by Mary Cashiola
Last year at East High School was not pretty. It began when the school was put on Tennessee's low-performing schools list, a startling blow to one of the district's optional schools. Then came allegations that students spent the first few weeks of school sitting in the auditorium because their schedules were wrong. Then there were complaints about a lack of textbooks.
Then the questions and concerns seemed to dissipate for a while. East moved out of the spotlight as the Memphis City Schools (MCS) board tackled the task of raising students' test scores systemwide. But problems at East soon erupted again. Allegations surfaced that a student had been locked in a closet and that another student had hurt himself in gym class and did not receive appropriate medical treatment.
In June, when a report on the situation at East revealed no wrongdoing by the school administration, a storm of parental commotion began. There were serious problems at East, the parents alleged, and they weren't going to sit idly by while the district did nothing. Prominent in the complaints were negative assertions about the performance of then-Principal Dr. Oscar Love.
Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson ordered an investigation into the allegations to be released later this month. He hopes that will be the final word. Adding fuel to the controversy was Love's transfer to Raleigh-Egypt High School, where parents immediately began protesting his appointment.
Love, by most accounts a take-no-prisoners military man, came to East in August 2001. He was charged with fixing the school's financial and educational shortcomings.
"I thought then he was the best man for the job," says Watson. "I think now he's the best man for the job at Raleigh-Egypt."
Watson handpicked Love to lead East because of his success as an administrator at vocational schools. But after only a year at East, Love requested a transfer to another school. Watson reassigned him to Raleigh-Egypt.
In both instances, Watson appointed Love instead of taking the recommendation of the schools' site-based management councils, a fact that has angered many parents. MCS adopted its site-based management policy in 1993. The thinking was that decisions should be made as close to the point of implementation as possible and that schools belong to the community in which they're located. As such, a school-governance council consisting of students, parents, staff, community representatives, and the principal was supposed to approve things such as school policies and the budget. The council was also supposed to participate in the selection and evaluation of the principal. But the policy was not meant to grant the school community total control or diminish the authority of the central administration.
Last fall, the board started hearing about East's problems with student schedules. The board was told that complications with WinSchool, the district's new system for student information, combined with administrative turnover, were to blame.
"I thought things had really gotten better," says board of education commissioner Sara Lewis. "I really did. Some time after the first semester, some of the calls and complaints sort of slacked off."
At first, the pains at East were generally ascribed to a breaking-in period. Along with the former principal, four assistant principals had left East the previous year, meaning almost the entire administration was new. The hope was that the new administration and the community would adapt to each other.
But in the spring, the calls began again. Love was criticized for not being sensitive to the parents and teachers at the school.
"I thought they were settling in," says Lewis. "I did not realize that it was the calm before the storm. It's a storm now."
Spearheading the parents' efforts was Reverend James Robinson, a father of nine and a man who knows how to command attention. Robinson was profiled in a 1997 Flyer cover story in connection with manipulating the city's public-housing system for his own gain. In July, he held a meeting for the Binghamton community and the parents of East to "hear and document problems that exist at East."
He had been documenting these problems for months. The MCS board allows a period at each meeting for citizens' comments in which speakers get three minutes. Commissioners will not respond directly to any concern but might ask that the superintendent or someone on the staff look into the matter. Or they might do nothing.
Robinson, who keeps a red binder he calls "the Johnnie Watson book," began going before the board in October 2001. But feeling as if he were "talking to the air," he says, he reorganized the Binghamton meeting to allow a dialogue between the parents, the community, and several of the commissioners.
"If you've got a complaint and you go to the board and you tell them your complaint," says Robinson, "they don't say anything back to you. ... It's like they're saying, 'We gave these people an opportunity to speak to us,' and that's it. It's condescending."
Four school-board members attended the Binghamton meeting at Early Grove Baptist Church: Lora Jobe, Patrice Robinson, Wanda Halbert, and Sara Lewis. Jobe is the board's District 5 representative, which includes East. Patrice Robinson's son attends East, and Lewis and Halbert were there in their roles as at-large board members.
The meeting was an emotional one. Some of the parents had no problems with East but had simply heard about the meeting and were concerned enough to come. Others came with long-standing issues, such as the woman who said her child had been told by the principal that he didn't care if she lived or died. Each speaker was given as much time as they needed, and halfway through, there was a victory of sorts: To much clapping and cheering, Lewis read a letter from the superintendent saying that Love was being transferred.
