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One day, Rodriguez recounts, Kaloostian had him watching three kids in detention when she called him over the radio and told him to help her with something. He told her he couldn't leave the students alone in the classroom. "Next thing I know, she burst into my room and said, “You don't know how to follow an administrative order,'" he recalls. "So I let her have it. I told her what I think [about the way she'd been treating him]. Then she blocked the door and wouldn't let me leave. Eventually I went around her and got out."
The encounter left Rodriguez frazzled, and he took the advice of a friend to file a report on the incident. As soon as Kaloostian found out about it, she filed her own school police report. Rodriguez was booted to a do-nothing desk job in region headquarters for three months. "Finally they found I had done nothing wrong, and they put me at a different school," he relates. "There are some really good people there who helped me. I ended up at a good school."
The broad outlines of Rodriguez's account are immediately recognizable to others who have worked at Mays Middle. Intimidating employees is, they say, the operating strategy of both Cooper and Kaloostian. Phillips remembers Cooper's reaction when one twenty-year veteran physical education teacher refused to cover extra classes for which the school couldn't get substitutes. "They called down the union rep and he said, “You can't make her cover the classes,'" Phillips reports. "That made them mad." Phillips says Cooper bided his time until he found a way to get back at the teacher. She had collected money for school athletic uniforms and the count was off by $14. Cooper requested that school police investigate her. (School police files confirm this.) An audit turned up an addition error and found only a few dollars missing. "You know what they are trying to do to this coach?" a friend on the school police told Phillips. "They tried to ruin her career for $14." Phillips says the administrators gave that teacher a hard time for the rest of the year. "That's the type of games they played," he remembers. The teacher did not return phone calls seeking comment.
That people complain of an atmosphere of fear doesn't seem completely unfounded, at least according to one recent experience. When New Times interviewed Cooper and Kaloostian at Mays this past February, the principal employed a strategy clearly designed to intimidate the reporter. Ensconced behind a large desk overseen by the mounted head of a ram (the school mascot), Cooper leaned his six-foot two-inch frame forward in his chair and offered a frosty glare. He berated New Times for "calling my faculty at home" to inquire about working conditions at the school. He asked how the reporter managed to get some unpublished numbers, and when it was explained that reporters routinely uncover information not easily found, he threatened vaguely to "ask for an investigation." Neither he nor Kaloostian would discuss Bradley, Phillips, or any other individual.
The oddest exchange came after the conclusion of the interview, when this reporter returned to her car parked in the Goulds Shopping Plaza across the street from Mays to find a school police officer standing next to it, claiming he was running a check to see if the vehicle or the license plate might be stolen. José Martinez, the school resource officer currently assigned to Mays, gestured at the radio on his hip, saying he was running a check on the tag. He asked to see some identification. Martinez asserted he was just doing a routine check. "We have a lot of trouble around here, teenagers stealing cars," he explained. "I check the cars in this lot because it's technically school property, within 1000 feet of a school."
Strange, though, that a school cop would feel the need to do that when there's already a Miami-Dade police substation in the same plaza, well within walking distance for county police concerned about criminal activity in their parking lot. When New Times asked Martinez whether someone from the school, Cooper in particular, had asked him to check the cars in this lot at this particular time, he repeated that it was just a routine check. After learning the car belonged to a reporter who had just finished a rather tense meeting with Cooper, Martinez paused thoughtfully and glanced at the school. "Well, there's really no reason for me to hold you," he said, without consulting his radio to see if indeed the tags or the car was stolen. A Miami-Dade police spokesman later confirmed it would be unusual for school police officers to conduct routine checks off school property because their criminal jurisdiction is confined to school property.
To be fair there are real challenges to be overcome at Mays Middle. It's an older school located in a postage-stamp-size economic backwater of Miami-Dade County that is working to change its reputation for poverty and crime. The 1200-plus students who attend the school comprise an ethnic mix that is roughly half African American, 35 percent Hispanic, and about 15 percent non-Hispanic white. A majority of the students qualify for the free or reduced-rate lunch program. It's a magnet school, which means some of the students are bused in from out of the area to take special classes in humanities and visual and performing arts. The school is one of many in Miami-Dade that has struggled to raise student performance on the state-mandated FCAT, a measure that both determines a school's rating as a whole and affects the amount of money it will receive in the future. Cooper claims to have "one of the best faculty and staffs in Dade County," and is proud that the school went from a rating of "D" to a "C." The administrators say they are committed to closing the achievement gap among students. "All I know is we've worked very hard in this building," says Kaloostian.