The Scarlet Letter

Someone penned an anonymous letter making damning allegations about Normandy High School principal Alvin Smith. He blames it on a disgruntled ex-employee out to take him down. Trouble is, some of the letter is true.

Jun 28, 2000 at 4:00 am
In six years as principal of Normandy High School, Alvin Smith says that he has earned a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense leader. His boss, Superintendent Raymond Armstrong, credits Smith for raising the school's graduation rate, increasing the involvement of parents and bringing "more accountability" to the teaching faculty and staff at the North St. Louis County high school.

The principal says it is that emphasis on accountability that prompted him to decide earlier this year not to renew the contract of Horace Humphries, a retired career military man who built the school's junior-ROTC program from scratch. Smith explains the personnel decision by saying the two men repeatedly clashed on things like study-hall duties, lesson plans, missing computers and a student field trip to Six Flags. "He just did things as he pleased," Smith says. "There was insubordination, a continuing refusal to abide by procedures."

Humphries, who had overseen the school's ROTC program since 1993, received official notice in April that his services were no longer needed at Normandy High. His contract, he was told, would not be renewed for the 2000-01 school year, and his $52,000-a-year position would end when classes wrapped up in June.

Smith's decision, however, has become far more than a routine personnel matter. It has spawned a federal lawsuit alleging that Humphries was wrongfully terminated, but, more important, the lawsuit has placed in the public record some troubling facts about the 53-year-old principal that were not widely known in the halls of Normandy High -- or to the parents of the school's students.

The lawsuit, filed April 28 in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, alleges that Humphries' termination had nothing to do with his performance or the ROTC program. Instead, Humphries alleges, Smith retaliated against him because Smith believed the ROTC director had penned an anonymous letter that made damning allegations about the principal's past and present behavior toward female students. Humphries denies writing the letter.

Whoever did write it mailed the typewritten four-page missive to the office of the state's education commissioner last fall. The letter made one harsh accusation after another about Alvin Smith -- that he impregnated a high-school student early in his teaching career, that he was "released" from an assistant-principal job in another school district after struggling with a cocaine problem and that he was more recently accused of improper comments, or contact, with two female students at Normandy High. The letter also claimed Smith is a "womanizer" who had an affair with an assistant principal on staff.

The letter was reviewed by Missouri Education Commissioner Robert Bartman, who is scheduled to retire later this month. He interpreted the allegations as "serious." So did Superintendent Armstrong, who hired a law firm to probe the letter's claims.

But the law firm's brief two-week probe, which was handled by a paralegal, never came close to proving or disproving any of the allegations. To some, the paralegal's inquiry appeared to focus less on finding the truth than on finding out who wrote the letter. But although the probe was inconclusive, Smith himself tells The Riverfront Times that several of the letter's allegations are true: He did, for instance, impregnate a high-school senior in 1979, while he was working as a gym teacher at a city public high school, and he underwent a yearlong treatment for a "substance"-abuse problem in the early '90s.

Despite the revelation of these details of Smith's past, the matter appears largely closed for the Normandy School District. The district's law firm concluded the letter's claims were "unsubstantiated" after failing to make contact with the two girls named in the letter. No action was taken against Smith. Today, school-board members decline to discuss the subject, and the superintendent sings Smith's praises.

"He is meeting all of our expectations as principal of Normandy High School," Armstrong says. "We have confidence in him, and he has done an exemplary job. I have the highest respect for him as an administrator and certainly as a person who provides excellent leadership for 1,250 kids."

"Is the matter closed and finished and done with?" Armstrong won't say for sure. "We've discussed it," he says.

The federal lawsuit, however, appears poised to rip the matter open again and delve publicly into the accusations in excruciating detail. Kenneth Gibert, a St. Louis attorney who represents the ROTC instructor, says the Normandy School District conducted little more than a "sham" investigation and turned a blind eye on someone whose own admissions raise fundamental questions about whether he ought to head a high school where he has authority over hundreds of teenage girls.

