By Michael E. Miller
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Dressed in a brown designer suit softened by a powder blue shirt and matching tie, Rudy Crew is perched on the dais of the Miami-Dade County School Board. It's 5:06 p.m. on July 11, and he surveys the scene. There aren't enough seats to accommodate the 300-plus visitors, who spill into the aisles and the hall outside. Most them are students, present and former teachers, and alumni of Miami Northwestern Senior High School.
In the back of the room, TV news camera crews from WFOR, WTVJ, and WPLG are rolling. This is the denouement of the Northwestern drama. Back in September, then-18-year-old star running back Antwain Easterling had intercourse with a 14-year-old ninth-grader inside a girls bathroom at the school. Officials knew about the incident but did not report it to police and allowed Easterling to continuing playing.
Four months later, the girl's mother, fed up with the unresponsive Northwestern staff, complained to the Miami Police Department. On December 7, Easterling was arrested on a felony count of a lewd and lascivious assault on a minor. By then Crew's office knew what the star football player had done, but Easterling was allowed to play in the state championship game anyway.
"Miami Northwestern has been a source of great concern since I came here," Crew says to the crowd, his cadence picking up with each syllable, as if he were a preacher. "As an educator, a former teacher, the part that hurts me the most is that there is a lot of talent at Northwestern."
In the days leading up to the meeting, a rumor has been swirling that Crew will suspend the Liberty City school's vaunted football program. People at the meeting are fuming. "He should suspend himself," hisses one angry Northwestern alum.
"It's a red herring to deflect attention away from wrongdoing on his part," growls another.
To punctuate his words, Crew jabs his left index finger into the podium. He singles out the students in the auditorium, telling them he wants to have a face-to-face meeting with them, no adults. "It is going to be a loving, fatherly conversation," Crew promises. "But it will also be a hard conversation. I am not going to let you fail or let you think you can't do A-plus work."
He says he's tired of "watching Northwestern have a greater number of kids who are locked up rather than looked up to." He's also sick "of watching these kids who are poor attendees on a month-to-month basis. Northwestern just about leads the pack."
By the time Crew wraps up his sermon, he has placed Northwestern's varsity football players on probation and dismissed the team's varsity coaches. He holds up a document with the names of 21 Northwestern school employees who did not report the alleged sex crime. "My intent is that all the people on this list will no longer be there by the fall," intones Crew, theatrically waving a sheet of paper in the air. "They will sit at home and watch everybody else go to work."
Then Crew lectures the parents. "It is wrong that you only come down here once in a while when I talk about shutting something down. People flew down here from wherever. I am not impressed. You need to flip the culture of this school."
Despite the impressive display of authority, Crew's reaction to the Northwestern affair is much like his response to scandals that plagued him in Tacoma and New York: too little too late. One person who escaped punishment is Ronda Vangates, a high-level district administrator who reports directly to Crew. Vangates is a political heavy hitter. In previous jobs, she served as an aide to county Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler and chief of staff to Miami Mayor Joe Carollo. Crew hired her in 2005 as an administrative assistant and legislative liaison. A Northwestern alum and a nonpracticing attorney, Vangates was promoted last year to director of the district's Civilian Investigative Unit. She earns an annual $95,000 salary.
According to a June 5 Miami-Dade grand jury report on the Northwestern affair, Vangates "made efforts to halt the criminal investigation" into school employees who had covered up the sex allegations. Vangates sent Northwestern's then-Principal Dwight Bernard and other district employees an e-mail asserting she had directed Miami-Dade School Police to cease their probe.
The grand jury concluded that "this e-mail was profoundly upsetting, troubling, and offensive.... The unthinkable was that non-police personnel could have the audacity and apparent authority to interfere with an otherwise valid criminal investigation."
Vangates has maintained she thought it was a matter for Crew's office, not the police, to probe. The grand jury didn't buy her excuse: "We find it unreasonable and unbelievable that it was not known this was a criminal investigation ... [and it] was halted in its tracks before it was complete, before all statements were taken, before any assessments could be made, and certainly before anyone could be arrested."
Since the scandal broke, only one person has been arrested in the coverup: Principal Bernard, who was charged June 6 with felony official misconduct. He was reassigned to a desk job. Crew fired the school's football coaches and promised to get rid of the Northwestern employees who knew of but failed to report the claim. But he has not taken responsibility for his administration's role in the scandal. This irks school board member Rivas Logan. "If you know a crime was being committed, you report it. And his administration did not report it."