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Tuesday September 2nd 2014

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Tarnished Turnaround

When Rush asked the student what had happened, the student got up and stormed out of the office past the SRO, Dean Thomas and Dean Sawyer. Later, when the SRO asked the principal for the child’s name and information for her report, the principal told the deputy that no disciplinary action would be taken.

“It took me three days to get the girl’s name,” Sterling told Dobbs. “She told me she did not know the student’s name. Then they gave me the wrong name. They gave me the sister’s name.”

The next day there was another disturbance in the same classroom. When SRO went to her office door, the teacher said, “These students are out of control. I need you to come talk to them.” The deputy radioed for Dean Thomas, who went into her classroom for the remainder of the 4th period. Superintendent Thomas was visiting the school, saw the teacher crying in the deputy’s office, went into the classroom and spoke to the students. No disciplinary action was reported by the SRO.

WMS Principal Sandra Rush

On Sept. 17, 2009, Deputy Sterling reported that teacher Ivy Coleman said that a fight had occurred in the lunch room. A female student had swung a chair at a male student, which ignited a fight between the two. Rush broke it up and removed the pair from the lunch room, according to Coleman.

When Deputy Sterling saw the female student coming out of Rush’s office, the deputy was told by Rush that she wasn’t going to do anything about the fight. Sterling interviewed the male student, who said the female had demanded his chair, pulled it out from under him and then hit him with it. The boy admitted to fighting back and striking the girl.

According to Sterling, Deans Thomas and Andrews told her, “Ms. Rush does not want you involved. We were told that incident goes no further.” The deputy said that Rush told her that she didn’t know the alleged assailant’s name.

The relationship between Rush and Sterling went downhill from there. “They never really got over the pepper spray. They kept making a big issue of writing reports,” the deputy told Dobbs. “The teachers said to me, ‘I have written a child up three or four times,’ and they were told there was no referral.”

By October 2009, Sterling had transferred to Woodham Middle School.

NEVER BEEN STRONG ON DISCIPLINE

The IN asked Principal Rush if she was too soft. “Everyone knows I’m not going to be a strong disciplinarian,” she said with a laugh.

Rush did have an open door policy for parents, teachers and students. “I had to change the culture. Children knew that they could come into my office, I would listen and then tell them to do what the teachers says,” she said.

“They need to be loved, to know somebody cares. We are not just dealing with education. At least, they want to come to school. I greet them every day, say ‘Good morning’, watching for facial expressions, pulling aside those who look troubled.”

Why did WMS have four SROs? “I don’t know why, I was never told why they left,” said Rush. “I was trying to stay out of their business.”

Thomas Jones, a retired U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander whose son was in the sixth grade, didn’t approve of Rush’s leadership. “I have no doubt that she has what the county requires academically to be a principal,” Jones told the IN, “but as far as leadership for that school she was not only a step in the wrong direction, but 380-degrees out from what that school needed.”

Jones shared one incident about his son: “My son got chastised by a teacher, deservingly so. In a huff, he went running out of the classroom, ran down the stairs, ran down the hallway and ran into the principal’s office with tears on his face, all upset. She wrapped him up in her arms like a loving grandmother. When his teacher finally found him, after getting someone else to watch her class, the principal asked her, ‘What have you done to this child?’”

“To assume your teacher has done something wrong is piss poor leadership. You never chastise someone in command position in front of a subordinate. Never, absolutely never.”<

Jones believed that there may be a time a teacher needs to be corrected, but the retired naval officer disagreed with the principal doing it in front of his son. “To assume your teacher has done something wrong is piss poor leadership,” said Jones. “You never chastise someone in command position in front of a subordinate. Never, absolutely never.”

Jones said that he tried to talk with Rush and Superintendent Thomas about his concerns and got nowhere. “When I would go to his office to meet him personally, I could never get through,” he told the IN. “I was told that he wasn’t available.”

This year his son is attending Escambia Christian School, but Jones still worries about the WMS teachers. “It was obvious from speaking with all my son’s teachers at WMS that not one felt they had the support of the principal.”

BATTERY OR PRANK

One teacher who might agree with Thomas Jones is Adam Clark, formerly a sixth grade teacher at WMS. Dobbs investigated a report of a coordinated assault on Clark, an assault that wasn’t reported to the District, state DOE or law enforcement. Clark, who transferred to Spencer Bibbs Elementary after the incident, told Dobbs that he was taking his class to the bathroom. A male student called his name. When he turned his head, a female student began choking him around the throat.

“I yelled at her to get her hands off my neck,” said Clark. The students said it was a prank, but Clark wrote a referral. He was told by school officials that his attacker would only be suspended half a day and would be back in his class.

He offered to press charges, but was told not to do so because it would cause trouble and reflect badly on him, according to Dobbs’ notes. Clark told the investigator that teachers had gotten back copies of their referrals marked “need to delete this.” He believed that there were a lot of unaccounted referrals.

Clark attempted to report it per District guidelines, but was “urged to forego reporting or documentation of battery or injuries.” Instead, the teacher was counseled for causing the incident. Dobbs wrote that there were two other incidents of assault on employees reported with no response.

The IN made several attempts to contact Clark. He did not return any of the calls.

The investigator reported that discipline issues were being blamed by the school administration on the teachers. First offenses were not to have referrals, but teachers complained it was being abused, since all offenses were being declared “first offenses.”

Teachers unloaded their frustrations to Dobbs. A faculty member told him, “Why write (a referral), it won’t make it into the system.”

A student repeatedly asked a female teacher, “When are you going to f$%# me?” The assistant principal removed the student, but Rush reportedly convinced the teacher to drop the issue by telling her that she wasn’t sure what she heard. The student was returned to the class with no disciplinary action taken.

The teachers also told of diminishing safety and unresolved physical confrontations. One teacher said, “Something bad is going to happen. We’re frightened the SRO will pull out.” Another said, “I have been in a lot of schools. This school is out of control. Everything is so violent.”

Rush told the IN that any reporting issues weren’t intentional and were due to an inexperienced staff. “Half the staff was new, half from the previous year,” said the principal. “I had high expectations, and some of the faculty didn’t necessarily believe in my vision.”

DISTRICT-WIDE LACK OF REPORTING

As much as the teachers were concerned over the violence at WMS, the school’s SESIR report only documented 41 incidents of crime and violence on the campus for the entire school year.

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