The Scarlet Letter

Someone penned an anonymous letter making damning allegations about Normandy High School principal Alvin Smith. He blames it on a disgruntled ex-employee out to take him down. Trouble is, some of the letter is true.

In six years as principal of Normandy High School, Alvin Smith says that he has earned a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense leader. His boss, Superintendent Raymond Armstrong, credits Smith for raising the school's graduation rate, increasing the involvement of parents and bringing "more accountability" to the teaching faculty and staff at the North St. Louis County high school.

The principal says it is that emphasis on accountability that prompted him to decide earlier this year not to renew the contract of Horace Humphries, a retired career military man who built the school's junior-ROTC program from scratch. Smith explains the personnel decision by saying the two men repeatedly clashed on things like study-hall duties, lesson plans, missing computers and a student field trip to Six Flags. "He just did things as he pleased," Smith says. "There was insubordination, a continuing refusal to abide by procedures."

Humphries, who had overseen the school's ROTC program since 1993, received official notice in April that his services were no longer needed at Normandy High. His contract, he was told, would not be renewed for the 2000-01 school year, and his $52,000-a-year position would end when classes wrapped up in June.

Smith's decision, however, has become far more than a routine personnel matter. It has spawned a federal lawsuit alleging that Humphries was wrongfully terminated, but, more important, the lawsuit has placed in the public record some troubling facts about the 53-year-old principal that were not widely known in the halls of Normandy High -- or to the parents of the school's students.

The lawsuit, filed April 28 in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, alleges that Humphries' termination had nothing to do with his performance or the ROTC program. Instead, Humphries alleges, Smith retaliated against him because Smith believed the ROTC director had penned an anonymous letter that made damning allegations about the principal's past and present behavior toward female students. Humphries denies writing the letter.

Whoever did write it mailed the typewritten four-page missive to the office of the state's education commissioner last fall. The letter made one harsh accusation after another about Alvin Smith -- that he impregnated a high-school student early in his teaching career, that he was "released" from an assistant-principal job in another school district after struggling with a cocaine problem and that he was more recently accused of improper comments, or contact, with two female students at Normandy High. The letter also claimed Smith is a "womanizer" who had an affair with an assistant principal on staff.

The letter was reviewed by Missouri Education Commissioner Robert Bartman, who is scheduled to retire later this month. He interpreted the allegations as "serious." So did Superintendent Armstrong, who hired a law firm to probe the letter's claims.

But the law firm's brief two-week probe, which was handled by a paralegal, never came close to proving or disproving any of the allegations. To some, the paralegal's inquiry appeared to focus less on finding the truth than on finding out who wrote the letter. But although the probe was inconclusive, Smith himself tells The Riverfront Times that several of the letter's allegations are true: He did, for instance, impregnate a high-school senior in 1979, while he was working as a gym teacher at a city public high school, and he underwent a yearlong treatment for a "substance"-abuse problem in the early '90s.

Despite the revelation of these details of Smith's past, the matter appears largely closed for the Normandy School District. The district's law firm concluded the letter's claims were "unsubstantiated" after failing to make contact with the two girls named in the letter. No action was taken against Smith. Today, school-board members decline to discuss the subject, and the superintendent sings Smith's praises.

"He is meeting all of our expectations as principal of Normandy High School," Armstrong says. "We have confidence in him, and he has done an exemplary job. I have the highest respect for him as an administrator and certainly as a person who provides excellent leadership for 1,250 kids."

"Is the matter closed and finished and done with?" Armstrong won't say for sure. "We've discussed it," he says.

The federal lawsuit, however, appears poised to rip the matter open again and delve publicly into the accusations in excruciating detail. Kenneth Gibert, a St. Louis attorney who represents the ROTC instructor, says the Normandy School District conducted little more than a "sham" investigation and turned a blind eye on someone whose own admissions raise fundamental questions about whether he ought to head a high school where he has authority over hundreds of teenage girls.

"No one seems to care," Gibert says. "It's like calling out into the void. In the administrative hallways, it seems to be no concern at all. We'd like Smith to face the music he deserves to hear. Or we'd like it to be proven that he is innocent. One way or another, it would be nice if Alvin Smith was resolved as a problem and we could know those girls are safe. That's a major concern to my client."

That's not his only concern: Humphries wants his job back -- and he wants an unspecified amount of monetary damages.

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