Class Dismissed

Barnum Elementary struggles to understand Hillary Adams's last lesson.

"I was told to schedule some gifted-and-talented time for every child in the school," he says. "It's a nice thought, but an impossible one. I complained, but the principal gave it her blessings."
Smith already had his hands full with a "group of ten or twelve fifth-grade students who controlled the behavior at school," he says. "Anytime they felt like it, they challenged me, because they knew they could do it and win. If I sent them to the principal's office, nothing would happen to them."

Hillary Adams, too, wanted more support from Chavez. "I had to help her document certain discipline problems, because she was afraid she would not be believed," Smith says. "One of her kids exhibited particularly bizarre behavior--he hit other children and talked back, and finally actually urinated on another kid's jacket." When Adams sent him to the principal, "all that happened was his mom said it wouldn't happen again. This child had no respect for people or property, and Hillary wanted discipline and structure for him." Instead, Smith says, "the principal went right along with the parent and child, and against Hillary. We heard some more of, 'You have to understand, this child comes from a dysfunctional background.' We started to get a little tired of that."

Ever since April Crumley's son enrolled at Barnum six years ago, followed by her daughter one year later, she's made it her business to be a presence at school--volunteering, decorating the lunchroom for holidays and keeping the information-and-gossip hotline for parents humming. She's been both a joy and a pain to the Barnum staff, as she (and they) will readily tell you. "I've never been one to keep my mouth shut," Crumley declares. The year Judy Chavez became principal, Crumley did plenty of talking. "Before Mrs. Chavez," she says, "this school was more close-knit, more caring--there was more camaraderie."

Not that she planned to let a sudden chill keep her from her self-appointed rounds. Crumley carried on as president of the Barnum Association of Parents and Teachers. And then one night late in September 1992, she received a call from a concerned fifth-grade parent. "She said she thought the music teacher was a Satanist," Crumley recalls. "I guess she had done a Native American music thing with the kids. Naturally, I thought it was a ridiculous complaint."

The next day, Crumley says, she was horrified to hear that music teacher Andrea Lawrence had been placed on a three-week administrative leave while the charges were examined. "Another parent and I went to see Judy Chavez," she says. "We told her parents were complaining. And she told us it was none of our business."

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, parent Jenny Sullivan was just hearing the news from her eleven-year-old son, Ian. "We knew about the Indian musical theater thing," she says. "They lit a candle, and it was about Mother Earth and Sky. We had no problem with it. But our son was upset. He told us that a bunch of kids ganged up on the music teacher, that they were plotting against her. They all got together and said she was teaching them Satanic worship. My son was very sad about it."

Sullivan also dropped by Chavez's office to let her know she was happy to have her son learn about Native American beliefs. He missed his teacher and wanted her back, she told the principal. Chavez responded that Lawrence had been suspended "because of the safety issue, because she did light a candle," Sullivan remembers.

Three weeks later Lawrence was back at work. But by then, "she'd lost all respect from the kids," Sullivan says. "She was harassed for the rest of the year."

Andrea Lawrence is not teaching at Barnum this year, and doesn't want to talk about the school. "I've shut the door on Barnum," she says succinctly. "It was the most horrible year of my life."

"She didn't want to fight it," theorizes Jerry Smith. "Teachers want security. If you go against the principal, you don't get that." Smith speaks from firsthand knowledge. One morning last fall, he says, Chavez pulled him from his classroom and told him he'd been accused of abusing a child. "The mother had already called the police, and they had already called social services," Smith recalls. "I was charged with putting three small bruises on this child's arm during detention time." Smith--who says he never touched the boy, although he did take away his tray because "the child was terribly out of control" and about to throw it--was immediately placed on administrative leave for three and a half months. "We went all the way to court," he says, "and the prosecuting attorneys told the judge they did not think they could prove I had done this, and even if I were to confess to it, they could not prove I wasn't well within my rights to do so."
Smith returned to school. Two weeks later Chavez put an official reprimand in his permanent file. "She told me she had written this letter because she felt the child's charges were believable, even if the courts didn't," Smith says. "At the same time, she told me she wanted to support me any way she could. I have tried to figure that one out for hours and hours."

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