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The half dozen or so Miami-Dade County bike cops, wearing helmets, tight shorts, and pistols, are doing laps around Miami Norland Senior High School on February 26. But these armed officers are merely the outriders of the beefed-up security patrolling the boxy, gracelessly aging school in this middle- and working-class Northwest Miami-Dade neighborhood. At least two Miami-Dade County Police cruisers also are watching the area well. In addition to the school's regular security guards, several teachers, including substitutes, have been given walkie-talkies and are posted at strategic locations on school grounds. Assistant principals and security guards tool around in golf carts, eyes peeled for trouble.
Once the 11:50 lunch bell rings, students stream out of the school, congregating along the split-rail fence bordering the broad expanse of the Optimist Club football field on NW 195th Street.
School officials are worried about what might happen at noon. When that bell rings, will the kids march back to class? Or will many of the 2400 students at Norland, for the second time in less than a year, hold a walkout to protest the reign of principal Carroll E. Williams? And will this one, like the one this past May, turn violent?
Word has gotten around, through the grapevine and on printed flyers, that the protest is supposed to happen today. Many of the students spending their lunch period outdoors at first profess ignorance of the walkout -- perhaps nervous at the presence of print and broadcast journalists. "Watch it with that camera, dog," a girl in denim overalls cautions a TV cameraman. "I didn't do my best hairdo today."
But when the discussion turns to what's wrong at Norland, what needs to be changed, and who's to blame, the kids liven up. "Nasty-ass bathrooms," one shouts; "Eazy-E and her video camera," offers another, referring to assistant principal Gladys Hudson, who is on patrol in a golf cart (and whose small stature and prominent gold teeth prompt the reference to the deceased rapper); "Lockouts," another gripes, noting the policy of locking classroom doors, forcing tardy students to spend the class period in the cafeteria.
"They don't want to teach us," declares a tenth-grader with brassy orange pigtails who asks to be identified only by her nickname, Kilo. "It's not a good learning environment." A golf cart rolls by, carrying a security guard in a Norland-maroon windbreaker. "They make us feel like we're in a cage, and we're tired of it," she says.
This year's protest ... doesn't happen. When the 12:25 p.m. bell rings, the students outside straggle back behind the cyclone fences that form the school's perimeter. As the last of them returns, a battered, late-model American car flying a Carol City High flag cruises by.
"Y'all scared!" hollers the driver, a beefy young man who appears to be in his late teens. "Fuck that shit! Walk out!"
The near-miss of a second student demonstration underscores the problems that have plagued Williams's two-year tenure at Norland. Principals are not supposed to be best buddies with their students, and few have to deal with open rebellion. But it is not only students chafing under Williams's reign. An unofficial parent-teacher association is criticizing him, not because he is strict with their kids, but because of his flagrant disregard for policies and outright incompetence.
Several teachers, many of whom spoke with New Times only on the condition of anonymity, describe Williams as a bumbling autocrat whose arrogance has led him to bruise egos and break rules. As his critics tell it, Williams has hired a football coach with a criminal record; driven away well-liked and competent administrators; pulled the student yearbook staff from their regular classes during midterm review, summarily dismissing them after a week; and, most disturbingly, placed hundreds of students, without notification, in dropout-prevention classes with unqualified teachers.
A look into Williams's past reveals he has a bent toward unorthodox associations, an extracurricular title as "President of the Continental United States," and a tendency to fall way behind on his child-support payments.
Williams declined to speak directly with New Times for this story, referring all questions to Parent, Teacher & Student Association (PTSA)president Deborah Williams (no relation), and to Henry Fraind, deputy superintendent of schools. Deborah Williams traces all the complaints about the principal to "six or seven" teachers who she says had grown complacent under the previous administration and instigated the uprisings among both parents and students. Fraind also describes the problems at Norland as "a few disgruntled teachers over there."
Doreen Major, a slight, bespectacled woman in her early fifties, is standing at the front entrance to Norland holding a walkie-talkie, offering her assessment of the student walkout that wasn't. Around her stand a handful of parents and residents who spent the February 26 lunch period passing out orange flyers announcing a meeting that night. These parents, who earlier this year formed a rebel PTSA called the Independent Parents Council, want this evening's forum to open up discussion about what's wrong at Norland and how to fix it.
For her part Major doesn't think there's much that needs fixing. "We tried to talk to them as to what the issues were, and very frankly. And I can't come up with anything that's really an issue," she says slowly in a voice tinged with a Bahamian accent. "I don't like this around my neck either," she says, tugging at the photo ID on a beaded chain -- the target of many student complaints. "But you know what? It's school policy. It's for the students' protection to prevent intruders."