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Newton pupils take stand vs. racist vandalism

By Matt Viser, Globe Correspondent
November 16, 2004

NEWTON -- To the strains of "Where Is the Love?" by the Black Eyed Peas, nearly 600 pupils left a Newton middle school yesterday and marched to a nearby elementary school in a show of solidarity with the principal there, who was targeted last month with racist graffiti.

The pupils, who walked along to the music from the boom box and carried colorful banners that said "No Room for Racism" and "Even Once is Too Many," was meant to evoke "the tradition of the civil rights marches from the 1950s and 1960s," according to a note sent home to parents from Hank Van Putten, principal of Oak Hill Middle School.

The graffiti, sprayed on several spots of a wall behind Bowen Elementary School, included racist and antigay epithets including "KKK" and "White Power." Among the images in the mural is a school bus with the school's principal, Patricia A. Kelly, in the driver's seat. White paint was sprayed over Kelly's face.

Kelly, who is black, was the target of three vandalism incidents in 2001, police say, and school officials began to question whether the latest incident represented more than just an isolated prank. Several hundred residents attended a community meeting at City Hall on Oct. 20, and teachers have been encouraged to use the incident to talk with their students about race.

Yesterday, as the middle school pupils arrived at Bowen, rows of children crowded the windows and waved signs bearing messages such as "Thank You Oak Hill" and "RESPECT." The middle school pupils donated a tree to the elementary school and presented a plaque that says "Believing in Harmony."

The ties between the two schools are strong, school officials say. Bowen is a feeder school for Oak Hill, and several students who are now in the eighth grade participated in designing the mural that was defaced last month.

Police have not filed charges in the incident and the investigation will probably remain stalled unless someone comes forward with information, according to Sergeant Ken Dangelo, the officer working on the case.

Carroll Blake, Kelly's husband and an assistant principal at Wellesley Middle School, has helped raise a $2,000 reward for anyone who comes forward with information that leads to an arrest.

The pupils had the choice of remaining at the school during the two-hour march if their parents signed a permission form. Ten stayed behind and did schoolwork under the supervision of a faculty member, Van Putten said.

Brenda Loew, a former School Committee candidate in Newton, called the march "a ridiculous stunt" and raised concerns that any pupil who opted not to march "would be considered a racist."

She also criticized the school for taking away classroom time and said the march jeopardized the safety of the students, although there were no accidents.

About a half-dozen police officers were deployed to stop traffic at intersections along the mile-and-a-half long route, police said.

Superintendent Jeffrey Young, who showed up for a portion of the march, dismissed Loew's criticism.

"These students are going to remember this day 20 years from now," Young said. "The math class? They'll make it up tomorrow."

The behind-the-scenes controversy didn't seem to faze the pupils. Some said they were simply glad to be out of the classroom, while others were attuned to the issues at hand.

"This is a good thing for us to do, and it does have an impact," said eighth-grader Marcus Schneider, 13. "I mean, they do those walks for hunger; this is the same thing. It raises the awareness."

Matt Viser can be reached at

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