Kent Pe Teacher, 72, Claims Bias -- Man Has Been Investigated, Suspended

KENT - Unlike most people his age, George Uchida, 72, earns a living by being physical.

Every school day at 7:45 a.m, Uchida puts on a sweat suit and does a round of push-ups and sit-ups with a gymnasium full of Kentwood High School students.

Uchida is the oldest physical-education teacher in the state and may be one of the most controversial.

In the twilight of his 37-year teaching career, Uchida has been criticized by the Kent School District, has been investigated twice by the state over alleged professional misconduct and has a lawsuit against the district awaiting trial.

Uchida, who coached the U.S. Olympic judo team in 1972, says the complaints against him are part of a strategy to get rid of him. He says school officials want him gone, citing his age.

"I'm in better shape than most students and staff members around here," said Uchida. "I can still do the job well."

In a lawsuit filed last year, Uchida, who is Japanese American, alleges school officials embarked on a campaign to oust him, which allegedly included making racial comments.

A district spokeswoman declined to comment on the suit, which is expected to go to trial this summer. "We cannot discuss pending legal matters," she said.

In the lawsuit, Uchida says school officials often asked him when he planned to retire.

One Kentwood official, former Vice Principal Dick Strain, harassed him more directly, Uchida claims. The suit says Strain used a racial epithet to describe Uchida and allegedly told others that Uchida "is just too old" to teach PE.

Strain, who has left the district, said Uchida's assertions are

false. The reason for the lawsuit, Strain said, was to divert attention from Uchida's shortcomings as a teacher.

Several female students accused Uchida of using foul language and making sexually suggestive remarks during class in 1992. In 1994, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction launched an investigation to determine whether Uchida lacked "good moral character or personal fitness" to be a teacher based on those allegations. The state dismissed the complaint last year.

Uchida said his words at the time "were twisted all around" and taken out of context.

This school year, the state began another investigation into Uchida's conduct. According to the Kent School District, which asked the state to investigate, Uchida threw a metal standard at a group of his students in a fit of rage.

"Your actions demonstrated a willful and callous disregard for the physical safety and security of students," the district wrote to Uchida in October.

The district suspended him without pay for 15 days.

Uchida said he was only trying to get the students' attention and that the district had blown the incident out of proportion. "It wasn't even close to the students," he said.

The state investigation could take a year, according to a state spokeswoman.

For the time being, Uchida says he still enjoys teaching and doesn't know when he'll stop. He's reportedly the sixth-oldest teacher in the state. The oldest is 79.

"I still enjoy my work," he said. "No one can make me quit."