Jeretha Williams, a parent whose son was injured at East, was one of the citizens with something to say. After initially crying in the parking lot and sending someone in to speak for her, she was slowly cajoled to the microphone, still crying. Williams said her 14-year-old son Christopher had been injured during gym class when he fell and his thigh muscle was separated from his pelvis. Because the injury was not deemed to be life-threatening, an ambulance was not called. Instead, Christopher lay on the ground for the class period until his father came to get him.
East had not followed the directions she had instructed on Christopher's emergency card and none of the staff helped her son after he was injured, she says. Two other students helped him walk to the car and get inside.
"Every time the car would hit a bump, he would scream. Every time he would move, he would scream," she says. "They didn't treat him right." But in a district investigation into the allegations concerning East, it was determined that the staff and the administration had taken the appropriate action in dealing with the situation. Several other allegations were also investigated and discussed in the report; most were deemed untrue.
The most shocking allegation was that a disorderly student was placed in a closet during class time by his teacher. The staff's report said that investigations of the physical space revealed an office with windows where students were sometimes placed for time-outs. It also said that statements from the teacher and the students, including the student "whose parents alleged his placement in the closet," did not support the story.
"The kind of information that's in that response was erroneous," says Robinson. "[Director of Zone 2 schools] Dr. [Ric] Potts says the little boy was not put in a closet. I submit to you that it doesn't matter whether it was a closet or the auditorium or if it was the gymnasium. When you take one child out of a class of instruction and put that child for the entire period for the majority of the semester without a teacher, you've violated his civil rights."
Emotional scenes became commonplace. Nasty rumors and theories abounded as to what was really at the root of the problem, including that the superintendent's executive staff was lying to protect their jobs, that Commissioner Lewis' personal friendship with Robinson influenced the situation (she is a godparent to his children), or that the parents were just angry and causing a fuss because the site-based management committee's recommendation for principal had been passed over.
But then, at a board meeting in mid-July, Watson acknowledged that the student had been somewhere other than his classroom.
"There's a question of credibility here," says Robinson. "You've got to decide: Are the parents lying or is the administrative staff lying to the board?"
Robinson, when asked about his own credibility, sounds annoyed and says it is what it is. The fact remains, however, that Love's reputation has been sullied and that, while the situation lingers on in murky investigative limbo, the credibility of some of the district's top-ranking staff has also been undermined.
"The first thing was that it was denied," says Lewis. "The report said it didn't happen, but then in one of the board meetings, the superintendent said it did. [The boy] was put somewhere. I don't know where he was put because I haven't seen it, but ... that gives you another spin on the whole thing. I had to rethink the whole thing."
On one side, the district's staff said there was nothing amiss. On the other, parents were literally wailing in front of the board, insisting that the boy had been locked in a windowless closet and that he had to urinate in a cup.
"I think the parents at East realized that if you make enough noise," says Halbert, "you can get a lot of attention. They committed themselves to making noise until the board and the superintendent realized they were serious."
But why the need to commit themselves to making that much noise? Were their claims legitimate or overblown? How could two groups disagree so wholly as to what had happened? Was it a personal vendetta against Love?
"I don't know," says Lewis. "There were too many parents from too broad a spectrum. Zorina Bowen, she's a researcher at the University of Tennessee. She's the president of the PTA. I don't know why she'd be out to get [Dr. Love]."
Halbert, Jobe, and Patrice Robinson agree with Lewis that everything alleged was probably based upon truth or some kernel of the truth. Which kernel it was, however, could have other implications within the district. In recent months, the board and staff have seemed frustrated with each other's actions.
"We're not getting things done in a professional, timely manner," says Halbert. "What's starting to happen is that the board is letting [the administration] know that, with 85 percent of our general budget going to salaries, that's not acceptable to us."
Patrice Robinson compares the situation to her job with MLGW: "We're doing the investigation, and with those people who are shown to be involved, there should be some disciplinary action. I don't think the allegations were all that farfetched. We have 15,000 employees at MCS. I only work with 2,700 at MLGW and I see a lot of things happen, so I wouldn't be surprised if they were true."
The disconnect between the two stories, says Watson, is exactly why he put a member of the district's security division on the case. "Initially, the people who went down to East to look into the allegations ... they're professional educators, not professional investigators," he says. Watson is confident that if there is something to find, the second investigation will find it.
But will the investigation put a lid on the problems?
