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Complaints accuse Mahnomen principal of bias

The principal at Mahnomen High School said Wednesday that teacher complaints about how she disciplines American Indian students and her management and communication style smack of potential gender or racial bias.

"I believe that those concerns may or may not have issues relating to gender bias or a racial bias or some kind of prejudice," she said. "And I don't know what that is. That's kind of the feel that I have."

District officials, however, say the complaints focus on her leadership.

Concerns about Susan Ninham's management style were made in a Jan. 23 "meet and confer" meeting among representatives of the teachers union, Education Minnesota Mahnomen, Superintendent Jon Kringen and School Board Chairman Jim DeVries, she said.

Ninham said the complaints are vague, but she's addressed them. They include:

- Having poor or no communication with staff.

- Student complaints were taken at face value.

- Teachers were consulted last when students made accusations, rather than early on.

- Teachers felt they were "on trial" when given an opportunity to meet with her.

- A general lack of trust.

Ninham said she heard complaints that she sides with American Indian students too easily when staff complain. Rather than suspending or expelling students, she told WDAY-TV during a news event at the school Tuesday that she preferred to work with the students and their parents.

"I believe in forgiveness," she said. "The perception is that I'm sticking up for kids and not for staff. I really have a dual role in that; I do both."

Ninham said up until the meet and confer meeting, she had been told not to worry much about the complaints.

Then, "I was informed (by Kringen) that I may not be offered a new contract. That's when I took it serious and started to advocate for myself."

Kringen said the problems are not likely due to gender or race bias, but management style. He said the School District has policies against discrimination and takes complaints seriously.

"We've had frank discussions about her future, I guess, and the perceptions of problems, and how that could affect her future," Kringen said.

Ninham has not been fired or asked to resign, he said.

Ninham started her job in August, Kringen said. By state law, first-year teachers and administrators are considered probationary employees and are evaluated before they are offered a second contract and tenure, he said. Ninham is expected to be evaluated at the April 14 School Board meeting.

DeVries said the review will be held in executive session, unless Ninham requests it be open.

Ninham said she has yet to decide if she'll ask for an open review.

"Just average" is DeVries' take on Ninham's performance. He said he wanted improved student attendance and communication.

"For the most part, for myself personally, I don't see the changes I'd like to see," DeVries said.

Sandra Haddeland, president of Education Minnesota Mahnomen, said the union has not made a formal complaint against Ninham. "We are remaining neutral," she said.

Ninham said if teachers had come to her from the start, the problems "could have been resolved on Day 1."

DeVries discounted charges of racial bias, saying the district has had American Indians serve as superintendent and elementary principal.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583