Caught in the Middle

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

Normandy Superintendent Raymond Armstrong denies that Smith's nonrenewal was a retaliatory move in response to her speaking before the board. "We have had many teachers appear before the board, expressing concern and issues, and it is the board's policy to listen to everybody. There will never be any kind of reprisal against any employee because they express some concerns."

School-board president Joe Collins admits he assured Smith she would not face any repercussions for coming to the board with her concerns, though he acknowledges that shortly thereafter, her contract was not renewed.

"Maybe her timing made it look like maybe it did," he says. "If you know you're having problems, maybe the best thing to do is to run to the board for protection. I am not saying that is the case, and I'm really not at liberty to go in depth about personnel issues. When you come before the board, you also need to have your house in order as an employee."

Jeremy Eaton

Collins says that none of the serious problems Smith described to the board came as a surprise. He concedes there are deep and disturbing problems at the middle school -- and that there have been for some time. "The remarks Ms. Smith made at the meeting were not news to us. Many of the board members have expressed those concerns to me, at the meeting or privately. Currently we are making some administrative changes at the building, trying to change the direction and the climate."

The changes include the reassignment of Jackson, who's being transferred to another job within the district. Collins says the changes won't necessarily end there: "Every administrator in that building is under the microscope, as well as the classroom teachers. That building has to have a total change. We are going to make that a good environment for kids to learn and staff to work and not be in fear for safety."

One person whose job is apparently not at risk is Clark, the assistant principal who supervises Smith and other teachers on her team. Clark was formerly a principal at A.B. Green Middle School in the Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District, where she drew complaints from parents for perceived discipline problems at the school and the resignations of seven of 11 of the middle school's teachers. She resigned from the district in 1999 after a scuffle outside her apartment between her estranged husband and the district's superintendent, Albert Harold, who also resigned.

Collins has nothing but praise for Clark's work, and he notes that he was aware of the conditions at her job with Maplewood-Richmond Heights before she was hired: "She has done an outstanding job for us. I don't envision her being the principal -- certainly she is welcome to apply -- but from the responsibility she has been given as an assistant principal, she has done that and more."

Collins downplays the significance of the demonstration by students. "I think it's good that kids have an interest in their school and what goes on in their school," he says. "Something in the back of my mind says it was orchestrated by adults and not by children." He says he suspects it was "self-initiated by someone who ... intends to benefit from some civil action."

Smith has retained lawyer Kenneth Gibert, who successfully sued the Normandy School District last year on behalf of the high school's former ROTC instructor, Horace Humphries. The district recently agreed to pay Humphries $70,000 to settle the suit, which alleged he was wrongly terminated because the high school's principal suspected he had written an anonymous letter to the state's education commissioner [Higgins, "What About the Children?" RFT, May 2]. The letter made several accusations against Normandy principal Alvin Smith, claiming he had improper contact with female students, impregnated a former student and once struggled with a drug problem. Smith himself admitted he impregnated a former student early in his teaching career and that he had dealt with a substance-abuse problem.

Christopher Lawton contributed to this story.

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