"No one seems to care," Gibert says. "It's like calling out into the void. In the administrative hallways, it seems to be no concern at all. We'd like Smith to face the music he deserves to hear. Or we'd like it to be proven that he is innocent. One way or another, it would be nice if Alvin Smith was resolved as a problem and we could know those girls are safe. That's a major concern to my client."

That's not his only concern: Humphries wants his job back -- and he wants an unspecified amount of monetary damages.

The letter arrived in late October or early November at Bartman's Jefferson City office. As the state's education commissioner, Bartman serves as chief executive officer of the state Board of Education. It grabbed his attention.

The rambling unsigned letter asked Bartman to investigate a series of allegations involving the Normandy principal. It contained names and dates and case numbers of court files -- such as the 1995 paternity action involving a child Smith fathered by a student in 1979. The letter claimed Smith was "released" from an assistant-principal job at Jennings High School in the early 1990s as a result of a drug problem and underwent a lengthy drug rehab. It described two complaints against Smith by female students from 1997-99. One girl, the letter claimed, complained to a secretary that she felt uncomfortable when she walked by Alvin Smith's office and that he would call her in and "go on about how she should wear her hair, dress, and stop by to see him." It claimed another girl accused Smith of attempting to fondle her breast, that her complaint was the subject of a meeting involving higher-ups in the district and that her complaint was dismissed "because of her previous discipline record." The letter also claimed Smith was a "womanizer" who had an affair with an assistant principal on the staff.

The letter demanded that Bartman take some action. "This person has become a disruptive force not only among his staff but among some of the female students as well," the author wrote. "We expect that these facts will motivate you to eliminate this germ so that teachers and students can concentrate their efforts toward the learning and educational goals that should and can be met on this high school campus."

Bartman says that after reading the letter, he consulted with his department's legal staff to determine what, if anything, should be done. "We don't get a lot of those," he says. "It was a set of allegations by an anonymous person. It's fairly rare." What he was told was that even if the allegations were proved true, there was nothing his office could do at the state level -- without a formal request from the Normandy School Board. The state Board of Education can initiate the revocation of a teaching certificate only when a teacher or administrator is convicted of a felony or crime involving moral turpitude.

"Our responsibility is narrowly defined," Bartman says. "Our judgment, after our lawyers looked at it, was there was no cause for independent action. That doesn't keep a local board of education from bringing independent charges. Nothing bars the local board of education from reviewing the case and deciding that there is enough truth to the allegations and the allegations are of substantial negative impact on the program ... they could bring charges to the state Board of Education and prosecute their claim."

Bartman forwarded the letter to Normandy's superintendent and Board of Education. Armstrong says that when he was notified of the letter, he contacted the school district's law firm, Crotzer & Ford.

"These are some serious charges, and they are some serious allegations, and we did refer them to our legal counsel," Armstrong says, although he declines to discuss the letter in detail. "They are allegations. We are dealing with people's careers."

Attorney Darold Crotzer says he was asked to conduct an investigation in early November. He assigned it to a paralegal, saying she was "trained to do it" and had served as a school-board member in the Ferguson-Florissant School District. "The point of the investigation was whether or not one of our employees had violated the rules," Crotzer says, and having his firm conduct the investigation was "a normal thing to do.

"If you have a principal accused of something, you usually don't investigate it in-house," Crotzer says. Missouri law also requires that any school employee report any abuse or neglect if he or she has a "reasonable suspicion" that it occurred. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor.

Cindy Reeds Ormsby, Crotzer's paralegal, says she began questioning those named in the letter, including Smith, an assistant principal, a secretary who supposedly had information and the former director of secondary education for the Normandy School District -- who, the letter writer claimed, had been present at a meeting to discuss the fondling allegation. Ormsby says she talked to "eight or 10 people" over the course of two weeks.

