The Kids Aren't All Right
You think you know all about the local education system -- the politics, the money crunch, the learning gaps. But schools are not mere hatcheries of learning, into which varying measures of intellectual formaldehyde are mixed with an inchoate population to produce the Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Gammas, and Epsilons of the next generation. Schools are in fact miniature cities, seething and bubbling with daily dramas that often have little to do with the actual purpose of their existence.
You know almost nothing about this. Think of your amount of knowledge as being equal to that of a typical father about his teenage daughter's sex life. Unless Dad logs onto her blog, he's clueless. Similarly, the Miami school system could be thought of as an unruly, hormone-driven wild child, with a secret life that rarely leaks into public view. Fortunately the school district keeps an old-fashioned diary.
One of the benefits of being a huge and unwieldy bureaucracy is that nearly everything that happens gets written down and reported up the chain of command. The schoolyard brawls, bus accidents, bomb threats, parent-teacher scuffles, tawdry employee affairs, or sprained ankles are documented in daily reports at every one of the more than 350 schools and educational centers throughout the county. They are brief dispatches, some almost haiku-like in their vague yet compelling detail. Most incidents are minor, some are epic. There is tragedy, and comedy, and much of a prosaic nature.
New Times decided to tear a few pages from this journal and have a look at all the pathos, selecting more than a thousand incident reports generated during several days throughout the 2003-04 school year. The range covers days in August, September, and December 2003, and April and May 2004. This is good stuff. Read on.
Anyone who has made it out alive knows that schools are petri dishes teeming with the rawest human emotions. Children are subjected to intense social and intellectual demands at the same time they are still developing the coping mechanisms adults use to moderate the pain and stress of daily life. It's a wonder more people aren't crazy.
One boy, age thirteen, at Hialeah Middle School, did go nuts one afternoon in May. For no reason, he suddenly began hitting other students in his class. When confronted by the teacher, Farah Arab, he spat in her mouth. He grabbed a pair of scissors and threatened to kill a student. He was immediately hauled to the assistant principal's office. When asked what was wrong with him, he said, "It's not me. It's the three guys, Jack, Jorge, and Marcus." When asked who they were, he responded that they were, "You know, in my mind. They come out at night when I sleep, especially Jack. When he comes out, it hurts my head." Then he blurted out, "I'm going to get a gun and kill. I'm going to kill [he mentioned four students' names]. I'm going to kill the police officer too." Assistant principal Marie Caceres called school police and the boy's parents. The student was transported to Citrus Health Network.
A third grader at Myrtle Grove Elementary in Opa-locka chased a classmate around the room on May 4, threatening to kill her. "He said he was going to pour gas on her house, light a match to it, and watch it burn as it did earlier this year," states the report, prepared by principal Barbara Johnson. "He wanted to see her die and was going to kill her entire family, too." The boy, age nine, was taken to Citrus Health Network and committed under the Baker Act.
At North Miami Beach Senior High on May 10, a girl became upset when told to leave the classroom because she was disruptive. She picked up a stapler and began forcing staples into her hands. The Baker Act for her too. Meanwhile, at Charles D. Wyche, Jr. Elementary on September 12, a troubled boy, age six, confessed to his therapist that his mother had taken him to the doctor and instructed him to "act crazy so that we can get the check so she can buy me clothes." He also said he ran around touching everything and that he pretended not to be able to identify numbers when asked. The therapist reported the incident to the state child abuse hotline.
The same day, across town at the Robert Morgan Educational Center, a fourteen-year-old boy broke down. He "began crying in frustration, reporting that his father molested his sister and ögot away with it,'" reported Lt. David Steger, of the school district's police force. "[He] refused to cease repeated physical activity, moving back and forth on his feet while facing the wall and speaking in barely audible voice. Family could not be reached. Student was transported to Jackson South."
Death Threats and Other Subtle Hints
One thing is clear about children. They are, on the whole, bloody-minded little bastards. To them, even minor provocations can appropriately be met with extreme reactions. The deductive reasoning of smaller urchins can be amusing. But in a world that has seen disaffected high school students gun down classmates in the suburbs of Colorado, Kentucky, and Oregon -- not to mention a quiet, unassuming teen named Michael Hernandez allegedly slitting the throat of Jaime Gough in the bathroom at Southwood Middle in Palmetto Bay this past February -- the misguided passions of youth can be chilling.
