A No-Class Operation
On December 10, 1999, at 2:47 p.m., a call came into the Miami-Dade County 911 dispatcher: "Yeah, I got an emergency over at Mays Middle School," the deep, sonorous voice of a black man crackled from the mouthpiece of a gas station pay phone. "My name is Mr. Bradley."
"What's the emergency at Mays?" the female dispatcher asked.
"I'm going to kill a bunch of those bitches over there," the voice muttered with the indifferent tone of someone ordering a pizza to pick up on his way home from work. Then, as if realizing the inconsistency of the flat voice and incendiary words, the man kicked it up a notch. "They fired me. I was a teacher there for thirteen years, and those son of a bitches got rid of me!" Now he was really cooking, voice rising, words coming faster and faster, a bit of a drawl slipping out. Then he laid on his last line, clinching the performance just before the dramatic hangup. "I got a bomb in my classroom! I'm going to kill all them bitches!"
"Ohhh, Lordy!" the dispatcher exclaimed.
Less than ten minutes later, hundreds of students and their teachers stood outside in the winter sunshine of Goulds while county and school police checked the classrooms. They found nothing. It was just one of dozens of false threats called in about county schools every year. A few minutes after three o'clock, former Mays math teacher Charles Bradley walked out of his Winston Park house, fastening his work shirt. Waiting for him in the driveway was a school police officer -- and the beginning of a yearlong nightmare he still can't shake.
Bradley claims an overzealous principal and assistant principal tried to force him out since they took over the school three years ago. He also believes they pressured the school police to arrest and the State Attorney's Office (SAO) to aggressively prosecute him for the false report of planting a bomb and the disruption of a school function. He says this capped off a long argument between the administrators and himself that resulted in his dismissal from Mays weeks earlier. The criminal case against Bradley was dropped ten months later, in part owing to evidence collected by his attorney. The SAO is now investigating whether former security monitor Walter Phillips actually made the call. Phillips, fired from the school early last year for stealing computers, denies making the bomb threat. But like Bradley he also thinks principal Kenneth S. Cooper and assistant principal Carolyn Kaloostian had it in for Bradley and would stop at nothing to get rid of him. Bradley's allegations, which he has reported in conversations to school district administrators and in a letter to the Department of Education in Tallahassee, are unproven. In fact other than Bradley's speculation, there is no known evidence linking top administrators to any threat.
According to John Hunkier, captain of the school police general investigations unit, the bomb-threat inquiry did not end when Bradley was let off the hook. "We are following up on the information given to us," he says. "This is not a closed investigation."
Principal Cooper would not discuss the case at all. "I don't have a response," he told New Times. "I don't discuss personnel with the news."
Phillips, however, contends school administrators have established a climate of fear and intimidation at Mays to control teachers. Current and former employees, most of whom agreed to speak only if their names were not used, admit many teachers have left since Cooper and Kaloostian arrived in 1997. "Mays is a dumping ground for teachers who can't work anywhere else in the system," Phillips declares. "Nobody wants to work there."
On that Friday afternoon in December 1999, school police officer Ken Bonnet sat outside Charles Bradley's house on SW 127th Road. He had been called away from nearby Sunset High to apprehend Bradley based on the 911 call and because Cooper and Kaloostian confirmed the voice belonged to Bradley when the tape was played for them over a phone line. Problem was, Bonnet didn't know what Bradley looked like. When a powerfully built black man in his midforties emerged from the house on his way to his job as a baggage handler for American Airlines, Bonnet asked him who he was. Bonnet later told fellow officers Bradley wouldn't identify himself. Bradley claims he was in a rush and didn't understand what Bonnet was saying, so he left. Bonnet didn't detain Bradley because he wasn't sure who he was, according to statements other school police officers later made to Bradley's attorney, Paul Schwiep.
Later that evening Bradley was getting ready to unload baggage at Miami International Airport when he was approached by Miami-Dade police. According to an incident report filed by county police, Bradley was asked to voluntarily come with them to the airport station. They had instructions to hold him for school police, who had said they had probable cause to make an arrest on a felony charge related to a bomb threat. Bradley says he was handcuffed, but police dispute that point. He kept asking what they were holding him for and for how long. "We're not holding you against your will, are we?" Bradley remembers a sergeant telling him. "They didn't want to make an arrest," he says."
Miami-Dade County Police Department spokesman Ed Munn says county police had detained Bradley as a favor to school police, but released him three hours later, when, after repeated calls from county cops, the school police still hadn't shown up. "We had to cut the guy loose, because we really had nothing to hold him on other than the school police asking us to pick him up," reports Munn. "Later the [school police] captain started raising hell with us until he found out they hadn't shown up. Absolutely they dropped the ball."
