Northern parents: School 'ready to erupt'

Parents of children on a high school "hit list" told school officials they need to take action now, because they fear racial tensions at the school are spiraling out of control.

"Northern is a volcano ready to erupt," said Twitchell Green of Port Huron as Port Huron Area School District officials met with parents Thursday night.

The emotional meeting was a follow-up to one called last week with parents whose children were on a list found at Port Huron Northern High School. The list, which consisted mainly of names of black students and administrators, was found more than two weeks ago in a textbook filled with racial slurs.

Several parents among the 30 at Thursday's meeting said Northern, which has a predominantly white staff and student body, needed more diversity in its faculty. Some were especially concerned that administrative cuts will force Assistant Principal Marla Philpot to relocate next year to Port Huron High School.

It was Philpot who discovered the book and, at the meeting, she took responsibility for why Northern administrators waited nearly a week to call the police.

Philpot told parents she read through several pages of the book, which described "in explicit detail what they were going to do to me."

She said the book was just one of many incidents this year where racial slurs have been said or written about her. As a result, she flipped the book shut and didn't want to read on. Only later, when police were contacted, did authorities find the list.

"I apologize for allowing myself to get to a point where I was desensitized to it," she told the parents.

Superintendent Michael Jones said he couldn't break the administrator contract to keep Philpot at Northern.

Jeff Stout, vice president of the district's board of trustees, said the board has tried unsuccessfully to recruit diverse staff from Missouri, Arkansas and Detroit.

"You can't make people go where they don't want to go," he said.

Substitute teacher LaNeisha Murphy, who works mostly at Port Huron High, said Northern has a reputation as a place where students rule the school.

"The things that happen here are much worse than what happened (where she grew up) in Los Angeles," she said.

Retired teacher Lois Johnson of Fort Gratiot said the district needs to reach out to young children and to its faculty to have an impact.

"If you don't start in the lower grades, if you don't start with the faculty, (then) nothing will ever change," she said.

Jones said he has recently found unexpected revenue he intended to use for staff training or student orientation. He declined to identify where the money came from or how much money has become available.

The training falls in line with goals he shared at the beginning of Thursday's meeting. The goals included a respectful environment for all children, a staff that cultivates positive race relations and a system that ensures positive intercultural relations.

Earlier Thursday, parent Belinda Rivera said all staff should go through training similar to the Anti-Defamation League training given earlier this week to the school's student diversity club. This would allow staff to set a good example for the students, she said.

"The buck starts there," said Rivera of Port Huron. "Then, I feel kids are followers."

The school should have an assembly that addresses all students - not just those directly affected by the list, said Karen Warne of Port Huron.

In addition to training, Jones said he planned to speak to students at an assembly next fall.

Contact Molly Montag at (810) 989-6275 or mmontag@gannett.com