Kathleen Parker

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- In a new twist in American race relations, a federal court has ruled that a white teacher in a predominantly African-American school was subjected to a racially hostile workplace.

The case concerned Elizabeth Kandrac, who was routinely verbally abused by black students at Brentwood Middle School in North Charleston. Their slurs make shock jock Don Imus look like a church deacon.

Nevertheless, despite frequent complaints, school officials did nothing to intervene on Kandrac's behalf, arguing that the racially charged profanity was simply part of the students' culture. If Kandrac couldn't handle cursing, school officials told her, she was in the wrong school.

Kandrac finally filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and subsequently brought a lawsuit against the Charleston County School District, the school's principal and an associate superintendent. Last fall, jurors found that the school was a racially hostile environment to teach in and that the school district retaliated against Kandrac for complaining about it.

The defendants sought a new trial, but U.S. District Judge David C. Norton recently affirmed the verdict. However, he did not support the jury's findings of $307,500 in damages for lost income and emotional distress.

Although Kandrac clearly suffered -- she was suspended from her job shortly after a story about her EEOC complaint appeared in the local newspaper, and her contract was not renewed -- her case didn't meet evidentiary requirements for damages. The judge said a new trial would have to determine damages, but the school district and Kandrac settled for $200,000.

While the dollars-and-cents issue may have been of paramount importance to school and district officials -- and would have lent heft to the verdict -- the more compelling issue for students, parents and society is the idea that a particular group of people can be allowed to behave in a grossly uncivil and threatening way by virtue of their racial ``culture.''

The key legal question was whether a school could be held responsible for students' behavior. In this case, the black children of Brentwood had been given a pass for their behavior because vulgar language was considered normal for their culture.

Defense attorney Alice Paylor told jurors that the kids heard this same language at home and there was ``no magic pill'' to make them behave. Paylor is probably right about that, though a magic paddle might have worked wonders.


Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
 
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