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Friday December 19th 2014

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Tarnished Turnaround

The First Priority Clubs are Christian campus ministries for high and middle schools that are part of First Priority of America, which is based in Middlesboro, Ky. A search of IRS online databases show that there is no First Priority Club in the Pensacola area registered with the IRS as a non-profit.

Max had an office at the school. When Dobbs visited it, he found a “Fund Rays” coupon book, an invoice to Max from the vendor with an outstanding balance, and a contract executed by the student for 70 coupon books.

Dobbs contacted the coupon book vendor, who said Max had told him that he had sold 20 books and would return the remaining 50. He said the boy was worried that he might go to jail. The vendor wasn’t aware that the contract had been executed by a juvenile. He agreed to drop the matter if the student returned the unsold books and settled the debt for sold books.

It would take Dobbs two weeks to find Max and interview him. On March 11, 2010, Dobbs interviewed the boy, who said he was asked to do the fundraiser and that he used the money from the sales to purchase snacks and drinks for the First Priority Club, which met once or twice a week before school. He also said he had bought each member a Christmas gift. He admitted to writing the letter and signing the contract.

Dobbs briefed ECSO on his investigation. They expressed no interest in pursuing the investigation further.

The audit report cited WMS for not following procedures regarding the coupon book sales. A Fundraising Request/Reconciliation Form was never completed for the fundraiser. According to the report, Principal Rush said that she was “hesitant to become involved in the First Priority Club’s activities due to concerns about church versus state. As such, activities appeared to occur for which she was unaware.”

The audit report didn’t mention the coupon fundraiser was conducted by a high school student or that the student may have pocketed the profits.

SOMETHING ABOUT OJT STUDENT

The coupon books weren’t the only issue with Max. Several staff members saw the OJT student with keys to restricted offices. Henry told Dobbs that she called her office and Max answered the phone. SRO Sterling said Max always had a radio and a key to her office. “He told me that he had a key to everywhere and unlocked my door in front of me.”

The student was found another time in the SRO’s office watching the camera surveillance system.

Dobbs discovered Max frequently used teachers’ cars to run errands, which is prohibited by the OJT rules. In December, he wrecked a teacher’s car on a run to WalMart and was ticketed for driving with a suspended license.

Dobbs wrote in his report that Max had been assigned duties beyond OJT authority and direction. The high school student supervised classes until substitute teachers arrived. He confiscated students’ cell phones and backpacks. An assistant principal found Max on campus in the offices at 7:30 a.m. and told him that he wasn’t to be on campus. Staff complained that he made inappropriate advances with female students.

In his final report on the improper financial practices at WMS, dated Jan. 11, 2011, Dobbs stated the OJT student was subsequently removed from duties at WMS and reassigned.

NEW YEAR, NEW TEAM

In early March 2011, the IN reviewed the personnel file of Sandra Rush, which gave the paper an opportunity to interview Rush, who sat with Alan Scott while her records were examined.

“We did make a difference,” said Rush. The principal said that she didn’t get much help from her predecessor. “I knew nothing about the school,” she said. “There was no master schedule, and Ms. Nixon shared no previous knowledge. So last year was a trial. I had to see what worked and what didn’t work.”

“It’s hard work to do what we’re doing there,” said Superintendent Thomas about WMS. “It’s hard work, and it’s not over yet.”

Thomas admitted he miscalculated the challenges at WMS. “I think the first year really had it challenges—challenges with the students, challenges with staffing,” he said. “It took time for the entire team to get on the same page. I think what I underestimated most was the time it takes to develop the synergy you need to have on a team.”

<strong>“This is the roughest job I’ve ever had. I’ve made a difference with the kids. What I didn’t expect is to be under the microscope and people misinterpreting things.”</strong>

This year, Thomas believes he has the right team at WMS. “This year we’re in a much better position,” he said. “We still have progress to make, obviously. But when you look at how far the staff has brought the school compared to five years ago, we’re on the right track.

“Teachers there will tell you they’ve seen marked progress. A few teachers there have been through it all. A few who were competent and good we let return.”

Rush has made several changes for the current school year. The students wear uniforms, and the grades are housed in separate wings. She has a new discipline team—Assistant Principal Larry Reid and Dean of Students Delores Morris. Both Scott and Rush agreed that the pair have had a big impact.

“I had two new deans that were inexperienced,” said Rush. “Nobody wants to come to these schools. They had good intentions, not the experience.”

She no longer is involved in discipline, but doesn’t apologize for her “softness.” “My mother was a single mom,” said Rush. “She raised my sister and me and her nieces. By the time I was 10 years old, I was like a mother helping her take care of them.

“I’m a compassionate person. God told me treat others like you wanted to be treated. If that’s softness, then I’m soft in that area.”

Thomas also believes the new discipline team has made a difference. “I know she (Rush) loves the students,” said the superintendent. “She has great management and great rapport with the community.”

He explained the new discipline team: “Some might be good with hugs. Then there are those times when you need an iron fist. The (students) have got to know not to try any junk that they do. That’s why we brought in two experienced deans this year. It’s helping the students settle in and be more focused in the classroom. The discipline issues have gotten more under control.”

Rush’s personnel file has nothing but glowing reports from all her supervisors over her 30-plus years in the district. There were no letters or memorandums in her file about any of the allegations or findings from her first year at WMS.

Still, Thomas denied that Rush has been given preferential treatment. “Nobody gets a free pass,” he said. “We ordered audits. We expect ethical conduct at every turn.”

But he added that not every mistake should incur the death penalty. “I’m going to weigh all the facts whether it’s a student or an employee,” said Thomas. “Some misinterpret or interpret differently most of the issues Sandra dealt with. The audit had findings, but a lot of schools have findings in an audit. That’s why you do a corrective action plan.”

Thomas still sees WMS as his turnaround school. “Everyone thinks it’s a throw away school and that’s not what I think at all. First, we had to get the students under control there. Next, we need to attract our best and brightest teachers there. Teachers need to feel it’s a good place to be.”

The current teachers and staff were reluctant to talk on the record with the IN about whether WMS is a good place to be. Not all of them are buying the superintendent’s hype. Some told the IN that the conditions at WMS are the same as last year, maybe worse. Several blamed the superintendent.

“The problems at Warrington are rampant, epidemic and condoned by Malcolm Thomas,” the IN was told.

Rush believes the school is better than when she took the job. “This is the roughest job I’ve ever had,” she said. “I’ve made a difference with the kids. What I didn’t expect is to be under the microscope and people misinterpreting things.”

Malcolm Thomas’ commitment hasn’t waivered. “I’m not giving up on Warrington Middle School students. I know a lot of people do. As long as we continue to move forward, I will do all I can to continue to support them and work through any challenges.”

rick@inweekly.net

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Read Interview with Malcolm Thomas.

WEB EXTRA

You can read online 2009-10 School Year: SESIR Spreadsheet, SESIR Definitions and Guidelines, the reports, notes and interviews of District Investigator John Dobbs and the offense reports submitted by the school resource officers to their supervisors. Click here.

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