Toxic Avenger

Killian High teacher Charles Boldwyn says he's being railroaded for blowing the whistle on a paint scandal

It's been ten months since chemistry teacher Charles Boldwyn had to evacuate his Miami Killian Senior High School classroom because of noxious paint fumes, but as far as he's concerned something still stinks.

Smells like a coverup. Smells like retaliation. Smells like the school district is trying to drum him out of a job because he had the temerity to question his principal's judgment.

That principal is one Timothy Dawson, famous for orchestrating the arrest of nine Killian students in February 1998 because they published a profane pamphlet. Dawson is rather less famous for his run-in with Boldwyn in October of that year, though the incident did make Joan Fleischman's "Talk of Our Town" column in the October 26 Miami Herald. Dawson claimed that Boldwyn had struck him after an argument, according to Fleischman. The teacher was frustrated because his classrooms lack overhead projectors, the principal added.

Although Charles Boldwyn was rightfully concerned about paint fumes, the school district says he's nuts
Michael Steinbacher
Although Charles Boldwyn was rightfully concerned about paint fumes, the school district says he's nuts

Boldwyn, a tightly wound, diminutive 56-year-old with a graying goatee and mismatched brown and blue eyes, says Dawson is lying. He claims the principal choreographed their confrontation last year because Boldwyn had been threatening to tell Killian parents about the potential health hazards of the solvent-based paint vapors the students had inhaled. Boldwyn isn't working now and might not return to school in the fall. The reason: A police investigation concluded that he had not only vowed to tattle on Dawson, but physically threatened the principal.

It turns out Boldwyn was right about those nasty odors. Largely in response to complaints the teacher lodged with his union, Miami-Dade County Public Schools this past April toughened its rules regarding the use of solvent-based paints indoors. Although police cleared Boldwyn of charges he struck Dawson, the district still is trying to fire the educator, alleging that he is psychologically unfit to teach.

Nuts or not, Boldwyn did not imagine the scent that wafted through Killian High's halls last fall. H.A. Contracting, Inc. was using solvent-based paint one day in late September when Boldwyn walked into the second-floor wing where he taught his first-and second-period classes. He smelled the problem immediately. "The air was saturated with the vapor of aromatic hydrocarbons," Boldwyn says in his high-pitched voice. "I'd smelled them before." He notes that the green paint on the classroom doors was still wet.

Students from both of Boldwyn's classes complained about a pungent chemical stench. After noticing that his second-period students were acting as though they were "drugged," he began searching for Dawson to get permission to clear the classroom. He finally found an assistant principal, who allowed him to move his kids to the cafeteria. (He had already sent some to the nurse's office and others home.)

Earlier that day Dawson had berated Boldwyn for "being rude and obnoxious" to the principal's secretaries. Boldwyn says he took the opportunity to ask Dawson about the paint. Dawson's response, Boldwyn says: "I don't care what you think about what I do or how I run this school. If you don't like it, get a transfer out of here." (Dawson declined to comment on Boldwyn's situation. He emphasized that nothing improper had occurred during the painting job.)

Boldwyn didn't formally complain about the paint, but told colleagues he strongly suspected the fumes were toxic. He also considered conducting a chemical analysis of the paint. And he said he would share his suspicions with Killian parents. Meanwhile, Boldwyn asserts, Dawson began harassing him in numerous small ways (like withholding teaching equipment) for months. In early October, Dawson placed Boldwyn on probation.

On the afternoon of October 16, a vacation day for students, Boldwyn says he was working in his office when the principal entered. Dawson had called school district police, alleging that Boldwyn had been threatening him. When Dawson stepped into Boldwyn's office and closed the door, four cops were standing in a nearby hallway.

The principal and the teacher give different accounts of the events that ensued. Boldwyn says he felt threatened by Dawson and clearly remembers the principal uttering the phrase: "You'd better stop scaring students and teachers." (The principal, at 35 years old and six feet seven inches tall, is 20 years younger and more than a foot taller than Boldwyn, a former Green Beret sergeant and Vietnam veteran.)

In response Boldwyn says he described a litany of complaints, including the health hazard posed by the paint fumes. Dawson taunted him, Boldwyn says, then stood over him, leaning forward as if he wanted the teacher to hit him. Dawson eventually struck Boldwyn "with great force, with both of his balled-up hands," the teacher claims.

Boldwyn says he flew backward onto a desk, then picked himself up. But he didn't retaliate. Dawson then walked out of the office, approached the police officers, and said, "He struck me."

According to the police report, the cops had heard Boldwyn yell, "I should punch you in the fucking head." Once the pair emerged from the office, the police handcuffed Boldwyn until he calmed down. They didn't arrest him, but the following Monday Dawson assigned him to a desk job at the Region 5 office. The cops told Boldwyn not to return to Killian without a police officer.

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