Caught in the Middle

Students protest the firing of a teacher who complained about an unsafe school

At Normandy Middle School one Friday earlier this month, more than 120 seventh- and eighth-grade students refused to go to class during third period. Instead, they calmly formed a line and headed straight for the administrative offices, where they sat down, chanting and carrying signs with slogans along the lines of "Don't fire. Rehire." Teachers were told to order the kids back to class, but the students refused. "Everyone was crying and holding hands," one boy recalled. An assistant principal unsuccessfully tried to break up the demonstration. Even the Normandy School District superintendent was called to the building; the children told him they were exercising their First Amendment rights. He told them to return to class. They wouldn't budge.

The peaceful sit-in -- staged to protest the district's decision to terminate the contract of eighth-grade social-studies teacher Shonta Smith -- lasted several class periods, until calls to the parents of protesting students, threats of suspensions and the realization that their efforts seemed to be leading nowhere broke up the demonstration.

Indeed, it appears the students' sit-in did not sway the Normandy School District. Smith, who is finishing her second year as a Normandy teacher after seven years in the St. Louis Public Schools system, will not be returning to Normandy Middle School next year. She got the official news in early April, just a couple of weeks after appearing before the school board and urging them to address a long list of problems at the middle school. Smith's laundry list included a range of safety issues: assaults by students, a lack of discipline and a "negative school culture and climate." She described administrators who lie to students, teachers and parents; principals who don't return parents' phone calls; and nagging suspicions that funds for textbooks and other school supplies have been misappropriated.

"Normandy Middle School is in a state of emergency," Smith told the board. "There is a lack of guidance, no sense of direction and no control over student discipline.... When asked, 'Who's in charge?' all staff and personnel agree that students are in charge."

Smith says she felt compelled to bring the issues to the board: Other teachers were too afraid to do so themselves, and the atmosphere at the school seemed to have spun wildly out of control. At least a third of the staff, for instance, had reported being verbally or physically assaulted, Smith says, including a teacher who was hit over the head with a chair and punched by a student. Another was punched repeatedly in the stomach by a student, Smith says, yet nothing was done to discipline the youth until the teacher complained repeatedly. Students, she says, smoke cigarettes and marijuana on the school grounds with impunity. Some have been caught having sex in empty classrooms during the school day. At least four fires were set inside the school this year, Smith says -- in a trash can, in a bathroom, on a bulletin board, in a classroom while the teacher's back was turned. Not once has the fire department been called, Smith adds, and in most cases in which a teacher is battered by a student, the teacher is discouraged from reporting the incident to police, especially to 911.

But even when students are caught in such behavior, the administration is slow to take any action or takes none at all, Smith says. Often, a student on suspension simply shows up for school and administrators ignore the infraction, she says.

A longtime Normandy Middle School teacher who does not want to be identified, citing fear of reprisal, backs Smith up. "We've had at least 25 teacher injuries and an average of three major fights a day," the teacher says. "I've watched students beat other students with belts; teachers have been punched, kicked. Literally, I've seen things I never thought I would see in a school. I've seen things I can't believe I've seen.

"The reason the students did the sit-down -- not only were they protesting a very good teacher being let go, but there is a percentage of students in the school that are running wild, that are terrorizing other students, and these good students are sick of it. They are fearful for themselves and they are fearful for their teachers, and the administration does nothing."

Smith believes she is now paying a high price for speaking up. She appeared before the school board on March 21, and shortly thereafter, she says, both the principal, John Jackson, and assistant principal Diane Clark began spending inordinate amounts of time in her area of the school, pulling students aside to ask about her and the team of teachers she works with. On April 2, the principal informed her that her contract would not be renewed as a result of her having chalked up excessive tardies. On April 6, she received the official written notification from the school board.

Smith concedes that she has had a number of tardies -- times when she arrived after the designated 7:15 a.m. start time for teachers but before the first-period bell at 7:45 a.m. But, she says, so did about a third of her fellow teachers, and none of them has had his or her contract terminated. She complained to the board that she was being unfairly singled out for speaking up. On May 9, dozens of teachers who also had tardies came to work and found memos in their mailbox informing them they were being placed on a "professional-development plan" for excessive tardies, she says, though their contracts were being renewed.

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