As such bumbling efforts to nab a bomb-threat suspect suggest, the school police investigation on the whole was spotty at best. No one, apparently, asked several critical questions, such as why a person making a bomb threat would use his own name. "It obviously is unusual," acknowledges Assistant State Attorney Joe Centorino, who heads the public corruption division, referring to the idea that such a caller would identify himself by name. "Anybody in law enforcement would think that."
Another question: Why would Bradley tell the 911 dispatcher he'd been a teacher at the school for thirteen years, when he'd only been there for three years? When later questioned in a deposition by Schwiep, the lead school police officer on the case admitted he had not attempted to verify the accuracy of the personal information the caller gave to the dispatcher. Bradley attributes the caller's flub to a simple misreading of a script, mistakenly seeing a "1" in front of the "3." School police officer Gil Ochoa also confirmed to the lawyer that school police made no attempt to play the audiotape for other school employees who knew Bradley. While officers had obtained a videotape from the Citgo gas station where the call originated, supposedly showing the pay phone at the time of the call, they said the tape quality was too poor to identify anyone.
Why didn't the school police make it to the airport Friday night until after Bradley had been released? According to depositions of school police officers taken by Bradley's attorney, they were trying to get their story straight first. Daryl Brown, a Mays school resource officer, stated that he and another officer, Danny Rivera, were back at the station writing up a report of what happened at the school. A sergeant made them wait until he got to the station to read the report, then he "told us to rewrite the report because something was wrong with it," Brown said. "He was saying that the way it was worded ... something was wrong with it." What that might be is unclear, as that report never made it into the record. What is clear is that Brown and Rivera were taken off the case that Monday, and it was assigned to Ochoa. According to statements later made by Ochoa, Brown was taken off the case because he was a young and inexperienced officer. Former security monitor Walter Phillips, who worked with Brown at the time, offers his own wild speculation: that the school principal and assistant principal didn't think they had enough influence over Brown to get the result they wanted. "They tried to make [Brown] do things he wouldn't do," he claims. "They called him Officer Yo-Yo. He was strictly by the book." Brown since has been transferred to another school. He did not return a phone call seeking comment from New Times.
Ochoa wrote in his arrest report that school police couldn't find Bradley over the weekend -- not until Bradley phoned them to find out what was happening. He said Bradley refused to come to the station to talk to police, telling a captain: "If you want, you are going to have to come and arrest me." Meanwhile Ochoa had collected written statements from Cooper and Kaloostian pinning the bomb threat squarely on Bradley. The school police talked to an assistant state attorney who told them they had probable cause to arrest Bradley. That Tuesday afternoon Ochoa and other officers arrested Bradley at his home. Bradley's lawyer bonded him out of Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center later the same day.
That's when Paul Schwiep, Bradley's attorney and a friend from church, went to work. Schwiep secured a copy of the 911 tape and listened to it with Bradley. "My first thought was it had to be a kid's prank," Bradley recalls. "It took me three times listening to it to get the voice. I said, That's Phillips. That's Walter Phillips.'" Schwiep later played the tape for other school employees including security monitor Zachery Parker and band teacher Edward Gooding. Both signed affidavits stating the voice on the tape belonged to Phillips, not Bradley. Parker's affidavit included something extra. He remembered seeing Phillips running from the back of the school toward the front, in the moments just after the bomb threat was made but before principal Cooper evacuated the buildings.
Phillips discounts Parker's testimony. "Mr. Parker is a joke," Phillips maintains. "The boy got a fourteen-story building in his head, but the elevator only goes to the second floor."
Schwiep also called Phillips to his office. He laid out the evidence and presented a scenario. He suggested the State Attorney's Office might be willing to offer him immunity if he revealed who had asked him to set up Bradley. A stocky man in his midthirties, Phillips vaguely resembles a smaller, softer version of Mike Tyson. He has the overly friendly manner of a salesman and prides himself on being able to size up a situation quickly. When the lawyer pitched his proposal, Phillips recalls thinking, He must have thought I fell off the watermelon truck.
"I thought about helping [Bradley]," he elaborates. "But how can I justify that?" Phillips pauses, the hands he uses to accent every point fall back to the table in front of him, generating a quiet clink from the heavy gold bracelet on his wrist. "My heart goes out to him," he concludes.
