Lessons learned

Today I was asked during a radio interview on WUWF if the suspected sexual assault at Tate High School had triggered our cover story, Tarnished Turnaround. It didn’t, but it spurred me to dig deeper and hold off publishing the story on Warrington Middle School because I sensed there was a bigger story involved.

We discovered that the cover ups at Tate and Warrington Middle are a district-wide issue. The statewide SESIR report is damning. There is no logical explanation for Escambia County only reporting to the law 38 percent of its crime and violence incidents, while the rest of the state is reporting 84 percent…unless the District is incompetent and forgot how to enter data into the state system.

I am getting similar stories of mismanagement of crime and violence at Escambia High and Pine Forest High. Teachers and parents have begged me to look into Woodham and Bellview middle schools.

What I learned specifically from the Warrington Middle investigation:

1. There is tremendous pent-up rage in some of our students. Seeds of the violence at WMS are planted elsewhere and are coming to fruition on the school campus. Covering up or ignoring this rage and anger isn’t truly dealing with the problem.

2. Thomas made a mistake firing and transferring the prior principal and faculty that had successfully improved the school from a D to a C. The students paid the price and no amount of stimulus dollars could overcome that blunder.

3. The Superintendent worsened the problem by inserting himself between the principal and the district. Thomas has no experience as a principal, assistant principal or dean. He taught Special Education over 20 years ago in a rural high school. He didn’t understand the challenges at WMS and cut off his most experienced district leaders from helping the school.

4. When his mistake become apparent–and they did within weeks, he didn’t deal with the issue. Instead he waited until the next school year to hire a new discipline team that operates independent of the principal.

5. He has yet to take responsibility for his mistakes. Instead Thomas describes any criticism as “giving up on the school.” He only admits to underestimating how hard it was for the faculty to gel as a team. It’s difficult to gel when a student is choking you or your principal is chastising you for writing a referral.

6. The improper financial practices are troubling, considering that Sandra Rush is a veteran principal. She should know the proper use of Title I funds and how to supervise fundraisers and OJT students. She ignored the objections of school and district finance officers. The District auditor believes she created a phony letter to cover her tracks. The school bookkeeper twice asked district officials should this be taken to the State Attorney.

Will Malcolm Thomas and the School Board deal with Warrington Middle and the district-wide classroom safety issue? Or will they perform another self-investigation, like Tate, and declare themselves free of any wrongdoing?

The State Attorney’s Office isn’t interested so the chances of a special grand jury are remote.

The answer will have to be parents demanding change: Telling the Superintendent and the School Board that if a crime happens at my school, I wanted it reported to the law; if my child is suspected of being raped or sexually assaulted I expected to be called by the school immediately – not two days later as it happened at Tate; if my child is raped or sexually assault, I expect the school to demand the law investigate the crime, not a dean; if my child is raped or sexually assaulted I want a trained SVU investigator to interview her, not to be simply called into the principal’s office.

When those expectations aren’t met, we should expect someone to be suspended, demoted and/or fired.

When parents and the business community speak out, the politicians will change. Sheriff Ron McNesby didn’t get serious about the jail deaths until his campaign supporters told him that three deaths in less than 10 months wasn’t acceptable.

How many more stories like Tate and WMS will it take before Malcolm Thomas starts hearing this isn’t acceptable? I don’t know, but I have more stories like Tate and WMS on my desk right now.

I have no malice towards Malcolm Thomas or any of the school board members. I am sure they go to bed each night believing that they are doing the right thing.

…Maybe my expectations are too high.

You need to email and call the School Board and let them know how you feel:

Chairman, Gerald Boone 469-6153
Jeff Bergosh 469-6137
Linda Moultrie 469-6154
Patty Hightower 469-6265
Bill Slayton 469-6258