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Monday September 1st 2014

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Tarnished Turnaround

Warrington Middle Puts Malcolm In The Middle


By Rick Outzen

Last year was to be the school year Warrington Middle School turned around. In fact, that is what Superintendent Malcolm Thomas called the West Pensacola junior high–his “turnaround school.”

He declared the school, which has teetered between “C” and “D” status since 2000, would become the highest-achieving middle school in the district, and he committed to investing millions of stimulus dollars to make it happen. The superintendent told parents, faculty and the public that he personally would oversee the transformation by having the school administration report directly to him rather than district staff.

A three-month investigation by the IN has revealed the first year of Thomas’ turnaround was much harder than the newcomer ever thought. It was a year filled with allegations of Principal Sandra Rush redirecting nearly $7,000 in school funds earmarked for the classrooms to office furniture and decorations, of her high school aide running an apparent fundraising scam, of sexual misconduct by students on a bus with no adult chaperone, and of assaults on teachers and other violence going undocumented by school officials.

All the allegations were investigated by district officials. Many were found to be true. Others may never be fully resolved. Few of the details were made public, until now.

The IN made over a dozen public record requests of the Escambia Public School District, Escambia County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Department of Education. Meetings were held with WMS Principal Rush, district officials and ECSO. The IN reviewed the investigative reports and interview notes of District Investigator John Dobbs, the offense reports filed by the four school resource officers (SRO) that worked at WMS during the 2009-10 school year and the internal audit report.

Conclusion: Malcolm Thomas may have bit off more than he could chew with this one. The school may turn around, but at what cost? Did the massive firing of former Principal Christine Nixon and her entire staff exacerbate the challenges at the school and put it further behind? Has there been a conscious effort on the part of Thomas and school officials to hide the problems at WMS?

This report brings into question the safety of the students and teachers in the classrooms across the District. The IN found the District had reported less the 40 percent of the crime and violence on its campuses to law enforcement, while the overall state percentage for the same type of incidents is 84 percent. Warrington Middle reported less than 3 percent.

RESTRUCTURING FROM THE GROUND UP

Four months into his first year in office, Superintendent Thomas announced that he was starting over at Warrington Middle School. The principal and the whole faculty were being replaced.

It was an unprecedented, bold move by the new superintendent, especially since the latest Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test grades hadn’t been released. Thomas told the media that if WMS failed to get a “C”, the state would mandate the replacement of the school administration and reassignment of teachers to other schools in the district. He needed to act in April to give him time to restructure the school from the ground up.

Malcolm Thomas is a lifelong Escambia County resident who taught special education at Tate High School for eight years. Like his predecessor, Jim Paul, Thomas never was a school principal. He has spent much of his career at the district level. Thomas, who has a master’s degree, was Paul’s Director of Evaluation Services.

In June, WMS learned it had earned a “C” school grade, its first since 2006, and had enough gains in reading and math to be removed from the threat of state sanctions. However, Thomas had already set his transformation of WMS into motion. Principal Nixon and her assistants had been reassigned and the faculty was given the option of reapplying for their jobs. Thomas had hired Sandra Rush to be the new principal.

By February 2010, rumors surfaced that the turnaround at WMS wasn’t going smoothly. The IN heard from reliable sources that the school administration was under investigation.

Rush had been the principal of Montclair Elementary from 2007-2009. Prior to that, she was the principal of Brownsville Middle School from 2000 until it was closed in June 2007.

“Middle School is all my life,” Rush told the IN. “When Brownsville closed, I wanted to go to another middle school, but there were no openings.” She went to Montclair Elementary, where she took the school from “F” to “A” status in one year. Her last year at the school, its grade fell to a “D.”

“Warrington gave me an opportunity to go back to my first love,” she said. “I know I drove some of the teachers crazy at Montclair. They would send two kindergartners, just babies, to me that had been fighting. I would sit them in my lap, rub on their kids and love on them.”

Rush was intrigued by the challenges at WMS. “You got to select your staff and start from ground works. I have always liked a challenge.”

The “new” WMS opened to much fanfare in August 2009. The district had pumped $1.5 million into the school, according to news reports. Superintendent Thomas bragged the school had garnered attention throughout the state and ultimately will serve as a model for other schools and communities.

By February 2010, rumors surfaced that the turnaround at WMS wasn’t going smoothly. The IN heard from reliable sources that the school administration was under investigation. Allegedly, the staff had been instructed by Thomas not to communicate with the media or send out any emails or written memos on the problems.

When asked recently by the IN about this allegation, the superintendent said he gave no such instructions. “That has never been said. We’re open,” he said. “We try to be as transparent as possible.”

What IN has learned from its three-month investigation is that District Investigator John Dobbs had launched in February 2010 a full-scale investigation into WMS ranging from improper financial practices, unauthorized fundraising to sexual misconduct on a bus and near collapse of discipline on the campus. Dobbs would eventually request support from the District Internal Audit Branch, who did their own investigation of the school’s financial practices. His final report was not completed until January 2011.

DISCIPLINE FALLS APART

By the first week of September 2009, it was apparent that discipline would be a problem at WMS. School Resource Officer Melissa Sterling had to pepper spray a female student who was fighting a teacher outside the gym. Two days earlier, two female students were removed from a school bus for fighting. One had to be taken to the dean’s office in handcuffs. Fights and class disturbances were nearly everyday occurrences.

During the school year, WMS would go through four school resource officers. None of them seemed to have as much trouble as Sterling, the initial SRO, who had conflicts with Principal Rush within weeks after school started.

On Sept. 10, 2009, Sterling heard yelling from the classroom across the hall. “I could see students out of their seats and there was a lot of loud talk, and it appeared the teacher could not get the students under control,” wrote Sterling in her report. “I then heard a female voice say, ‘F*%$ the police, we don’t care about no police.’”

When the SRO entered the classroom, the students settled down, except for one female student, who repeatedly said, “We ain’t even much studying you. You need to get up out of our classroom.” Sterling advised her that if she continued she could walk over to her office.

The girl threw her hand up and said, “You need to get up out my face.” She told Sterling, “I’m not going to your office, I’m going to talk to Ms. Rush,” and picked up her bag and left the classroom.

When she found her in Rush’s office, the SRO was stunned by how the principal handled the incident. “Before receiving information about what had taken place, Ms. Rush waved her hand and stated I could leave, that this was her ‘baby,’ and she wasn’t any trouble, and she would talk to her from here,” wrote the SRO in her report. The deputy refused to walk away and told the principal what had taken place.

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