Her probe was limited, however. She was told not to delve into the older claims involving the student Smith was alleged to have impregnated in 1979, or his drug problem. "The school district was aware of Mr. Smith's drug abuse and his rehab when they hired him, and they hired him with the intent of giving him another chance, so that wasn't of any concern of theirs at all," Ormsby says. As for the student's pregnancy in 1979, she says, "They had already talked to Mr. Smith about that and got the facts around that, and they were satisfied with his response and he was forthright about the facts behind that."

Ormsby says she investigated the allegation that Smith had an affair with assistant principal Gina Bell-Moore by talking with both parties. Both denied the allegation. Ormsby also spoke with a secretary who, the letter writer claimed, had noticed that Bell-Moore was spending inordinately long periods of time in Smith's office. The secretary denied noticing anything of the kind.

The paralegal says she placed phone calls to both girls identified in the letter, one of whom is still a student at Normandy and one who is not. "I was never able to reach them after many phone calls. I left numerous messages with people," Ormsby says, but no one called her back. She says she did not want to question the girl who is still a student at Normandy without a parent or guardian's permission.

Ormsby also spoke to Normandy's former director of secondary education to determine whether the meeting described in the letter, involving the girl who claimed Smith tried to fondle her breast, took place. "He said there was absolutely no truth to the allegations being made," Ormsby says.

She concluded the allegations were "unsubstantiated." She prepared a report for the superintendent on Nov. 12.

Armstrong says he forwarded Ormsby's memo to members of the board but declined to go into detail about how the report was handled, saying personnel matters are "closed matters." Neither Ormsby nor Crotzer ever met with the school board to discuss it, but Armstrong says he discussed the matter with the board -- though he will not say when.

Smith has continued in the top post at Normandy High, and Armstrong praises his work, describing him as an "outstanding leader" who, he hopes, has helped move the school district closer to becoming fully accredited.

"We have more parental involvement that we've ever had. Our graduation rate has increased. Mr. Smith has expanded the use of technology and access to technology at Normandy. We have more accountability built into our high school when it comes to our staff, more than we've ever had," Armstrong says.

And all those issues are critical in a district like Normandy, a district in North County that serves more than 3,200 students annually and employs nearly 400 people. The school district received only "provisional" accreditation from the state when it was last reviewed in 1995-96. It is due for another in-depth review in the fall.

Around the same time as Ormsby's inquiry, Horace Humphries says, he began hearing from other teachers that Smith suspected him of writing the letter. Humphries is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who joined the staff of Normandy High School in the summer of 1993. He served 27 years in the military, his last post as the director of security and intelligence at Scott Air Force Base. As director of Normandy's junior-ROTC program, he worked with two noncommissioned officers, teaching an estimated 200 students each year.

Normandy's ROTC program is funded partly by the school and partly by the Air Force, which split the cost of Humphries' annual salary. But it falls under the realm of the school district, which has the sole authority to terminate Humphries' employment. Humphries says he has seen the benefits of junior ROTC in the lives of teenagers: "I'm always seeing parents come up to me and saying, 'Thank you for saving my kid.' When kids come into the program in September, we teach discipline the first couple of days. They say, 'I want to get out.' Then, after they get the kick of it, three weeks later, you can't run them out. Kids tend to want discipline, believe it or not. There is no doubt in my mind that junior-ROTC programs are making better citizens."

Humphries says that when he was initially hired, the school had a different principal, the district a different superintendent. After Alvin Smith was hired, Humphries says, the two men repeatedly clashed, but he says his job appeared secure, and the assistant principal assigned to do his performance reviews repeatedly gave him favorable reviews on his classroom abilities -- something even the principal acknowledges. That all changed last year, Humphries says, after the assistant principal retired and after word of the letter leaked out among the faculty at Normandy High. Teachers began telling Humphries that Smith suspected he was the mysterious author.