First, the sort of funny: At Miami Gardens Elementary, a fifth-grader angry at his teacher grumbled to fellow students, "She better be dead before I grow up or I will make her dead myself." At Van E. Blanton Elementary last September, a coach told a group of fifth-graders to stand by the fence because they refused to sit down during the morning lineup. One boy, age ten, began dancing around and playing the minigangster. "Coach, you're dead!" he cried. "I'll bring my boys and you'll be dead."
In the not-so-funny category, a girl in the fourth grade at Fairlawn Elementary allegedly created a "Hit List" game in May that involved different scenarios to kill a teacher, the teacher's family, the principal, and several students. The same month, a girl in the sixth grade at Doral Middle wrote the names of students she wanted to kill on a bathroom wall. She told school police she wanted to kill herself. It looked as if other students had added other names to the list.
The "hit list" created by a fourteen-year-old girl at Southwest Miami Senior High on May 5 contained three student names. When asked why she made the list, the girl replied, "This is a reminder of people for me to stay away from." On May 4, a girl at North Dade Middle wrote a note on an index card in the library that indicated she wanted to slice and dice up her cousin, also a student at the school. The note included a picture of a knife dripping blood.
Also in May, Miami Lakes Middle principal Barbara Mendizabal had a troubling situation on her hands. Fourteen parents in full freakout mode came to the school and told Mendizabal that they had heard from their teenagers that there was a "hit list" of student names and a knife, bat, and pepper spray somewhere on campus. An investigation found no weapons, but one girl did have a "slam book" with student names in it. At the same time, a girl in the sixth grade brought a pocket knife to school and gave it to a girl in the seventh grade to hide in the large oak tree behind the main building. Rumors about the knife led school administrators to the two girls. The younger one explained that she had brought the knife to school because she was constantly being teased about how much makeup she wore.
The Rewards of Public Service
"I hate you," said a boy, age fourteen, to West Miami Middle teacher Rick Boles this past May. The boy punched Boles in the eye and ran off. At Allapattah Middle, security monitor Johnny Studstill had the glasses knocked right off his face when he was hit by an irate eighth-grade student in the school cafeteria. David Schmidt, a teacher at Miami Beach Senior High, had a student launch a metal hole-puncher at his shoulder. Schmidt had refused to let anyone leave his class until the student who had printed out a bunch of offensive pictures fessed up. The boy then took a swing at him, in an attempt to run out of the room.
On April 30, a second-grade student at Gloria Floyd Elementary was angry about failing a music test. He stalked around the room. "I'm going to stab you in the eyeball!" he screamed, holding a dismantled ballpoint pen in a vaguely threatening manner. "I'm going to kill you and I'm going to shoot your head off!" Laverne Sanders, a security monitor at North Dade Middle, was knocked to the ground by two boys being chased by a school resource officer. An eight-year-old girl at Broadmoor Elementary hit her teacher and threw a rock at her.
A fifth-grader at North Hialeah Elementary accused teacher Linda Wimberly of rather extreme disciplinary methods in May. He said she grabbed him by the neck, lifted him off the floor, and slammed him against a glass display window. Alesia Gil, the mother of a nine-year-old at Cutler Ridge Elementary, alleged that his teacher, Debra Brown, bruised his arm while disciplining him. Gil charged that Brown had grabbed the boy's arm and put him in a closet, turned out the lights, and left him there. On December 12, a mother at Biscayne Gardens Elementary accused teacher Marie Louis of striking her son, age eleven, with a chair while trying to break up a fight.
And of course, there was the well-publicized incident at Coral Gables Elementary in September 2003, in which a school volunteer taped one rowdy child's head to his desk and taped a couple of other students to their chairs.
In Loco Parents
Coral Reef Senior High assistant principal Jimmie Brown was meeting with a parent in September about his son's "defiance regarding a cell phone." During the meeting, the man "stepped on my foot very hard," Brown reported. "I placed my hand on his shoulder and said, öBe careful.' He said, öI am sorry.'" But then, just as the meeting ended, the man contrived to step on Brown's foot again, hard. As Brown left the office, he heard the man say, "Hey you."
Brown turned and replied, "My name is not öHey you.'"
"You black motherfucker," the other man, who was Hispanic, jeered, walking toward Brown.
Brown contacted the school resource officer via radio. The aggressive man ran out of the school, got in his car, and fled.
On May 10, security monitor Charles Wright complained that a parent dropping off her child at Joella C. Good Elementary had tapped him with her car after he told her she couldn't park in the teachers' lot. On August 28, the uncle of a student at Norwood Elementary got upset when his nephew didn't arrive at his bus stop because the bus broke down. He wouldn't listen to reason and began to "scream obscenities and verbal threats."