As Schwiep continued his queries, more holes in the accusations against Bradley began to appear. In June assistant principal Carolyn Kaloostian came in for a deposition. She stuck with her story that the voice on the tape was Bradley's, even when Schwiep showed her the affidavits from the other school employees. Principal Kenneth Cooper skipped his deposition scheduled for later the same day. Two weeks later Schwiep asked him on the record if Kaloostian had told him about the affidavits and if he then called Assistant State Attorney Alex Fox to say he wasn't sure anymore whether the voice was Bradley or Phillips. Cooper acknowledged the conversation with Kaloostian but claimed he told Fox no such thing. Schwiep pulled out the deposition of Mays school resource officer Daryl Brown, in which Brown identified the voice on the tape as that of Phillips. Then he played the tape for Cooper, twice. "After listening to it, it could be either one of them," Cooper waffled. "[It] doesn't sound the way I heard it on the day of the tape."
In October 2000 the State Attorney's Office dropped the case against Charles Bradley. In January prosecutors and school police reopened the investigation into who made the bomb threat, with Walter Phillips at the top of the list. Joe Centorino at the SAO had no comment about whether anyone else is under investigation. Meanwhile Bradley is in the throes of a long-delayed administrative appeal to try to get reinstated as a teacher in the school district. He's more than a little bitter. "I had to go to court for a year to clear my name," he rants. "So far, it's cost me $6000 just in expenses. All this based on them hearing a tape once."
The dowdy collection of aging buildings painted white with blue trim that house Mays Middle Community School off South Dixie Highway in Goulds forms the border of what could be called a small fiefdom. There is a class system, critics claim, with certain privileges enjoyed by those who adapt easily to a feudal structure, and extra work and penalties for those who don't. Current and former employees say working conditions at the school vary, depending on the grace of Ken Cooper and Carolyn Kaloostian. It's a management style, they say, that operates on favors, blind loyalty, and fear -- by his own admission, perfect for someone like Walter Phillips. "The school fitted me," he reminisces. "For some reason Kaloostian and me hit it off. She'd ask me to do things. And she kicked back favors to me. I didn't care what was going on around me until it happened to me."
What Phillips contends was going on around him was a steady consolidation of control under the five-foot one-inch blond dynamo Kaloostian. He and others contacted for this story maintain that Kaloostian is the de facto head of the school. "She's involved in anything and everything," one former employee says. "Her goal is to be involved in everything so she can be principal." Phillips says Kaloostian asked him and other security monitors to keep an eye on certain teachers and report back to her. When classes went on field trips, Phillips asserts, she would tell the teachers to report any problems to the security monitors rather than one of the other assistant principals, to make sure everything that happened went through her before Cooper heard about it. In return, Phillips says, Kaloostian gave him special privileges and a sense of power over the teachers.
"Nobody could get in my way," he recalls proudly. "I was allowed to do what I wanted to do. Come in late, leave early, get overtime. I had it made there." Phillips's personnel records confirm he made roughly $3500 above his base salary of $11,910 during each of his last two years at the school.
If teachers complained about Phillips, he was protected by administration. He recalls when Cooper received a letter in 1997 pointing out that Phillips had a criminal history, including pleading no contest earlier that year to aggravated assault and carrying a concealed firearm. The State Attorney's Office withheld adjudication, put Phillips on six months reporting probation, and made him turn over his gun. The school district's Office of Professional Standards confirmed the information and gave Cooper administrative discretion to handle the matter. Cooper's response? "Mr. Phillips was reminded of the high esteem that Dade County school employees are held," reads a memo from Cooper placed in Phillips's file. "That's why you have to be part of the clique," Phillips says.
Osvaldo Rodriguez was not. Hired early last year as a computer specialist, he lasted only a few months before an argument with Kaloostian got him booted from the school, he claims. He now works at Howard A. Doolin Middle in Kendale Lakes, a job he likes. As far as Rodriguez is concerned, the problem started because he constantly was ordered to do things not in his job description, including running detentions, writing referrals, and calling parents. "I'm a computer guy," he complains. "I'm supposed to fix computers."
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.
School district spokesman Alberto Carvalho describes Cooper as an administrator well liked by his superiors. "By all accounts [Cooper] is a competent, dedicated principal with a friendly but strict demeanor," says Carvalho.
Not everyone at Mays has had problems with the administration. Those who just do their jobs, as defined by administration, generally do okay. But not great. A former teacher who left the school because the administration wasn't supportive says one of the big problems was that some teachers were run ragged with extra, uncompensated work, while a chosen few close to Kaloostian and Cooper were rewarded. Some teachers were regularly chewed out in staff meetings. "To be a professional with a master's degree, for someone to yell at you like you are ten years old, is not something you should have to deal with," comments the former teacher.
