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Four white teachers at an East Falls elementary school have filed federal lawsuits claiming discrimination by a former principal who allegedly suggested that they were unfit to teach black students - the most recent episode in a racial tug-of-war that has dogged the school for several years.

The teachers filed suits last week claiming that a former principal at Mifflin Elementary School, Charles Ray III, who is black, created a hostile environment at the school in 2008 and 2009.

The suits allege that Ray forced white staffers to read an article that said that "white teachers do not have the ability to teach African-American students."

The teachers also allege that the principal created "an atmosphere of distrust and favoritism" that "repeatedly sabotaged" their relationships with students and colleagues.

The teachers - Nicole Boyd, Debra McKibben Marenbach, Colleen Yarnell and Marta Ciccimaro - are demanding more than $150,000 each.

According to the complaints, Ray allowed black teachers to "overlook, override or flat-out ignore school rules and policies, but would not allow white teachers to do the same," and publicly reprimanded them in front of parents, students and staff.

The suit alleges that class schedules and room assignments were changed at random and without notice, and that Ray refused to give the white teachers access to school supplies.

The teachers also claim Ray violated union procedure when he replaced white teachers with black teachers as union representatives.

The teachers say that after complaining to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which is also named in the suits, the union "failed to represent" them.

Jerry Jordan, PFT president, said that he was aware of neither the suit nor any complaint filed by the teachers but that he plans to get to the bottom of it.

"That's far-fetched," he said of Ray's alleged interference in union elections. "We would have filed an unfair-labor-relations practice immediately. Every principal knows that they don't get involved in union elections; it's against the law."

The suit also names the school district, fellow teacher Shirl Ishmael and two other unnamed "high official" district officials as defendants.

A district spokeswoman said officials had not yet received a formal notice of the suits but will take the allegations seriously.

Tensions first escalated at Mifflin in 2008, after principal Allyssa Schmitt, who is white, stepped down amid allegations of discrimination. Black parents and teachers accused her of being racially insensitive toward parents and students.

Schmitt was widely supported by white teachers, while black personnel felt ostracized by her, according to teachers.

An investigation by the district and Inspector General's Office cleared Schmitt, but a City Council committee meeting was held and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights and the district agreed to provide diversity training.

After Schmitt's departure, racial tension between black and white staffers intensified. Ray took over and tried to bridge the divide, but his efforts were met with resistance, said Ralph Wynder, former 38th District Democratic ward leader.

"Mr. Ray was overly fair," Wynder said. "He bent over backward to treat everyone with respect. I never saw any unfairness or discrimination against those teachers, nor did I hear about anything, and I talked to parents and teachers on a daily basis."

The school had its problems, but for the most part staff got along, said Karen Highsmith, who recently retired from Mifflin after 36 years.

Teachers once entertained in each other's homes, ate lunch together and supported each other. But beginning in the late '90s - when Boyd and McKibben Marenbach arrived - things changed, Highsmith said.

"They thought they had their school back with Ms. Schmitt," Highsmith said. "They never let it go."

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