Page schools chief reassigned due to alleged racist comment

October 28, 2021

Students at Page High walked out of classrooms on Tuesday afternoon to protest against former Page Unified School District Superintendent Larry Wallen, who was removed as school chief and reassigned to another position by the school board.

Wallen is accused of making a racist comment on Oct. 19 while talking to Katharine John, a parent who asked Wallen what he intended to do about plans to “replace the ever-growing void” of teachers and faculty who have resigned from Page schools.

John, according to her written statement which has been circulating on social media, was referring to a concern she had with Wallen, who wanted to bring virtual teachers into classrooms.

Her concern is that her children wouldn’t get a proper education because they’d be taught by someone thousands of miles away. Then he said something that caught her by surprise.

John alleged that Wallen said as he pointed at her, “Your children will be fine. It’s the brown kids in this district who will struggle.”

John, who said her husband and their children are Navajo, said the Page school district has more than 80% Navajo students attending all schools.

About 79.6% of the student body is Native American, according to PUSD spokesman Steven Law. A total of 2,494 students are enrolled within PUSD.

“This response was obscene being that it came from the mouth of our superintendent who was been appointed to lead the administration of the Page Unified School District,” John said.

60 teachers, faculty resign

Rochelle Ladner, a lifelong Page resident, corroborated John’s statement and said more than 60 teachers and faculties from all five schools in the city have resigned.

The district’s average testing ranking is 2/10, which is in the bottom 50% of public schools in Arizona, according to PUSD.

“Yeah, so when I first heard, when I first heard what it what he had said, it, it was shocking,” Ladner said, “but not completely because I have heard from other district employees that he frequently makes references of that sort.”

Wallen took the position in July 2020.

While he’s been superintendent, Ladner said teachers began resigning.

“Nobody wants to come work for him,” she said. “There’s been sixty-plus resignations from the school district, and they’re having a hard time replacing those teachers.”

Ladner added that Wallen hired teachers with work visas and no experience to teach in the city.

“All I can think is that he, he’s trying to cover his own butt,” she said, “so that’s the only employees he can get through, he’s figuring.”

Wallen was outsourcing teaching and teachers working from anywhere in the world via virtual learning, which has become one of the standard teaching methods because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since March of 2020, the Navajo Nation opted to close all schools to in-person teaching and go to virtual learning.

While the idea seemed OK, the infrastructure to transmit teaching material, to beam a class to students on the reservation, was severely lacking.

The lack of broadband service across the reservation threatened and challenged parents and schools alike as they struggled to find more practical ways to teach and provide quality education to students.

In addition, many single parents had to figure out how to balance their work with being home to help their children with curriculum, which many could not understand because they could not get the one-on-one, teacher-student benefit associated with in-person schooling.

Disturbed, alarmed

Lamar Thompson, originally from Inscription House and who has two children attending schools in Page, said what Wallen said labeling Navajo children as the “Brown kids in district” disturbed and alarmed him.

“That made things bad on his part,” Thompson said. “He didn’t have to say the ‘Brown kids.’ It tells me he does not care about these children.”

Thompson said his mother was a teacher for more than 30 years before retiring, and not once did she ever label students.

“It was always, ‘my students.’ For him to say those ‘Brown kids,’ I’m still bothered by it,” Thompson said. “I heard he’s married to a Navajo … but that does not give him right to disrespect Navajo children.”

On Tuesday evening, the PUSD board held a 9-minute board meeting and unanimously voted to place Wallen on administrative leave with pay and begin negotiations on how to handle his contract.

They also added Wallen will not conduct any school district business during this time.

Ladner hopes the school board, which is now headed by Desiree Fowler, a Diné woman, brings in a good candidate, whether interim or permanent.

“This can’t happen anymore,” she said. “The employees need to have the open-door policy reinstated, so that they feel like they’re not working in a hostile work environment anymore, and the students need to know that they are getting the best education they could possibly get.”

Thompson also echoed Ladner and said a better superintendent was needed.

“I think it is about time he retired,” he said. “I think the school board needs to get more involved in these types of things that are going on. Instead, they got their tails between their legs. They have power to make changes.”

Wallen’s history

According to Upslope Demonstrated Strategies for School Services, Wallen was recognized in 2005 for helping build the Pinon Health Center for the community, where he was the school superintendent for 20 years.

He’s also served on many positions, including president of the Arizona State Impact Aid Association, Rural Schools of Northern Arizona Insurance Trust board president and is the founder of the Navajo Education Technology Consortium.

He was awarded the Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award by eSchool News in 2003.

Wallen began his career in the 1970s teaching seventh and eighth grade as a language arts teacher in Ohio, according to the Upslope Demonstrated Strategies for School Services.

As a counselor, he developed one of the first comprehensive counseling programs for junior high students on the Navajo Nation. He then became the middle school and high school principal before becoming the superintendent.

Source: The Navajo Times

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