As an investigation continued Thursday into allegations that a veteran Poly High teacher was abusive and racially offensive in class, Long Beach school district officials disputed suggestions that students were being intimidated and retaliated against for coming forward.
“The allegation that the investigation is somehow retaliatory against students for speaking up is ludicrous,” district spokesman Chris Eftychiou told the Post in an email. “This investigation is a platform for student voices—all student voices—to share their concerns and testify about what they saw and heard. We need to know what they know.”
At the center of the investigation is Libby Huff, an award-winning business teacher who oversees the campus’ widely praised Pacific Rim Academy magnet program.
In January, Huff was placed on paid administrative leave after a probe into allegations that she had directed the N-word at one of her students in December. Upon her return to work on Feb. 12, numerous students anonymously took to the social media platform Medium to air more than a dozen accounts of allegedly abusive behavior by Huff, including pulling their hair, their ears and throwing pencils and highlighters at them.
On Monday, Huff again was placed on paid leave as authorities launched another probe, this one including Long Beach police and Los Angeles County child-welfare officials because of the allegations of physical abuse.
Now, the controversy has also spread to the treatment of students being interviewed, which has been fueled by a series of tweets from high-profile Poly teacher Myriam Gurba to her more than 25,000 followers. Earlier this year, Gurba garnered national attention with a scathing take-down of the newly released book “American Dirt,” whose author, she said, misrepresented and trivialized the plight of Latin American immigrants.
“HELP,” she wrote in her first campus tweet on Wednesday. “Scary things are happening at Poly.”
Gurba said campus security officers had “arrived in waves” and removed students from classes without explanation. “They took ONLY Black & Brown students,” who, she said, were put “into separate rooms for interrogation, Central Park 5 style.”
“It seems they are only taking kids from my class,” she continued. “I’m the teacher whose been most vocal about racist and abusive incidents that students have spoken about…Can somebody help these kids? They are extremely vulnerable. The kids who spoke out against the racist teacher are staying home from school because they are SICK with anxiety.”
Gurba’s posts were retweeted hundreds of times and drew calls for intervention by civil rights groups.
The school officials have dismissed such accounts as “misleading and misguiding.”
School administrators informed parents in an email on Tuesday that the investigation “may include interviews by the Long Beach Police Department on campus in order to learn student eyewitness testimony” and that police may also want to speak with students at home.
“These allegations deserve a fair and thorough investigation, and you and your student can help,” Poly High School Principal Bill Salas said in the email obtained by the Post.
Long Beach Police Department officials said officers are sensitive to the needs of the kids involved.
Deputy Chief Erik Herzog described the interview process as sitting down with students and explaining to them what detectives were there to do and that “they don’t have to sit down and talk with us without a parent or school teacher present if they want.”
“If we want them to feel safe to where they can talk to us, we have to create an environment where they can do it anonymously, where it’s only us, them and the school district and those people that need to know are involved,” Herzog said.
Still, Gurba, who teaches AP psychology and sociology at the Pacific Rim Academy, says she stands by her tweets.
“To me it looks as if they’re treating the students like criminals because of the way they are handling the investigation,” Gurba said of the district. “And the kids seem very frightened and very intimidated by the process.”
Gurba went further, calling the school district disingenuous in its claim that they are just now being made aware of complaints of physical assault. She said she knows of two parents—whose children contributed to the online blog—who have previously complained about Huff.
“This lack of transparency and lack of parental involvement seems very suspect to me and it breeds distrust and the students already have a reason to be distrustful,” Gurba said.
The investigation of Huff could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to conclude, according to Chris Callopy, the executive director of the Teachers Association of Long Beach.
“That investigation means talking to all those that are willing to come forward and have a conversation about what they are alleging,” Callopy said. “Then they’ll take that information and they’ll have to look for people who can corroborate and independently verify these allegations.”
To conduct the investigation, Callopy said the district typically relies on former administrators who are experienced with these situations.
Callopy would not discuss details of the case, other than to say Huff is “mortified by these allegations.”
“I can say that she is very saddened by this process and she is hurt,” Callopy said. She’s also scared, he said, after receiving what appeared to be online threats.
In recent days support has also surfaced for Huff, including an online petition called for “Justice for Huff,” which has gained 235 signatures online and is filled with testimonials on behalf of the embattled teacher from students and parents.
“Multiple students have testified about how Ms. Huff has lovingly and positively impacted their lives, and that they don’t know where they would be today without her and the PacRim Academy environment she created,” the petition says.