Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How time changes things

This story goes back 17  years or so, to the time when my children either were enrolled or getting ready to enroll in grade school.  Now we had recently moved into the neighborhood of View Ridge, so our children could attend what was regarded as one of the better public elementary schools in Seattle.  At least that was what we thought when we sold the house in Wallingford, and decamped for View Ridge.  Once things got going a year later in 1990, we discovered that what was supposed to have been a paradise of learning was actually a battleground between the principal, the teachers, and the parents. 

The principal, Teo C., seemed to be unfit for the job.  His academic or teaching credentials were negligible as far as I could learn.  However, he did distinguish himself in the way he dressed and behaved.  He wore a mullet and liked to wear strikingly inappropriate outfits like the black and white houndstooth cuffed shorts and jacket with white knee socks or the tight leather pants with a matching leather jacket.  His favorite pasttime at the school was directing the school buses in the morning and afternoon.  He wasn't much interested in classroom performance.  Instead, what I remember of his management skills is that he would approach one of the teachers and tell him that certain parents had it out for that teacher, but not to worry, he would protect him.  He also would tell parents of prospective students from the neighborhood, who were visiting the school, that they wouldn't like it at View Ridge and should seek another elementary school.  There were a number of other serious grievances, but with the passage of time, I have thankfully forgotten them.  The files are in my garage and I can resurrect them, if more specificity is required, with a half day's notice.

As more and more neighborhood kids dropped out or didn't enroll, students from the south end would be bused up to View Ridge.  These were students who had been suspended or expelled from their home schools for disciplinary issues or late matriculating students whose parents hadn't enrolled them on time to be assigned to a school closer to their home.  What this meant in practice was that these students' parents were not involved in their education--they never showed up for curriculum night, and many never came when contacted by the administration about serious behavioral or academic concerns.  Some of these out of district students were making attending the school unsafe for the neighborhood kids, and we, the parents fromView Ridge, were worried.  Academic scores were plummeting and morale was very low.

I was vice president of the View Ridge PTA in 1993, and together with the other PTA officers, we convened a group of concerned parents to talk about the situation.  We met off site and discussed our problems for several hours.  Based upon our discussion, another attorney parent and myself drafted a letter to the Seattle Board detailing the numerous significant problems and shortcomings of this principal.  Ultimately, the letter was signed by over 100 families.  From our meeting and through talking with other parents as part of the drafting process, it turned out that there had been many letters written to the Seattle Superintendent or the School Board about this principal over the 7 years he was at the school, but as they were sent in individually, they were not given much or any attention.  We thought that by creating a large turnout of parents, the Seattle School District would do something after they'd received the group letter.


The District did bend enough to set up a meeting with a designated number of parents--we met with an assistant Superintendent.  She professed surprise that there were problems with our elementary school.  And then she promised to put the principal on double super secret probation which meant that, if he did not live up to the probationary terms, something would be done the next year.  "Next year?"  someone exclaimed, "This has been going on for seven years!"  Ah, she responded, but this was the first that the School District had really heard about it, and the principal, through his union, had rights (note I am normally a big fan of unions.  Here, not so much).  We, the concerned parents, were watching the elementary school hemorrhage good students, good parents, and even good teachers for the past seven years and these yahoos counseled patience?  I finally raised my hand and asked, "What would it take to get rid of him right now."  Oh, the Assistant Superintendent replied, it would have to be something very serious, like a sexual misbehavior sort of thing.

Oh really?  We had heard rumors through the grapevine that the principal had been quite chummy with the school secretary.  Both were married to others.  And in fact we had heard that something had happened with them that had involved the  police.  But other parents who had been there longer than I had, had reported that after searching the Seattle police files, nothing was found.  Now I was working for the federal government at the time and not acquainted with either the Seattle police records or the state court system, but a friend and fellow attorney who was a partner in a small Seattle maritime firm pointed me in the right direction for local research.  I went down to the Seattle courthouse and looked through a bunch of records.  Nothing turned up.  Then the light bulb turned on.  What if it was in King County and not in Seattle?  Bingo!  An expanded records search turned a plea bargain up in Shoreline District Court, north of Seattle in King County.  Three years previous, the principal and the school secretary had given an Alford plea to charges of public indecency! 

I got a copy of the court record documenting the charge and the plea, helpfully obtained from the Shoreline court by another elementary school parent who could drive up there during the work hours, and called  the Assistant Superintendent to inform her, that playing by the School District's rules, it looked like we had fulfilled their requirements for obtaining a new principal.  This search had taken from May to August and it was a week or so before school was going to start.  I told her that we had a copy of the pleas, and that if something was not done about the principal, we were going to go to the press. 

The next day, I went to view the police record and criminal citation,which would have given me the facts surrounding the charge.  They were gone.  The School District had checked them out and I was told that there were no copies and they couldn't possibly know when they would be back.  So I returned to the King County Superior Court records and discovered that the wife of the principal had sued him for divorce following this incident.  And that the divorce record had not been sealed by the judge.   And that in the plea for divorce the ex-wife had helpfully attached copies of the police report and criminal citations to her petition, plus a declaration that he had forced her to work at the bar he owned while she was pregnant with their child.   I spent a lot of time and quarters copying that file.  But I had the information on the circumstances surrounding the citation. It involved one of the principal's several Corvettes, the school secretary, and a not so private parking place next to the golf course that is east of  I-5 by 135th Avenue NE.  It seems that a resident of the neighborhood saw the two of them going at it in the Corvette, and phoned the police, who showed up and caught them in flagrante delicto (a hand job) and issued  the criminal citations.  I then informed the School District that we had the full record behind the plea to the indecent exposure citations of the two of them. The principal was removed the Thursday before school started the next week.

It was a wild and woolly time.  After he was removed from View Ridge,  the principal was assigned to a middle school.  I called up a friend of mine who had several children at that middle school and informed him of the circumstances surrounding Teo's ouster from View Ridge.  My friend lodged a complaint and got parents involved and the prinicipal disappeared from that school as well.   I lost track of him at that point.

Which was fine, because View Ridge prospered after his departure. The new prinicipals appointed in his stead helped bring back the neighborhood focus, and the morale of the staff, students and parents as well as test scores, all went up.  I have terrifically fond memories of one of them--Mr. Brown, the first permanent principal successor, who would hold weekly school assemblies with the kids in the lunchroom/auditorium, where he'd ask the kids, "How you feeling?"  And the students would yell back, "I feel good, G-O-O-D, good.  HUNH!!"  And at one point the school received a major donation from the Gates Foundation, because a savvy parent who discovered that Bill Gates had attended View Ridge many years ago, and had used that as the basis for a successful appeal for a sizeable grant.  Teachers and parents were working together to make a better school.  Things were good, G-O-O-D,  good. HUNH!!!

In retrospect I really would have preferred that the School District remove the first principal for reasons that went to the substance of his performance as principal, rather than the questionable ethical behavior.  It was not a fun thing to have to dig up and present.  There seemed to be enough issues that were immediate reasons for firing if not reassignment.  But the School District set the rules.  So we were forced to play by them. And the facts that fit into their rules were out there, if one was diligent enough. 

Several weeks ago I discovered that this fellow is still working for the Seattle School District, and probably has through all this time.  I saw his name and photograph in an article in the Bar News, which is the monthly publication of the Washington Bar Association.  According to the article I read, the former principal is teaching high school students, and getting them involved in careers in the law.  He's doing a good job of it per the article.  Got a special mention for his work.

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