The Jerk

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

Her students had her phone number, she mused. But so did Stevenson. In fact, he'd insisted on taking it, she recalled, for a student who needed to miss Burns' class, even though both Burns and the student told him she already had the number.

In November, she found that the decorative trash cans bequeathed to her by a previous teacher were missing, along with a thermal coffee mug and a TV cable, and the files on her desk had been rummaged through and scattered. She says she dutifully reported each incident in writing to Niemeyer, copying the memos to Campbell or the EEOC. "I am very tired, Mr. Niemeyer," she ended her Nov. 16 letter. "The pettiness of these incidents is making me frustrated, distracted and physically ill. I am tired of coming to work and wondering what sort of irritation I will encounter at the hands of an idiot. I would sincerely appreciate it if you would look into this matter."

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, she says, she walked into her classroom and found everything on her desk cleared away, leaving a big empty spot in the middle. Her son's photograph had been removed from its frame and placed in the center of that empty spot. Other teachers tried to console her, telling her it was a typical "mind game," but she lost it. "What if he's a nut?" she asked Campbell. "Nobody's ever made him this mad before. What if he hurts my son?" By that evening, she was at St. John's Mercy Medical Center, vomiting and crying. "You're one step from a nervous breakdown," announced her physician, Dr. Cindy Barter, who put her on medical leave through June.

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.

On Nov. 28, Burns wrote Niemeyer explaining how the lack of resolution and continued stress had affected her. He replied with a cold letter: "First, you have not brought any harassment issues to my attention this school year. I have no knowledge of what assistance you expect to receive." Burns wanted to scream. She'd copied other people with those memos, but how could she prove she'd slid one into his mailbox and left a second on his desk?

(Another teacher had left Central in a similar state the year before; colleagues say she was having emotional problems already, but they built to a crescendo when Stevenson started coming into her classroom and yelling at her in front of her students or walking into the adjoining bathroom and yelling, "Who pissed on the toilet seat?" while she was trying to hold class. "She was a very vulnerable human being," says former colleague Donna Shrader, "but somebody was pushing her buttons. One day she actually said to me, 'I know I could get well if it wasn't for Stevenson.'")

The district was not paying Burns during her unofficial medical leave -- they hadn't even sent her a form to request official leave yet -- but they did offer to let her keep her health insurance while they again "investigated." They took statements from Stevenson, two assistant principals and the third-floor custodian, who made a furious protestation of innocence. They also called the four people who'd seen Burns immediately after various incidents -- Campbell, Cook, Ganschaw and Elliot Simpson -- downtown to give statements.

Campbell gave her statement with the crispness of a woman who's spent 34 years bringing order out of high-school chaos. But when the district gave her a typed copy of her statement to sign, she looked at it in amazement. "I took a red pen and started to correct it, and I gave up," says Campbell. "I felt it was distorted."

Not one of the four felt they could sign their statement as they stood.

Meanwhile, Shrader, an award-winning journalism teacher who had her own run-ins with Stevenson before leaving Central last May, says she called the office three or four times asking to give a statement but that no one ever returned the calls.

Shrader's problems with Stevenson started when he wanted her to learn to use a mom-and-pop printing press and crank out the school newspaper and yearbook herself. "I know this is going to disappoint you, but I'm not a printer," she finally told him. She says he then refused to give her the printer's name or address, just told her to give him the proofs and he'd get them back to her. When yearbook time came, she says, Stevenson, furious at what he perceived as lavish expense, "stopped speaking to me and started harassing my kids. One young woman had written a story I was editing, and we got to talking and she was close to being late for her next class, so I walked her down the hall and used my elevator key so she didn't have to run up four flights. Stevenson was sitting in the hall -- he must have seen me -- but after I walked back to my classroom, he stopped that kid, accused her of stealing an elevator key, dragged her to the office and had her written up."

Then came the mystery of the missing yearbook photos. "I finally called the company, and they said they'd sent them 10 days earlier. So I asked the custodian, and he told me Stevenson, whose office is next to the back door where they make deliveries, had taken them, saying he'd get them to me." Shrader convinced the yearbook company to reproduce the pictures free of charge, watched the back door like a hawk and snagged them. One day she complained to Niemeyer about the loss of the first set. He slid open a drawer and said, "Oh, these? I knew they were misplaced, and I, uh, went on a search for them."

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