By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
“If Jeb got to be elected governor as a result of the school, I think he really got the short end of the stick,” Wilson-Davis declares. “It is the children who have benefited the most, and that's the honest-to-God truth. What they have gotten here, I feel, will take them through the rest of their lives.”
Still, some believe Wilson-Davis wasn't steering the ship. “After the first year, [Wilson-Davis] had totally lost focus.” Banuchi says. “There was a situation where a teacher was using corporal punishment. I let her know; she wouldn't do anything about it.” At the time of the school's founding, many of the parents involved had told the board members and Wilson-Davis that they would have wanted corporal punishment to be a disciplinary option at the Liberty City Charter School. “I would say the vast majority of them want corporal punishment,” Wilson-Davis says. “When the school initially started, they were going to ask for the right to corporally punish. However, they felt, in the interest of getting the contract through, it wouldn't fly that way, because it would have gone against district policy. So we've had to adopt the district's policy.”
Wilson-Davis says she remembers one incident of a teacher spanking a child “about three years ago.” She says she learned about it through a note in her mailbox. “I called the teacher in, and the teacher admitted that was what had happened,” Wilson-Davis recounts. “Then I notified the attorney. I held a meeting to go over the laws and statutes with the teacher.”
She chalks this incident up to the school's close ties with the community it serves. “One of our teachers had a personal relationship with a parent that was beyond the school, knew the family; they had been friends a long time,” she relates. “The child had been misbehaving, and the parent had told the teacher, if the child misbehaves, take care of it. And the teacher did, not realizing honestly, that he was acting in the role of a teacher, and not in the role of, “This is like my godson.'”
Since that episode Wilson-Davis says there have been no other incidents of corporal punishment “that I know of.”
But Alicia Banuchi says she would regularly see one teacher, Tashimba Andrews, seize children, shake them, and scream at them. One time, she says, she saw Andrews grab a child by the neck and slam him against a wall. Andrews could not be reached for comment.
Wilson-Davis says she remembers some other teachers complained about Tashimba Andrews's physical treatment of her students. She says she met with Andrews and the other teachers and determined the complaints were attributable to differences in teaching style and did not constitute corporal punishment.
On two separate occasions, Banuchi recalls, children walked into the administrative offices holding their own belts in their hands. When Banuchi asked them what they were doing, they said they had been misbehaving in class and their teachers had told them to bring their belts to Mrs. Wilson. Banuchi says she never saw Wilson-Davis spank kids, with a belt or anything else. But the school board rule on corporal punishment forbids teachers and administrators from using even the threat of physical force as a disciplinary tool.
Wilson-Davis doesn't remember these incidents specifically but doesn't deny that children at her school might expect corporal punishment from her or her teachers. “Some of these families come from the Caribbean, where you have corporal punishment in schools. You have to explain to them that you can't take corporal action against their kids.” She reiterates that she has neither spanked a student nor threatened one with corporal punishment.
According to Banuchi by the 1998-1999 school year, these kinds of incidents had begun to wear on her enough that she would regularly complain to her higher-ups about Wilson-Davis. As the relationship between the principal and her assistant soured, another publicized incident sealed Banuchi's fate.
In June 1999, roughly two weeks before the Miami-Dade County School Board was to vote on renewing its contract with Liberty City Charter School for another five years, school board member Marta Perez dropped by for a surprise visit.
Perez says she and some of her staff had spent the day visiting other charter schools. All visits had been unannounced, because she wanted to see the schools on a normal day. Liberty City was her last stop. She came into the office and asked Wilson-Davis if she could take a look around. “She told me: “Absolutely not,'” Perez recalls. “She said her board had told her they couldn't have unannounced visitors and that she was not going to open up the doors for us or let us inside the classrooms.”
Perez says she couldn't believe they wouldn't let her in. “When we finally decided to leave, when we walked out she followed us to make sure I got into my car,” Perez says, incredulous. “I was outraged.”
Wilson-Davis explains that, dating back to the days of Bush's campaign, she had begun to feel overwhelmed by requests for tours. Indeed, in her office she has a blue plastic visor with “Tour Guide” printed on it as a joke. Thus, she says, the board instituted the no-impromptu-visits rule. She emphasizes she invited Perez to come back another time, but the school board member wouldn't hear of it. “She just said she couldn't believe that I would deny her access,” Wilson-Davis remembers. “I told her I was not denying her access; I was following the direction of my board. How she took offense to that degree, I don't have an answer for that.”