ARLINGTON -- The principal at Bebensee Elementary School retired last month during a district inquiry into allegations that he made statements of "racial intolerance" during a training program, records say.
John Walkinshaw, whose education career started in the district 40 years ago, was placed on paid administrative leave Oct. 24 after he made what were considered racially insensitive remarks that offended two instructional specialists in bilingual education and English as a second language.
The remarks were perceived as being derogatory toward bilingual education and Hispanic culture, according to records obtained by the Star-Telegram under the Texas Public Information Act.
Walkinshaw said he was commenting that the program's scope is limited and that more should be done for students of other cultures. He particularly pointed out that the district doesn't do enough for Vietnamese and Arabic-speaking students.
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Walkinshaw, 62, submitted a letter of resignation Oct. 31 to Superintendent Jerry McCullough, praising the Bebensee faculty and students and not mentioning the inquiry.
A district official said Nov. 3 that Walkinshaw's actual retirement date is Dec. 20, but that he used accrued vacation time and sick leave to step down immediately.
Marilyn Evans, assistant principal of personnel, who conducted the investigation, declined to comment on the case because of personnel privacy requirements. But she said the district takes the issue of cultural insensitivity seriously.
"It is a goal for our teachers and staff to be sensitive to all cultures in our district," Evans said. "So that's a very serious concern."
The alleged remarks -- reported to district officials by two language specialists, Katrice Menger and Nancy Zayas -- occurred at Moore Elementary School during a "Principal Quality Instruction" professional development program Sept. 30.
Zayas said she heard Walkinshaw refer to bilingual education as "heresy" and "a bad thing" and said he asked, "What is happening to our American culture?"
"This to me was very offensive as a Hispanic myself," Zayas said in her statement to district officials. "I felt that this principal, Mr. Walkinshaw, was indicating to me that my culture does not bring anything positive to our community."
Menger wrote that Walkinshaw called the district's focus on Spanish "discriminatory" because of the limited assistance for students who speak other languages.
Principal Stephanie Hawthorne of Atherton Elementary School confirmed some of Zayas' and Menger's statements. Hawthorne quoted Walkinshaw as saying: "I don't know what is happening to our American culture. When we go to other countries, we have to learn their languages. I think this is heresy. We are losing our American culture."
Thornton Elementary Principal Alicia Rodriguez, in a response to Evans, said Walkinshaw "seemed resentful that we needed to have accommodations for our non-English-speaking families and students."
In letters to McCullough, Walkinshaw denied referring to bilingual education as "heresy," adding that he "never heard or said anything of that nature." He said other comments, including those about discrimination and the state of American culture, had to do with his advocacy for his large populations of Vietnamese and Arabic-speaking students.
Those groups make up nearly one-third of Bebensee's ESL enrollment, but there are no bilingual classes for them, he said.
He reiterated his defense in a Star-Telegram interview Friday.
"We're always thinking about Hispanic students, but there are others out there in the mix," Walkinshaw said. "My thing has been, What about my Vietnamese kids, my Arabic kids and other language-challenged youngsters? You want to be an advocate for all children."
The district tries hard to be that advocate, said Cassandra Perez, the district's director of bilingual, ESL and foreign-language programs. But she said she can't find teachers certified in Vietnamese and Arabic because colleges aren't producing them.
So the district has to maintain a file with the state detailing efforts to accommodate those students and parents, which include providing translated school documents and resources such as dictionaries and library books written in those languages, Perez said.
Evans interviewed several other attendees who reported hearing no offensive remarks from Walkinshaw at the meeting. Walkinshaw took note of that in the interview Friday.
Walkinshaw started as a teacher at Bailey Junior High in 1972. He left the district after seven years and spent 10 years working in the Everman and Keller school districts before returning to Arlington.
Walkinshaw said he had already planned to retire at midyear. He considered retiring at the end of last year, he said, but he stayed on to help his school adjust to some of the district's deep budget cuts.
"I lost a tremendous amount of staff at Bebensee. We lost several programs," said Walkinshaw, who became principal in March 2006. "I just wanted to take care of my kids and my folks. It was hard to lose what we lost as a district and a campus."
He noted that last year the state's academic rating for Bebensee improved from acceptable to recognized. It was one of five Arlington schools to boost their ratings at a time when many schools had a drop, blamed partly on higher state standards.
"We're doing a lot of things really right right now," he said.
But he said he's concerned that his reputation and his work for the district will be tarnished by the allegations of cultural insensitivity.
"People are going to think ill of what I said," Walkinshaw said. "You want to go out with a happy face. You want to go out without a question like Is he acting a certain way that is uncharacteristic of how an educator should act? I didn't, and I'm not."