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.

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."

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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