August 8, 2001
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Texas lawmaker arrested for beating up school owner

Arthur J Pais

Harsh Kumar had wondered for a long time why Garnet Coleman never visited his children's school, either to discuss their academic progress or to watch them in a debate or a performance.

Kumar, who owns five Montessori schools in Houston, Texas, with 1,200 students, thinks something is wrong with parents who do not drop by.

On Monday, Coleman, an influential Democratic representative in the Texas assembly, visited the school along with his wife. Instead of it being a happy occasion for Kumar, it ended with an altercation between him and the legislator.

"I was terrorised and beaten up," Kumar said of the bitter experience.

The confrontation had nothing to do with Coleman's children, Kumar told on Tuesday, a day after Coleman was arrested and charged with misdemeanour assault.

"It was about three African-American teachers who were being replaced," Kumar said.

Coleman, who has made a career out of race-related issues, wanted the teachers to stay, Kumar explained.

Coleman, 39, stands accused of assaulting Kumar, 46, at the Montessori School of Downtown & Medical Centre, according to the Houston police department. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to at least a year in prison.

"He thought he could intimidate me," Kumar says, adding that Coleman used ethnic slurs and threatened to shut Kumar's schools down.

He said something to the effect that he owns the city, Kumar says, bristling. "I told him I had my rights, too. I was a good citizen and I paid my taxes promptly and diligently.

"I stood up to him," Kumar says. "Often immigrants get intimidated. I did not want to set a wrong example."

Kumar said Coleman's wife had sought to discuss the dismissal on telephone on Monday and he had suggested that they meet and discuss her concerns.

"I was surprised to see Coleman," he said. "I was even more surprised when he started yelling at me, and then hitting me on the head."

Coleman contested Kumar's version.

"He told me to get out of his building and started disrespecting my wife," he told reporters.

"I've just never been treated so badly in my life. I overreacted and pushed him back into the couch, and he started yelling at me and I started yelling at him."

Coleman also said he was tired after returning from an overseas trip the day before and had been frustrated all day because the air-conditioning in his office was out.

"I was wrong, but at the same time he disrespected my wife. And I was tired and had jetlag, and, quite honestly, my wife and kids are all I have," he told The Houston Chronicle.

"What an excuse! Even schoolchildren will think twice before offering such an excuse," was Kumar's rejoinder.

"We talk about violence in our schools," he said, not trying to hide the bitterness in his voice. "And here is a lawmaker, supposed to be a model, who was acting violently, endangering the school's safety."

Kumar vigorously disputed Coleman's version, adding that he was pushed twice and hit in the face four times during the argument.

"I didn't disrespect him," Kumar said. "I was very shocked when he started yelling at me and using the kind of language that should make anyone feel ashamed."

Kumar said the couple wanted the teachers to stay because they were close to the Colemans, but as the school administrator he was not satisfied with the teachers.

He said the Colemans also expressed concern because the teachers were black. To that, Kumar replied that he did not choose teachers on the basis of colour.

"But if the Colemans had an open mind, two of the new teachers happened to be African-Americans too," he said, chuckling.

(Mabel Pais contributed to this report)

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