The Jerk

Gary Stevenson is making good teachers want to quit. Why is he still employed?

Another day, she came upon a student shaking a can of orange soda vigorously while the other kids laughed. She told them to get along to lunch, but the student with the soda said, "Fuck you, bitch," and flipped the top, spraying sticky orange soda all over the hall. Then he ran into the cafeteria and, when she followed, cursed her again. She asked Stevenson to radio security or come with her to get the student, and he held his hand up like a cop to halt her request, reminding her that his job was only to "monitor the hall."

Around the same time, she says, Stevenson began coming upstairs during her second-floor hall duty and staring at her. OK, she was sensitive -- maybe she was imagining the attitude? But when Smitty, the guard at the back entrance, glanced up and said "Hey, baby girl," every morning, it didn't bother her one whit. This felt different. And it gave her the willies.

Central Visual and Performing Arts High School
Jennifer Silverberg
Central Visual and Performing Arts High School
Cheryl Burns won top marks as an English teacher but couldn't abide what she describes as continued harassment by an administrator.
Jennifer Silverberg
Cheryl Burns won top marks as an English teacher but couldn't abide what she describes as continued harassment by an administrator.

In January 2000, Central's new principal arrived: It was John Niemeyer, who'd worked there years before and knew Stevenson well. At the first faculty meeting, Niemeyer announced that Stevenson would now be head of all art departments -- a position that, on the school flowchart, put him even with the assistant principal. According to the faculty, his responsibilities still centered around supervising the hall, ordering supplies, overseeing budgets and controlling the building keys -- except that now he also busied himself reminding everyone of his close friendship with the principal. Some say he even carried around a piece of paper listing teachers he said were on Niemeyer's "hit list."

He also resumed calling out to Burns in the morning. She avoided him as best she could; she was a probationary teacher, contracted to Central, and she didn't want to get on anybody's bad side. But when she went to her graduate course at UM-St. Louis, there he was, enrolled in a class right down the hall. She says he came up to her in the snack lounge and told her he was the principal's best friend and that she should stick with him, then leered at her and said he'd asked her professor about her. One day at school, she says he put his arm around her and said, "Baby, I'm sorry I won't be able to meet you at the lounge tonight." She shook his arm off and glared at him. Another time he implied that he'd checked with her professor about her "quitting" class (she'd missed a few classes because of illness).

In late May, she remembers, he came into her classroom, looking her up and down and saying, "I need you," eyebrow arched. The kids craned their necks to see what would happen next. He explained that he needed to see her keys. She says when she lifted them from around her neck, he grinned and said he could have "checked them out" in place. Sighing, she placed her keys on the desk, but before she could retract her hand, she says, he grabbed it and squeezed it. Two days later, she says, he came in to do a key check, saw Burns and said, "Oh, hi. I did already do you, didn't I?" Then he burst out laughing, saying, "You did know I was talking about keys, didn't you?"

Burns was tough in many ways, but she was emotional, too; trusted readily; wore her heart on her sleeve and couldn't help reacting to everything that happened to her. She went further to avoid Stevenson, even ducking into the stairwell so she didn't have to pass him. By March, her monthly periods had stopped cold. She thought it was simply her age -- she was 45 -- but her doctor suggested stress. When, in the camaraderie of their furtive smoking breaks, she tentatively confided in a few other teachers, they urged her to "file a charge -- this guy's done this to all kinds of people" and counted off five female teachers who'd left the school at least in part because of Stevenson.

Burns didn't want to complain, not as a probationary teacher and not about something so vague. But then she learned Stevenson would be acting as assistant principal for the summer and she'd be teaching summer school.

On Monday, June 5, she and Margaret Campbell -- head of the social-studies department and building steward for the AFL-CIO Local 420 -- sat down with Niemeyer and told him the whole story. They say he listened to every word, professed to be shocked, insisted he and Stevenson weren't close friends; he'd just done the guy's taxes and built his back steps, nothing that would stand in the way of justice. They say he promised to suspend Stevenson and investigate.

That Wednesday, Burns' phone rang around 9 a.m. It was Niemeyer, announcing that they'd be meeting again at 10 that morning; he'd tried to reach Campbell but she wasn't home; Burns would have to meet with him alone. (Campbell says she returned home from a haircut to find a panicky, "I guess I'll go anyway" message from Burns and nothing more. "I have Caller ID and an answering machine," she says, "and there was no record of a call from Mr. Niemeyer.")

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