Cooper doesn't agree that there has been high teacher turnover at the school, arguing that teachers move around in the system all the time. "Teachers have that ability," he contends. "Teachers get promoted. People leave. I don't try to second-guess them." (When New Times tried to get information on personnel turnover and how it compares to the system as a whole, a month later the school district responded that such public information would cost $269.05.)
Many of the current and former teachers contacted for this story refused to comment on the working atmosphere at Mays, either positively or negatively. Those who did, did so on the condition that their names not be used. Again, the garrulous Phillips does not hesitate to speculate. "They are so scared of that clique there they don't want to say anything. When they saw what happened to Bradley, that put a chokehold on everybody. They are scared to death." Certainly the employees who signed affidavits supporting Bradley in the bomb-threat case were not willing to discuss it. Parker, the security guard who identified the voice of the bomb-threat caller as that of Phillips, stiffened when asked about Charles Bradley. "Nope, no, no, I don't know nothing," he stuttered, shaking his head as if to dislodge an unpleasant memory. "I don't want to know nothing."
Edward Gooding, the band teacher who also signed an affidavit, nervously excused himself when contacted at home. "I have an appointment I have to get to," he said. "I'm sorry."
Charles Bradley's problems at Mays Middle began long before the bomb threat. When Cooper and Kaloostian came to Mays in the summer of 1997, Bradley was proctoring the in-school suspension program. The former principal had hired him in 1996 and evaluated his performance in 1997 as acceptable in all categories. But Bradley says he began running into problems with Cooper and Kaloostian almost immediately. Cooper abolished the indoor-suspension program and moved Bradley around, first as a security monitor, then as a teacher in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program. Then, inexplicably, Cooper reinstated the indoor-suspension program and put Bradley back in charge of it. But Bradley remembers clashing repeatedly with Kaloostian. "She wanted it run the way she wanted it run," he sighs. "From the very word go she was on my case."
The town criers of the school, the security monitors, warned Bradley that Cooper and Kaloostian were going to try to force him out of the school. "They came to me and said, They going to get you,'" he recounts. Cooper made him a full-time math teacher beginning the next fall. Bradley's teaching certification is in math, but since he began teaching in the school system in 1989, he had served mostly as a substitute for other teachers, or as an instructor in the indoor-suspension program. The next school year, Bradley says the administrators were always calling him to the office, often for minor infractions that they handled more discretely with other employees.
But the general consensus among current and former teachers at the school is that Bradley needlessly caused some of his own problems by showing up late for faculty meetings and being sloppy with paperwork, things he had to know only fueled the fire. "I know he had his share of problems," one teacher remarks. "Some he created, and some the school created. The administration was not helping him. They were doing what they needed to do within the contract to get him out." Convinced he was being harassed, Bradley tried to get a transfer to another school. He tried filing a grievance against Cooper. Both attempts went nowhere. Instead Cooper and Kaloostian stepped up the pressure by putting him "on prescription," a process in which an administrator will observe a teacher's classroom and write up a list of fixes for any deficiencies he sees. If the administrator judges that significant improvement hasn't been made over a certain period of time, he can request dismissal for unsatisfactory performance.
Bradley also wasn't winning any popularity contests among his colleagues at the school. He admits he had a reputation as a womanizer, which he earned when he became attracted to another teacher at the school who complained to administration that he was calling her at home. Bradley could be "an arrogant type of a guy, a jerk," observes Phillips, one of the traits that made other employees think maybe he deserved some of what he got. "A lot of things happened to him that he caused on his own by not complying with what they wanted him to do."
By late October 1999, the Mays Middle administrators had finally dotted all the i's, and crossed all the t's in creating the paper trail they needed to fire Bradley. He was first reassigned to the region and then dismissed November 17, for "unsatisfactory performance" and "gross insubordination." He filed an administrative appeal the next week. Two and a half weeks later, a bomb threat was called in to Mays Middle. A charge of "immorality" was added to the school district's laundry list against Bradley. It was dropped after the criminal case against him was closed.
Prosecutors and police are keeping theories about the bomb threat to themselves but, perhaps stung a little by their performances on the Bradley case, promise this investigation is being taken seriously. "We're certainly working actively on this to bring it to closure," says Assistant State Attorney Joe Centorino. Phillips denies he made the false bomb threat and says he doesn't owe anyone further explanation -- not Bradley and not Cooper. As to who did it, he says, "I'm curious myself."
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