A MATTER OF PRINCIPAL
The outgoing senior-class president of Denver's Manual High School blames the principal for the fracas that marred the school's centennial graduation ceremonies on May 29. The principal blames the kid and the kid's mother. The media blames Kinshasa Sayers, the graduating senior who commandeered the microphone.
And meanwhile, Sayers says, the real issue--low graduation rates for black males--still isn't being addressed.
He'd wanted to discuss that problem when he grabbed the mike. "I have a right to speak at my own graduation," Sayers managed to say before being cut off by school officials. "Why are no black males speaking?"
Ten days later, that's still a difficult question to answer.
Senior-class president Ernest Jones, who also is black, claims principal Linda Bates Transou is using him as a scapegoat because he declined a last-minute offer to speak.
"Why would Transou and others misrepresent the events which preceded the graduation?" Ernest Jones asks in a letter delivered to metro newspapers last week. "I conclude that Transou did so because she recognized her error in failing to include a black male student speaker in the program. I conclude that she believed that she could remedy her public relations debacle by using me as her excuse for inaction."
Transou counters, "That's not the Ernie Jones I knew as a student here at Manual. That sounds like his mother."
From the start of this senior year, tensions had been simmering at Manual over the school's low expectations and high dropout rates for black students. Kinshasa Sayers says he got involved after a January walkout by black students, joining an advisory committee that Transou formed to identify the problem and find solutions.
"But it was just another committee, and nothing happened," he says.
Kinshasa and his father, Alfred Sayers, a vocal and active parent who attends most PTA and other school meetings with his wife and children, went public with their criticisms of Manual. The most glaring statistic: Only six black males out of an initial freshman class of 58 would graduate in May.
Transou contends that only four of those students dropped out. The others, she says, transferred to other schools or were seeking their GEDs elsewhere.
But the Sayers and Jones families point out that even if Transou's numbers are accurate, they don't reflect the students who transferred to another high school and dropped out once they got there.
According to Denver Public Schools statistics, Denver high schools lose as much as half of their student populations--of all races--before graduation, and minorities typically leave school in disproportionate numbers. The Jones/Sayers contingent argues that Manual, a school noted for its successful black male graduates (including the current mayors of Denver and Seattle) should be trying to find ways to keep kids in school rather than trying to find fault with the numbers.
"It's about having positive role models," says Margot Jones, Ernest's mother, who joined the graduation protest by wearing black tape over her mouth and circulating through the crowd with a sign reading "Black men denied a voice at Manual."
"If there's little kids in the audience, with all that's going on in the lives of young black men these days, they need to be told how to get through high school," she says, "even that they can get through high school. And one of these six or seven young men should have been the one to tell them."
If the graduation ceremonies had gone as originally planned, he would have been the one to do so, Ernest Jones says.
"I was asked by the graduation planning committee to give the welcoming remarks a month before the graduation," his letter states. "I willingly accepted this honor. About two weeks before the graduation, and only after I inquired of the student council teacher advisor, did I learn for the first time that I would not speak during the ceremony."
In the meantime, Kinshasa Sayers was one of thirteen students, and the only black male, who tried out to be a commencement speaker. He believes that the selection committee, composed of both students and teachers, didn't choose him because of his previous remarks about Manual's failures.
Transou says she had nothing to do with either Kinshasa's rejection or Ernest Jones being removed as a ceremony speaker. "I only okayed what others decided," she explains.
But eleven days before the graduation ceremony, the student council unanimously endorsed a proposal that Ernest Jones bring together the black male graduates and prepare a speech that would be delivered by one of them. Transou rejected the notion.
Transou claims she was told by another student that Ernest Jones's mother had shown up unannounced at the student council meeting and intimidated the other students into accepting "her" proposal. "She rammed it down their throats," the principal says.
According to Ernest Jones, though, a school counselor actually came up with the idea, and his mother, whom he had invited to the meeting, simply spoke in favor of it.
In any case, by now all black males were out as speakers. And a few days before graduation Kinshasa Sayers started telling classmates, including Jones, that he intended to speak at graduation by one means or another. Tensions mounted as the likelihood of a confrontation increased. At a meeting with the Manual principal, Margot Jones says Transou told her that if Kinshasa attempted to speak, "her black girls" would attack him.
"That's not what I said," Transou responds. "I said that some of the black seniors told me that they didn't want their graduation represented by Kinshasa. I told her that some of the girls had told me that he'd better not mess up their graduation."
Three days before graduation, Ernest Jones was contacted by a school administrator. "He stated with all the sarcasm and resentment that an adult could muster that I would be allowed to speak at graduation," Ernest remembers.
Jones declined the offer--in part, he says, because of the short notice, in part because "the school administrators had gotten themselves into this mess and only wanted me to get them out of it."
School officials persisted in their requests until Jones's father finally called and told them to leave his son alone.
Meanwhile, Alfred Sayers was calling the media to alert them that a protest led by his son would be part of the graduation ceremonies.
Kinshasa says the speech he planned was not meant to be divisive or to incite violence. "Yes, I had some things to say about how Manual had failed me and failed others," acknowledges Kinshasa, a B student who says he had to personally fight Manual's policy of discouraging blacks from taking challenging courses that prepare them for college.
"I wanted to tell other young blacks--everyone actually--that despite the [failings of the school], to hold on to their dreams and hopes...like I did. Education is the key. You don't see kids with high school diplomas doing drive-by shootings. And that says something."
But Kinshasa never got the chance to say much of anything. A fight broke out as he reached the podium; before it was over his brother was on his way to jail and many of the graduates were in tears. "I messed up graduation and apologized to my classmates," Kinshasa says. "But half the kids who attend Denver Public Schools aren't graduating. Who's apologizing for messing up their graduation ceremonies?"
Among those angry with Kinshasa Sayers was Ernest Jones, who was caught by the cameras when the fight broke out, screaming at his mother to drop her sign. "But I agree with what she did and what Kinshasa did," he says. "Someone needed to speak up. I was just upset about the violence."
The two graduates have spoken since, and like the lawyers they both say they intend to become, have agreed to disagree on tactics while agreeing on the importance of the issue.
Ernest Jones's anger is now focused on Transou and her insistence that his indecisiveness caused the confrontation. "It was not an opportunity to speak," he says of her offer. "It was an attempt to get herself out of trouble."
"There's a lot of lying going on," Transou replies. "This is an adult issue with kids stuck in between. Now I'm the target, when I wasn't the target before."
"She's a real strange authoritarian figure," Margot Jones says of Transou, "and this is a bigger problem than what happened at a graduation ceremony. She's not being real truthful. Ernie has always had exemplary behavior--he's not Kinshasa--but she turned on Ern, too. She's unbending, and in this case, unthinking. She can't even say she's sorry."
Ernest Jones admits he drafted the letter with his mother's help but says it reflects his feelings. "I hate this scrutiny," he writes. "I am only 17 years old and it is very confusing and painful to me. We are all at risk as long as even a few of us are not permitted to fully enjoy the opportunities of the public education system."
Kinshasa Sayers, too, is tired of the controversy. "If you talk to Transou," he says, "tell her that I want to work with her to find solutions.
"But first I think we need to agree that there is a problem.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.