At about the same time, across town at Claude Pepper Elementary, one woman allegedly hit another while waiting for their youngsters in front of the school "because she suspects that [the other woman] is having an affair with her husband."
On August 27, a seven-year-old boy was being dropped off at Campbell Drive Elementary by his mother. She had a fight with his father and took off, leaving a four-year-old at the school. The father took the child to his grandmother. On September 3, a seventh-grade student at Centennial Middle arrived at school with visible marks on his arm, neck, and back. He told his teacher the marks were from his father hitting him with a belt.
Predators and Prey
A surprising number of sexual incidents occur in and around the schools every day. These commonly include guys hanging out near schools and exposing themselves to children, students touching one another, or students and teachers in uncomfortable situations.
On May 3, a group of boys and one girl at Charles R. Drew Middle accosted a girl, age eleven, in the breezeway of the school. The two girls were standing in the breezeway when the elder girl, age twelve, began calling the younger girl a "slut" and a "dick sucker." Four boys walked up and began to grope the younger girl. The older girl allegedly held her down while one boy put his genitals in her mouth and another boy laid on top of her. One boy tried to penetrate her clothing, but was unsuccessful.
A thirteen-year-old student at Cutler Ridge Middle in May allegedly tried to force a boy who was a couple of years younger to touch his genitals, then held him against the wall and grabbed his private parts. Another eighth-grader at the same school was given a ten-day suspension in September for exposing himself to three sixth-grade students he was supposed to be tutoring.
"Kissing is not sexual harassment and will not hold up in court," one Homestead Senior High student argued to his irate bus driver in September. The bus driver wasn't impressed, and gave him his third referral for kissing girls on the bus. As the scamp left the bus, he paused and said, "Yes, I was kissing on that white girl."
The mother of a North Miami Senior High student reported to authorities the same month that her sixteen-year-old son had been sexually assaulted while showering in a University of Miami locker room. A seven-year-old girl found a strange man waiting in the girls' bathroom at Fienberg-Fisher Elementary. She ran out and told school officials. The same day, a man cruised by Miami Sunset Senior High and asked several female students to come drinking with him on the beach.
A nervous teacher at Calusa Elementary reported seeing a man near a classroom who looked like the West Kendall rapist in September. The school called police and performed a "lockdown drill," but found nobody suspicious.
At Miami Jackson Senior High, two female students claimed a male teacher touched them inappropriately. A student at Rockway Middle claimed that his male teacher, age 50, grabbed him by the shoulder and squeezed him, making him feel uncomfortable. "The teacher then stated something in Spanish to the student that made him feel as if the teacher wanted to pick him up," the report said.
And at Winston Park Elementary, teacher José Balart received the following disturbing voice mail message in August: "Listen to me son of a bitch. You raped my kid. I am dead serious. I will come after you, sir. You raped my kid. He was just a kid for God's sake."
The emotional temperature in the kitchen at William H. Turner Tech got too hot in May when lunch lady Patricia Lacy allegedly threatened two co-workers she thought were getting friendly. Cafeteria workers Carlos Decimus and Alicia McIntyre were chatting while on break, when Lacy warned them to "keep on talking."
When the break ended, Lacy "stated she was going to burn Mr. Decimus's truck and kill Ms. McIntyre," reported assistant principal David Moore. Lacy then made one hand into the shape of a gun and made "bang bang" noises at McIntyre. "Ms. Lacy and Mr. Decimus have a history of noncompliant behavior due to an alleged affair in which they are involved," Moore noted.
Similarly, Teresa Dupree, a teacher at Dorothy M. Wallace COPE Center, complained that she was getting too many phone calls from one Edith Manson, a teacher at Perrine Elementary. "Mrs. Dupree feel that this is because Mrs. Manson is now dating her husband," noted assistant principal Clarence Gilliard.
Martha Ward, a data input specialist at W.A. Chapman Elementary, in May accused P.E. teacher James Smith of threatening to hit her. Ward, 64, told principal Linda Amica that Smith, 51, was angry because she had told Amica he had rifled through her desk drawer and looked at some checks. Meanwhile, José Martí Middle custodian Guillermo Blanco complained that fellow custodian Lazaro Vazquez had slapped him in the face over a parking spot. And Norland Middle teacher Alisa Williams complained that security monitor Javis Wheeler walked up behind her in the cafeteria and rubbed his covered genitals across her butt.
