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School reviews yanking of girl's racism project

By Monte Whaley
Denver Post Staff Writer

Feb. 20, 2001 - BOULDER - School officials are reviewing a decision to yank a third-grader's science fair project because it dealt with the delicate issue of racism.

The 8-year-old's exhibit indicated older classmates at Mesa Elementary School preferred a white Barbie doll over a black Barbie. But she was told by teachers and parents she couldn't display her findings at the school's science fair because that wasn't the best forum for hashing over racial issues.

The girl's father, David Thielen, said the district is afraid to tackle racism within school hallways.

"I would think the district would want to use the exhibit to discuss race rather than refuse to even talk about it," Thielen said.

He's asking for an apology from administrators because he says they violated his daughter's First Amendment right to free speech. The school board has asked Superintendent George Garcia to look at the school's reaction to the girl's proj ect and examine the overall policy toward science fairs.

"We want to do it in a deliberate and thoughtful manner after gathering all the facts," said board president Stan Garnett.

The district should welcome debates about race, no matter how uncomfortable it might be, he said. "I think it's true issues around race are sometimes more difficult to discuss," Garnett said. "But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be talked about." Thielen said his daughter's science project was aimed at trying to find out how people react to skin color.

Thielen asked that his daughter's name not be used.

His daughter dressed up a white Barbie and black Barbie in two different colored dresses.

She asked 15 adults at Thielen's high-tech company in Westminster which doll was prettier. She then switched the dresses and asked 15 more adults.

The doll wearing the purple dress was deemed prettiest by both groups.

When she asked fifth-graders at Mesa Elementary, all 15 in one class picked the white doll. In the second class, after switching the dresses, nine of the 15 students picked the white doll.

Her conclusion was: "I discovered that most grown-ups liked the lavender dress on the black or white Barbie. On the other hand, kids mostly liked the white Barbie. Only six kids liked the black Barbie." She set up her display earlier this month but after an hour was told it had to come down.

Thielen said several teachers and parents at the school thought her work would upset the school's minority students.

Mesa Elementary's enrollment is about 93 percent white, 3 percent Asian and Latino, and 1 percent African-American, according to the district.

Thielen said he doesn't think Mesa students are racist but that they only appreciate those who look like them.

"They are around white kids all the time," he said.

The district, meanwhile, seems reluctant to tackle the racism that goes on in the schools, he said. "They basically teach that bad people in the past did these things."

Copyright 2001 The Denver Post. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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