In December, weeks after the letter surfaced, Humphries says he received an unsatisfactory performance review from Smith. By January, he had begun getting repeated letters from the principal criticizing his performance for things like talking on the telephone after the school bell rang -- even though Humphries says he was speaking with a parent. To Humphries, it was a sign the principal was "building a file" in order to terminate him. He hired a lawyer. In April, Humphries was notified the school would not be renewing his contract for the 2000-01 school year.

Humphries flatly denies authoring the letter -- he says much of its contents came as a surprise to him. But he does say that after he was told he was the suspected author, he put the word out that he wanted a copy. He says the letter arrived by the mail, and he gave it to his lawyer. "I told (Gibert), 'Let's look into this thing and find out who did it."

The letter was no secret at Normandy High, at least among the staff. Jack Tevlin, a teacher and union representative, says word quickly spread. "We're not in a vacuum. We understand the letter was sent to a variety of sources. We've known Alvin a few years, and my exposure to him is pretty limited to that, and in that period of time, there is no indicator of any of that being true. I don't know of any of that -- if it is true. Who knows? In this day and age, you hear a lot of things about a lot of people."

"As far as I know, it was all rumor and innuendo and stuff, and to my knowledge, it still is," Tevlin says.

The letter, in fact, contained more than rumor or innuendo. Although some of the allegations in the letter fall into a gray area and may never be irrefutably proved true or false, other allegations, by Alvin Smith's own admission, are true.

In 1979, while a gym teacher at Northwest High School in the city of St. Louis, Smith admits, he impregnated a girl who was then a high-school senior. He says he isn't sure how old the girl was at the time of his relationship with her; the letter suggested she was 17 when she became pregnant, though a birthdate provided by the letter's author suggests she was 18. Smith, who says he was separated from his wife at the time, was in his early 30s.

He says it wasn't as bad as it sounds. He says the girl told him she was a 19-year-old college student at Harris-Stowe State College when they began their relationship -- and he maintains that he did not realize otherwise until she appeared in Northwest's gymnasium one day, attending a class taught by the other gym teacher on staff. "When she came into class in the middle of the semester, I was surprised to see her. If she was there earlier in the semester, I never knew it. We terminated the relationship at that time," he says. "I didn't know how old she was, but seeing as she was a student there, I had to cut it off."

Fifteen years later, he adds, the girl sued him for paternity and child support; until then, Smith says, he had been unaware he had a daughter with her. A blood test proved the woman's child was in fact his daughter, and Smith says he continues to pay child support. His daughter was a student at Normandy High a few years ago -- while Smith was principal. "I knew it would look bad," he says, "but I didn't want to disturb things. Then she transferred out."

Smith also concedes that he had a "substance"-abuse problem in the early 1990s -- though he will not say what that substance was. He worked as an assistant principal at Jennings High School from 1987-91, then left that job and entered a yearlong treatment program at a "spiritual recovery center" in Pennsylvania.

He says his substance-abuse problem stemmed from his divorce but that he returned from Pennsylvania a changed man. "I came back rejuvenated," Smith says, adding that he told the Normandy district about his problem before he was hired in 1993. "They checked my background. I was honest and straightforward."

One claim in the anonymous letter was flatly disproved. It alleged Smith was the subject of an adult-abuse complaint in the city -- but it actually involved another Alvin Smith. Other allegations are more difficult to sort through. Though the paralegal who was assigned to investigate the letter's claims says she was unable to contact the two girls named in the letter, or their parents, they were both easily reached by the The Riverfront Times. Both families say they were never contacted by Ormsby or anyone representing the school district.

The mother of one of the girls named in the letter would not discuss Alvin Smith, other than to say she had not been contacted by the district and to say her unwillingness to talk was the result of advice from her attorney. But Smith himself confirmed he had, at one point, been accused of molesting the girl but that the accusation was made during a disciplinary action against the girl and the allegation was quickly withdrawn. "There once was a parent who said, 'If you suspend my daughter, I'm going to claim you sexually molested her.' I called for a meeting with the lady and the child and her ex-husband, and the child was asked. She said, 'Mom, I told you that man never touched me.' It was in front of witnesses, and that was that."

