By Michael E. Miller
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From where Patrick Snay sits, deep within Killian Senior High School's administration building, he can't see any of the surrounding campus. Then again Snay, Killian's assistant principal in charge of administration, doesn't need to. The black rotary phone on his desk, specially designated for "Rumor Control," supplies him with enough inside skinny about miscreant students to shame the Batphone.
"We use it all the time," reports Snay, who has spent a decade policing the Kendall school. "I just got two calls yesterday. We get rumors of gang fights or kids in possession of drugs or weapons, and we check them out. I've got two kids in my office right now on a rumor they were going to fight. The students here think the administration is godlike, because we know what they're going to do before they do it. But we keep a low profile with Rumor Control. Students don't know that their friends or parents are turning them in. They have no idea where the information is coming from."
And students aren't the only ones in the dark about Snay's secret weapon. Despite listing Rumor Control numbers in the phone book for practically every Dade public high school, district administrators seem at a loss to explain the numbers' exact purpose. Or their existence. "The district has Rumor Control numbers in the phone book? You're kidding," says public information officer Andy Gollan, thumbing through a phone directory. "Nope! Here they are. That's astonishing! I've been here eight years and that's a new one on me, and I keep voluminous files on everything - with the exception, I guess, of Rumor Control."
But there are a few old-timers who still remember the installation of the Rumor Control phones in 1970. "They were put in because of [racial] unrest on campuses, in case parents needed a way to reach the school and find out what was going on," recalls Killian principal Anthony Pariso. "I remember clearly being told that we were supposed to have a person at that phone at all times if anything serious came up." Pariso says the numbers enjoyed a renaissance of sorts during the 1980 McDuffie riots.
Since those troubled times, however, the sense of mission behind Rumor Control has waned considerably. At Edison and Homestead High Schools, for instance, the Rumor Control numbers lead to answering machines for teachers who need substitutes. Amid office relocation, administrators at Miami's Jackson High have connected their line to a fax machine. Several attempts to contact the Miami Beach High School Rumor Control line yielded only unrequited rings.
And those school officials who did answer a Rumor Control phone offered little in the way of practiced rumor squelching. "We basically don't use the phone. It sits here in my office, but I know it's not used," says Judy Frame, the registrar at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High. "Sometimes people call this phone if they get a busy signal on the main number. Then I have to tell them to just call back to the main number."
Rumor Control boosters, such as Snay, contend that the phones still serve a viable, if less vital, role in calming anxious parents and students when unfounded rumors - of an infectious illness or gang violence - swirl through a school. He also notes that the phones serve as a lifeline to the community because they remain active even if a school's main switchboard loses power.
But the fate of the Rumor Control phones, creeping into middle age, may have been sealed by the New Times inquiry. "I talked with a few administrators and it blew their minds. They'd never heard of Rumor Control," says still-bemused information officer Gollan. "The upshot is that your newspaper may have saved the taxpayers of Dade County some money, because we may very well disconnect those phones." Ruben Smulin, supervisor of telecommunications for Dade County Public Schools, says the lines cost $35 per month, or $420 per year. That's $9240 annually for all 22 phones.
But the taxpayers' potential gain will be Snay's loss. "That phone is older than dirt," says Killian's soft-spoken rumor czar fondly. "We'd be lost without it.