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Parents, officials support pulling Barbie race exhibit

By Monte Whaley
Denver Post Staff Writer

Feb. 28, 2001 - BOULDER - A decision to pull a third-grader's science project on racism drew support Tuesday night from parents and school officials.

At a school board meeting, they agreed the girl's exhibit showing that students at her school favored a white Barbie doll over a black Barbie didn't belong in the annual Mesa Elementary School science fair.

"Teachers in that school were trying to do the right thing," said Boulder Valley school board member Jean Bonnelli. "I think they were trying to honor all children."

But officials said they will review policies that may have led to the controversy school board member Janusz Okolowicz called "Barbiegate." The 8-year-old's exhibit tested racial perceptions of adults outside the school and fifth-graders at Mesa.

She showed a white Barbie doll and a black Barbie in two different-colored dresses to adults at her father's company and later to the fifth-graders.

She asked one group of adults and one group of students which doll was prettier, then switched the dresses and asked a different group of adults and students the same question.

The doll wearing a purple dress got the most votes from the adults, no matter the doll's color. But among the Mesa students, the white doll got a majority of votes regardless of the dress color.

Administrators and some parents said they didn't want the exhibit to offend the school's minority students. The district also said the subject of racism deserved a separate forum.

The girl's father, Dave Thielen, said Tuesday that the district should discuss the racism issue whenever it arises.

"The world is not neat and ordered," Thielen told the school board. "It is messy and chaotic, and only in the context of the real world can we address all the aspects of racial issues we ourselves face today."

Thielen and officials of the American Civil Liberties Union said the school violated his daughter's First Amendment right to free speech.

Mesa officials used the district's nondiscrimination policy - which bans all displays aimed at denigrating a race - as their guide in yanking the Barbie experiment.

But Barry Satlow of the ACLU told the board the policy is too broad. "The school officials' decision and their attempts to defend it elevates political correctness over truth," he said.

He asked the district to review the non-discrimination policy or face the possibility of a lawsuit.

Superintendent George Garcia said the district will review the policy and entry rules for elementary school science fairs.

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

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