country. It’s like the O.J. Simpson case,” says U.S. Atty. Eric Holder.

Anigbo allegedly also brought up Simpson when she taunted a black police officer called to the scene to recover Ferrechio’s notebook. “You’ll be back to your race one day, just like O.J.,” she said, according to court papers.

The Dec. 3 fracas also has served to cast a spotlight on the dysfunctional nature of government in the District of Columbia, a problem President Clinton recently pledged to confront in his new budget proposal. Local government officials tried to investigate what happened at Marcus Garvey, but no one seemed certain who should be in charge.

The district’s hybrid government is in disarray. Congress has created a financial control board to handle many of the functions of the City Council and school board, a system that turns even schoolyard fights into fierce territorial battles among bureaucrats. Should the school board handle the fight? Or the City Council? Or the retired Army general who has been brought in to revamp the schools?

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“There’s no doubt about it, D.C. has some structural problems, and this case is illustrating that,” said Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles), who serves on the House subcommittee charged with overseeing the district.

At the center of the bureaucratic brawling is Anigbo, who founded Marcus Garvey last year as part of D.C.'s experiment with charter schools, untraditional campuses designed to infuse fresh educational approaches to the district’s collapsing school system. Anigbo, who says she has a “knack” for teaching black boys, has attempted to turn her campus into a faux African village, where the students learn about their culture, call her “Mama Anigbo” and dress in white shirts and military-style fatigues.

Well aware of the racial element of the case, Holder took the unusual step of sending the matter to a federal grand jury, which came back with an indictment of Anigbo for assault. She faces trial in June, along with two teachers and the school’s office manager.

“What is otherwise a simple assault case that is in a lot of ways unremarkable--there are 2,000 such cases pending in D.C. Superior Court--is made remarkable by the racial component,” Holder explained.

And Holder, who is black, has come under fire from some local black leaders for going ahead with the prosecution. Like the Simpson case, this one is eliciting dramatically differing interpretations.

The Marcus Garvey scuffle, some complain, has received more attention than some killings that have occurred in and around D.C.'s school campuses.

“The eagerness with which whites have seized on this case has been astounding,” wrote Courtland Milloy, a black columnist for the Washington Post, which has given the story front-page treatment. “Their outrage at the perceived slight against a white woman at the hands of a black is matched only by the sheer absence of any such concern when whites do worse things to black people.”

But others, including some school board members, see it differently. It is a big deal, they say, when the principal is brawling with her students instead of breaking them up. After all, they ask, whose office does the principal go to?

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