"I just wanted to ensure the Memphis community that if there's anything wrong, I want to know about it," says Watson. "My staff had not been able to substantiate those allegations, but one of the allegations, I acknowledged publicly that it was wrong. Again, the principal could not be held directly responsible for that."
Lewis, who has been interviewed as part of the investigation, says she knows that other things are going to come out of the investigation but, in order not to compromise the situation, could not elaborate. The situation is expected to result in several lawsuits for the district as well.
Zorina Bowen, like many parents who have come before the board since Love was transferred, feels that the district is just moving the problem from one location to another. She says nothing has been exaggerated.
"It's far from over. It's been covered up and sugarcoated, and the parents have been made to look like they're crazy," she says.
Williams also agrees it's far from over, but that's because her son, Christopher, has been on and off crutches and a walker. And Williams is still trying to get answers, only now she feels she was used.
"It seems to me like no one cares. I'm fighting alone," says Williams. "I feel like they put me in front of the media to get Dr. Love out of East. Now that he's gone, I haven't heard from anybody. I thought I did what was right."
Even getting Love out of East might not solve all of the school's problems. Just as anyone the superintendent appointed to that position probably would have had a tough time of it, Patrice Robinson says it's doubtful Love's absence will make a large dent.
"My honest opinion is that they probably have had issues over the years," she says. "If you don't deal with the problem itself I don't care how many people you rotate through there until you get to the root of the problem, it won't be fixed."
Patrice Robinson thinks maybe it would have been an easier time if the school's debt could have been forgiven by the district or if the children and parents understood the constraints Love was under.
Although Love improved the school's fiscal situation, there are still issues that need to be addressed. "I'm hoping we can find some common ground at East. I think we need a mediator in there, because even though the principal is gone, you've still got factions of parents and teachers," says Lewis. "You've got to get them working together again."
The new principal, Harry Durham, is there on an interim basis. Watson says he will do a national search for the next principal at East, and "to the extent that it's possible," he will follow the recommendation of the site-based management team. But as he talks, he repeats "to the extent that it's possible" and says he won't feel pressured by the parents to choose one person over another. "The final decision has to be with the superintendent," he says.
Patrice Robinson says that person whoever it may be is going to have to wear a hard hat and not worry about getting their feelings hurt. "They're going to have angry parents looking at everything they do. The teachers will have to 'learn' a new leader. A new person is going to walk into a situation with three frustrated groups. What do you think will happen?"
As for Raleigh-Egypt, members of the board and administration hope they won't continue this debate over Love for the next year. Already, however, members of the Raleigh-Egypt community have protested Love's appointment, citing allegations that arose at East.
"I hate to think that the parents at Raleigh-Egypt would give in to that mob mentality," says Jobe. "I think that's definitely what happened here. Some things weren't handled well. Couple that with a personality conflict and people who want to have more control over their school than maybe they should have and you've got a recipe for a problem ... which we got."
As for Love, he's optimistic about the upcoming year at Raleigh-Egypt. On the first day of school, he said, "Since I've been at Raleigh-Egypt, the parents and this community have been very receptive. What you've seen on TV represents a really small portion of the community. It's sad, but it's like the squeaky wheel gets the grease."
When the group of parents at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville's parent-orientation session this summer heard the speaker talk about the no-alcohol policy, there were a lot of knowing looks and even some audible snickers.
Most of the men and women in this group had gone to college in the Sixties and Seventies, when overindulgence in beer, booze, marijuana, and other drugs was a big part of college culture. More recently, these geezers had attended a college football game where drinking was as much a part of the experience as marching bands and cheerleaders.
"What's the policy in the dorms?" one parent asked UT-K vice-provost for student affairs Timothy Rogers, a UT employee for 27 years. Up to that point, Rogers had given expansive explanations of various aspects of campus life. Now, he had some blunt news for his fellow Baby Boomers and their children.
"The policy on campus," he said simply, "is no alcohol."
The times have changed. The generation that gave America Animal House the movie and the fraternities that inspired it has banned booze from college campuses. Last year, a UT-K fraternity got in trouble for having seven cans of beer in the house, or roughly what the late John Belushi could drink in 20 minutes or so.
