The Jerk

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

Burns, meanwhile, had the presence of mind to call the union's field rep, Demo DuBose, who met her at Central. Niemeyer told them he hadn't actually talked with Stevenson yet but still intended to investigate. Burns left wondering why they'd met.

Then she waited.

Stevenson was at school every day. None of the people whose names Burns had given Niemeyer -- Margaret Campbell; Jo-Ann Ganschaw, the English-department head; Kevin Cook and Donna Shrader, photography teachers on Stevenson's floor -- was ever questioned. In late June, DuBose wrote Cleveland Hammonds Jr., superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, and noted that Stevenson hadn't been suspended and the union had never received a report of any investigation. DuBose had before him a fat file of prior complaints about Stevenson; he says problems have continued through four principals yet nothing's ever been done. "The other complaints were not sexual harassment," he says, "but about how he talked to people, and some of the crazy things he would do, walking in and out of classrooms, upbraiding the teachers."

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.

Stevenson could not be reached for comment, and the school district will not discuss personnel matters. But quite a few teachers speak angrily of Stevenson's attitude. "He insulted the kids, too," says Margaret Strong, who used to teach Spanish at Central. "He'd pick the kids he knew wouldn't fight back. He told one little girl her art was grotesque." Students put their ears to the wall to hear him yelling, says a teacher who still works at Central; another reportedly hurled a book at him and told him to get out of her classroom; a third seriously considered flipping burgers instead of returning the next fall to endure his comments. Several tell stories of their supply orders' vanishing mysteriously. "He's bullied and mistreated and done very mean-spirited things to numerous people," says a fourth teacher. "He clearly doesn't see himself the way others see him." A fifth, asked whether all the petty slights add up to any real damage, says simply, "He shatters your confidence. It's his way or no way."

"Stevenson's somebody you're warned about when you first arrive," says a sixth teacher. "I've never experienced a human being like him. He picks on people who really don't have the power to do anything, like new teachers, and his whole thing is catching you alone. He'll corner you and yell at you, insult you, humiliate you, whatever he can get away with. I've run into kids who graduated, and they say, 'Does that bald-headed motherfucker still work there?' This guy has nothing to do with teaching children. It's all about himself."

When summer school started, Burns began finding her classroom windows left open, the air conditioning turned off. She went to get a box of poems she'd paid to have Xeroxed and found it missing. Students couldn't be blamed; she kept her classroom door locked. But Stevenson had a key to every room in the building.

She mentioned her suspicions to the other teachers, who told her she wasn't the first to wonder. "It happens," says one teacher, "but it's not anything you can prove. Something just shows up missing -- and sometimes it'll be returned later." One of the teachers who left was convinced Stevenson had come in and erased her computer files; another once deliberately placed the objects on the desk a certain way, as a test and, sure enough, found them disarranged. Yet when Burns told Niemeyer what was happening to her, he seemed more inclined to blame one of the custodians.

Exasperated, Burns met with the executive director of human resources for the district, David Flieg, on July 13. He promised to conduct his own investigation, but four days later, called Burns to say Niemeyer had investigated and had already forwarded the report to Hammonds.

On July 28, Burns received a terse letter from Hammonds saying that after reviewing Niemeyer's report and instructions to Stevenson, he, too, had "made it clear to Mr. Stevenson, in writing, that he is to cease and desist all inappropriate behavior. You are directed to report to the principal if you experience any difficulty with Mr. Stevenson."

Burns felt her stomach sink. Report back to Niemeyer?

The new school year started. Caught by the fresh chalk, empty bulletin boards and waiting faces, Burns tried to forget Stevenson altogether. But when a teacher complained of neck pain, she suggested a gadget her kids had bought her for Christmas -- a rope with two handles and rollers to massage your neck -- and says Stevenson interjected, "That sounds too good; I'm afraid I'd have to have a cigarette after that" -- then laughed and hiked up his pants.

By now she'd begun receiving hangup calls at home: collect calls from pay phones in Maplewood, Richmond Heights and South City. "I'd pick up the phone, and it'd say, 'This is AT&T with a collect call from -- We're sorry. The calling party has hung up. You will not be billed for this call.'" Other odd things were happening, too -- garbage stolen, a rock placed in front of her screen door, loud banging on the door at 3 a.m. but nobody there when she opened the door. She asked her neighborhood police about it, and they promised to keep an eye out. They also told her the collect pay-phone calls were an old trick to make a call untraceable.

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