David Hoefakker, who now works for the Ritenour School District, was employed by the Normandy School District as director of secondary education until two years ago. He agrees that an allegation was made. But during a meeting with the girl's mother and father about disciplinary action and the girl's claims, the father said, "This is not true, and we will deal with it." Hoefakker says the matter was closed. "Nothing was found to be in the least bit true in the allegations that were made."

As for the other girl named in the letter, school employees and the girl's aunt verified that she had previously complained to them about Alvin Smith's comments to her. The letter claimed the girl had spoken to a ninth-grade secretary about Smith -- confiding that Smith "would go on about how she should wear her hair, dress and stop by to see him." It claimed she felt uncomfortable around him and that she "did everything she could to avoid him."

The ninth-grade secretary says that conversation did occur last year, after the girl, a sophomore, had gone to assistant principal Gina Bell-Moore to complain. The girl told her that Smith "talked about how cute her hair was and she was and all of that kind of stuff, and she came and she said she was afraid of him. She didn't like to be around him." And the girl was upset because Bell-Moore had apparently brushed off her concerns, the ninth-grade secretary says. Later, after the letter surfaced, the secretary says, she was grilled by Smith and questioned by the paralegal. "Mr. Smith actually asked what she told me and what was her name, and I got kind of upset and I said, 'You know what her name is.'" He also demanded that she tell him who wrote the letter.

Another secretary at the school, who did not want to be identified, remembers that the girl was "real upset. She said (Smith) picked on her for no reason and she thought he liked her."

The girl's aunt, who is her legal guardian, confirmed that her niece had complained to her about the principal's behavior. "She said he would have her come into his office and said she would look nice in a short skirt," the aunt says. "He would pick her out of a group of people, saying, 'You tall and nice-looking,' and little stuff like that." The aunt, however, says her niece didn't want her to pursue the matter. "She was like, don't really say nothing to make it harder on her. Lately, I guess, he hasn't been messing with her. He left her alone."

Smith vehemently denied ever making any comments to the girl. After being asked about the incident by the RFT and told of the aunt's comments, he had Bell-Moore call the girl into her office and question her. Though Ormsby, the paralegal, had expressed concerns about questioning the girl without her guardian's consent, Smith apparently did not share those concerns. "She said she didn't say that," Smith says Bell-Moore told him. "But she said that a lot of people were calling her house trying to get her to say something about me like that. She said she told them no."

The assistant principal, Bell-Moore, would not discuss her conversation with the girl -- or anything else about the letter: "I've been advised by my legal counsel not to make any comment. That's all I am going to state."

The letter and its contents might have been put to rest entirely in November, given the school district's handing of the matter, if not for Smith's decision to terminate Humphries' employment. Now the letter is a central issue in a federal lawsuit.

The suit does more than question whether Humphries was wrongly terminated. It questions Smith's fitness as a principal, and it questions the behavior of his supervisors, including the school board, in investigating the allegations -- or failing to do so.

The lawsuit accuses the district of conducting a "sham investigation" that was intended to whitewash the wrongdoing of Alvin Smith -- and it accuses the district of negligence for hiring a "sex offender" and failing to take corrective action for incidences of sexual harassment.

It raises questions about how the investigation was conducted, claiming that Ormsby, the paralegal, allowed herself to be introduced to school employees by Smith as "his lawyer." She denies it. And the lawsuit claims the focus of her probe was not on discovering whether the misconduct allegations were true but on discovering the identity of the mysterious author.

It also charges that the issues raised in the letter, whoever wrote it, were "for the public benefit concerning issues of public interest regarding whether Alvin Smith was a sexual predator placed by the defendant School Board in a position of authority over young and vulnerable female school children."