But one of the things students quickly learn is that there is policy and there is practice, and the two may be quite different. Interviews with students and administrators at five Mid-South colleges the University of Memphis, Ole Miss, Rhodes, Arkansas State, and UT-K left no doubt that everyone knows the score. Nationally, surveys show that only about 8 percent of college students say they abstain from alcohol. One underage sophomore at Rhodes explained the campus policy to a reporter then stealthily revealed a bottle of Budweiser hidden under his shirt.
Alcohol-related deaths and injuries and the lawsuits and publicity they generate have forced colleges across the Mid-South to put teeth in their no-alcohol policies. The Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at Arkansas State in Jonesboro was suspended after an incident of alcohol poisoning. Their house burned down this summer, and authorities suspect arson possibly in retaliation for the disciplinary action.
Government studies show that teenage drinking dropped sharply in the 1980s when states raised the drinking age from 18 to 21, but the decline leveled off in the mid-1990s. The gender gap has all but disappeared.
Instead, there is a growing reality gap, with ever tougher enforcement and campus bans on alcohol. Oddly enough, at the same time, colleges and universities have long since removed the parental controls from just about everything else. A typical freshman dormitory has weekend co-ed visitation until 2 a.m., two-bedroom suites, cable TV, Internet hook-ups, and a microwave and refrigerator in each room.
Just don't keep a beer in it.
Most campuses combine alcohol education with enforcement. At Ole Miss, one of the newer wrinkles is something called "social norming."
"Research shows that when students come to the university, they have a misperception of the true alcohol-consumption levels," said Jason Dean, assistant dean of students. "Nationally, they think 70 percent of undergraduates drink five drinks in two hours. In reality, while binge drinking is there, it is more like 40 to 44 percent are at the binge-drinking level. The social-norms approach says you can correct the misperception through media outlets and reduce binge drinking to about 35 percent."
Ole Miss does not allow alcohol to be served in the chancellor's house, and there is not supposed to be drinking in the Grove before or after football games. In practice, that often means pouring a beer or drink into a plastic cup, which generally satisfies the University Police Department charged with enforcement.
"We take it on a voluntary-compliance basis," said Chief Randy Corban. "We do not arrest everyone. We ask them to pour it out. It works pretty well. We just have to stay consistent with it. We're out there every game-day. It does not normally get to a situation where we have to cite them for it."
Elizabeth Oakes, 21, an Ole Miss senior, works in the dean of students office and sees people come in frequently for hearings or discipline on booze violations.
"I don't think it would make a difference if it was 'wet' or 'dry,' because it's the wettest dry campus," she said. "I don't think the names 'wet' or 'dry' make a difference."
And apparently, neither do some students at the University of Memphis, where "zero tolerance" is the rule. Several students told a reporter that drinking is pretty prevalent on campus despite the school's strict policy.
"They drink in their rooms," explained Pete Topis, a 20-year-old junior attending a summer research program at the U of M. "A lot of students keep beer in their closet."
If these students are caught hiding alcohol in their dorms, they can face stiff penalties. According to Dwayne Scott, associate dean of students, the first offense results in a $25 fine and mandatory alcohol-education class. However, subsequent violations can lead to removal from the residence halls or even suspension from school.
U of M also provides students caught violating the policy with a CD-ROM called "Alcohol 101," an interactive learning tool that allows students to make choices regarding alcohol use.
Of course, it's possible some of these CDs don't make it out of the dean of students' office before they're tossed into the trash, and according to some students, it's doubtful most students who smuggle alcohol on campus will ever even be caught.
"Nobody ever checks up on it, and everybody knows that drinking is going on anyway," said Marilyn White, a 21-year-old summer-school student who lives on campus at the U of M.
Arkansas State shares a similar no-alcohol policy and the school's dry-county location has a major impact on the university's decision to keep it that way. Technically, the school does not have a set policy regarding alcohol, but by enforcing the rules of the county, they are basically setting the policy, according to Reggie Porter, assistant dean for judicial affairs.
But, once again, several students reported that the school is pretty lax about enforcing the policy, and many students take advantage of that. Sheridan Essman, a 22-year-old senior at Arkansas State, says she rarely hears of the policy actually being enforced.
"They only enforce it when they see you outside holding a drink," she said. "The worst punishment I've heard of is making them pour their drinks out."
This may be due to the school's "learning environment" method of punishment. Subsequent alcohol violations can result in suspension, but Porter says this is a last- resort punishment handed out to students who display a continuing problem. Otherwise, alcohol counseling or community service are considered punishment enough.
The fraternities at these no-alcohol schools are generally exempt from the policy due to privacy rights under their house renter's agreements. At Ole Miss, U of M, and Arkansas State, fraternity parties flow with booze as long as it remains inside and, in some cases, even outside, as long as students cover the bottle or can's label.
"If I'm driving by and I see a can or bottle in someone's hand at a fraternity party, and I'm not certain it's alcohol, I don't pull onto the property," said Captain Mike Archer of ASU's police department. "I'll only stop if I have probable cause."
The policy at Rhodes College is quite a bit more lenient. Students of legal drinking age are allowed to drink and store alcohol in the residence halls, with the exception of the substance-free areas of the freshman dorms, which house the underaged.
"Rhodes College takes an educational approach to student drinking, in that we want them to understand that their behavior has consequences. If they choose to engage in inappropriate behavior, then certain predictable consequences will follow," said Bette Ackerman, dean of students.
Inappropriate behavior simply refers to not following state alcohol laws, such as contributing to minors or using false identification to obtain alcohol.
However, several students claim there are ways around this policy, and a few even shared tips with a reporter on how to not get caught. One 20-year-old junior claimed that pouring alcohol in cups and calling it apple juice was the way to go. Another 18-year-old sophomore claimed the only way to actually get caught is to drink in public.
The fact remains that college students are still drinking, maybe even just as heartily as their parents did in the Sixties and Seventies. Only now, at many schools, they're directly violating school policy by doing so.
You're in your second semester at college. You have no clue what to major in. Nothing seems to fit, so it's a little bit of this and a little bit of that. By your second year, you've accumulated three majors a little bit more of this and a little bit more of that. Your parents are in your face because you can't make up your mind. What to do? Try the University of Memphis' University College and try to make a little bit of this and a little bit of that your major.
"The University College is probably one of the best-kept secrets on this campus," says Sara Jane Williams, the college's adviser.
Discovering this secret doesn't mean that you can enroll in a hodgepodge of randomly selected courses, but you can create a major that fits your career goals.
"General-education and university-admission requirements for our students are just the same as for all other students," Williams says. So you still have to sit through six hours of English composition, three hours of oral communication and rhetoric, and all the other fun stuff: mathematics, history, social and natural science. And, if you choose to enroll in or create a major at the University College, you have to fill out a baccalaureate contract, "a working agreement between you and the University of Memphis," says Williams, in which you have to explain your academic choices. Once this contract is approved, you are ready to go.
The University College has been part of the University of Memphis since 1975; a graduate program was added in 1997. Last spring, 460 undergraduate students and 53 graduate students were enrolled in the college, which makes it the school's second smallest college.
But what exactly is the University College? A last resort for students who can't make up their mind about a major? A path to graduation for adult students who have some university credits but no degree?
"Most of our students are adults who have previous college work and want to get a degree as fast as possible," Williams says. "Others are students who transferred from a different school and now face the problem that we don't offer their major."
To find out if the University College is for you, schedule an appointment for an advising session, tell them what you want, and pick classes across disciplines to create a major that fits your needs. Besides the individual-studies program (the create-your-own-major option), the college also offers 19 academic programs ranging from alcohol/drug abuse services to religion and society to commercial aviation to horticultural studies to services for the aging.
"We had students who wanted to go into political campaigning. They chose to take political-science classes, communication, and public-relations classes," Williams says. If you choose religion and society, you can pick classes from areas such as anthropology, philosophy, history, psychology, and counseling. Landscape and horticultural studies includes classes such as woody ornamentals, architectural design, fundamentals of accounting, and turfgrass management.
But, again, if none of the programs suit you, you can literally create your own. The general program requirements are 124 semester hours and a cumulative grade point average of at least 2.0. Although this sounds like a study-what-you-want dream, it's not necessarily an easy way out of college. You have to defend your academic choices. Your newly created major has to be approved by a faculty committee and you have to stick with it. But students don't need to fear wandering into uncharted territory.
"The college is a breeding ground for new majors that sometimes end up in the university's regular academic program," Williams says.
The commercial-music major in the College of Communication and Fine Arts and the African-American studies major in the College of Arts and Sciences were born in the University College's individual-studies program.
So, this year, don't be afraid to enroll in a little bit of this and a little bit of that. You may create a new major and become an academic pioneer.
Information sessions for students interested in the program will be held at the University of Memphis, Johnson Hall, room G1, August 20th at 2 p.m. and September 4th at 12:30 p.m.