It seeks any wages lost by Humphries as a result of his contract's being terminated, plus unspecified damages for emotional distress, humiliation and embarrassment. Gibert, Humphries' lawyer, disputes Smith's claims about his client's job performance, though he acknowledges his performance record is not "pristine" because Smith has been after him for some time.

Humphries says he wants his job back. And, he adds, "I'd like some compensation for what's been done."

Crotzer, the school district's lawyer, says another law firm -- Mickes, Tueth, Keeney, Cooper, Mohan & Jackstadt -- has been hired to defend the school district in the lawsuit. But he says he is confident the district will prevail. "Once it is tried, I believe it will be found that there was no foundation for the complaints in the anonymous letter and no connection between the anonymous letter and the discipline taken against Mr. Humphries."

What the Normandy School Board members think of all this isn't known, at least publicly, because for the most part, those contacted by the RFT would say little, if anything, about Smith or the letter. "We've been advised not to talk about it to anyone," says board member Irene Fowler.

"We were asked not to talk about it," says board member Frank Days.

"I don't know anything. I'm pretty sure they were investigated," says board member Esther Haywood, adding that she was not a board member when Smith was hired. "I really can't remember who, what or when. When you get to my age.... But it sounds like somebody is into something they don't know what they are talking about." Contacted a second time, Haywood says she has the "memory of an elephant, but I like to be right when I say something about somebody, and I don't have the details."

Board President Joe Collins refers questions about Smith to Crotzer, though he does say -- contrary to Ormsby's assertion -- that the board "was not aware of him fathering a child by anyone."

Missouri law largely leaves it up to local school boards to handle personnel matters involving teachers and school administrators. Several states have so-called position-of-trust laws that make it illegal for a teacher to engage in a sexual relationship with a student, even if that student is 17, beyond the age of consent. Missouri has no such law, and until two years ago, the state didn't even require criminal-background checks of its teachers.

Gary Jones, director of professional conduct and investigations for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, says awareness has increased since then and that the lack of such a law hasn't stopped the state from pursuing disciplinary cases against teachers who engage in inappropriate relationships with students, even if they are 17 or 18 at the time -- cases that can result in a teaching certificate's being revoked. But the case must first be referred by a local school district before his office can get involved.

"We have that area covered, but it depends on the local school district," Jones says. "We have a moral-turpitude referral, so even though a teacher may be having a relationship with a student who is a junior or senior, 17 or 18, even though that may not be technically against the law, the school district may find out and find that is a violation of trust, and they can refer the case to us that way."

Dewey Riehn, director of the out-of-home investigative unit for the Missouri Division of Family Services, agrees allegations against teachers fall into a gray area. School personnel are mandated by law to report any abuse when they have a "reasonable suspicion" that it occurred -- but reasonable suspicion to one person may be something else to another, he says. "It's open to interpretation."

Bartman, the education commissioner, says it is up to local districts to set codes of conducts for their teachers -- and to determine when a teacher's actions have violated that code. "That's a judgment they make themselves and (voters) have got a local board of education elected by the district to represent them on education matters." If the citizens of a particular school district are satisfied with how a school board handles allegations involving a teacher, he says, "they probably will not vote those members out."

Smith is hoping that neither the letter nor the lawsuit affects his career. He wants others to view it all as the product "of a disgruntled employee out to take me down." But he is worried. "It's reliving a nightmare. I've gone through a lot before, and God has pulled me out of things like this. And I guess he says he can forgive you, but that doesn't mean you don't have to deal with the consequences of some things."

The principal is getting no sympathy from Horace Humphries, who continues to deny he authored the letter -- or even knowing who did.

"Alvin Smith feels himself drowning and feels he has to cloud the issue, and he's doing everything he can to trash Horace Humphries," Humphries says. "He has admitted whatever is in that letter. He has admitted to it and that's it, that's the name of the game."