At Kendale Lakes Elementary, Michael Howard was having a bad day. He allegedly said a number of inappropriate things to other school staff, including, "Like the Incredible Hulk, it is not good to make me angry."
Death Does Not Become Us
Somewhat alarming is the sheer number of students trying to signal for help through suicide attempts and self-mutilation. Just in the course of a few weeks, both male and female students cut themselves, took pills, and in the case of one boy at Campbell Drive Middle, drank bleach.
At Miami Lakes Middle, a boy, age eleven, told a counselor that he was being abused by his parents. He said he "can't take it anymore" and "wants to kill himself." A girl at Centennial Middle claimed to be having suicidal thoughts. Her teacher told her mother, who said the girl was just looking for attention. The student said she wanted to cut her wrists. Three girls, at North Miami Senior High, Hammocks Middle, and John A. Ferguson Senior High, each showed up at school with self-inflicted cuts, and expressed deep depression. Three girls at different schools, ages thirteen to eighteen, attempted suicide by taking either flu tablets or, in one case, fifteen sleeping pills.
On December 1, Carnell White, the principal of North Miami Senior High, reported that a fifteen-year-old male student had been shot and killed by North Miami Beach Police over the weekend. "There were administrators and a psychologist at the school to speak with the students. No further information is available at this time."
Public School Classics
No public school experience would be complete without the inevitable bomb threats, random accidents, illnesses, petty thefts, dope busts, and school fights.
On April 30, a school librarian at Miami Lakes Educational Center found an anonymous bomb scare message on a computer screen. It read, "There is a Bomb in this Building. This is Not a Joke." However, the likely suspect, a ninth-grade genius, had left his notebook next to the computer, making for an easy collar by schools police. On May 5, an unknown caller cryptically warned Shenandoah Middle assistant principal Edward Robinson that "the school is going to end today. It's going to end early." It didn't. And in September, someone sent strange letters to Highland Oaks Middle and Michael Krop Senior High, complaining that "gas prices are too high," and "the world needs to be changed." No actual threat, though. In fact the only real bomb that went off in a school last year was a stink bomb released by two wicked youngsters in the fifth grade at West Laboratory Elementary in Coral Gables.
In September, a ninth-grade boy at North Miami Senior High walked up to a girl in the hallway and began name-calling. "Pussy Ass Sponge Bob," he taunted, then, turning to leave, "Pussy Ass Hoe." The girl, age fifteen, replied, "I know you're not talking about me." The boy said that he was and followed his comment with a punch to the face. He continued punching her until she fell to the ground. Two senior boys at South Dade Senior High got into a fight because one had called the other's girlfriend a bitch. Two girls at Miami Southridge Senior High fought over a cell phone and one sliced the other's check with a small box cutter.
Meanwhile there were numerous accidents resulting in broken wrists, dislocated knees, bee stings, sprained ankles, and cracks on the noggin. On May 24, a fourteen-year-old at Robert Renick Educational Center ran into a wall while trying to catch a football in gym class. An eight-year-old threw his bookbag at his cousin while they waited for the bus to Robert Russa Moton Elementary. He missed and hit a woman's car instead, breaking the window. At Miami Springs Senior High in August, a ninth-grader had a seizure in class and fell out of his desk. The same day, a sixteen-year-old boy at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High stole a golf cart at lunchtime and accidentally backed into a girl waiting in line to get her food.
A number of students at a dozen different elementary schools were diagnosed with everything from pneumonia to viral meningitis, Fifth disease (also called "slap cheeks," a rashlike virus common in children), and even, in the case of one boy at Tropical Elementary, malaria. At Seminole Elementary, a fourth-grade student was found inexplicably unconscious on the floor of the boys' bathroom. In the bathroom at Miami Killian Senior High, a seventeen-year-old who was six months pregnant began having contractions.
On September 3, a North County Elementary student brought a toy gun lighter to school. On August 27, an H.D. McMillan Middle seventh-grader showed a BB gun to another boy in the bathroom, who thought it was real. On May 6, a fourteen-year-old girl at Arvida Middle was caught with a bottle of Mace and a folding knife in her backpack. On May 10, an eleven-year-old boy at JRE Lee Opportunity School brought a gun to school. Other students turned him in.
On August 26, school security at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High found a sixteen-year-old in a daze in the third-floor hallway. He had two baggies of marijuana on him. Another sixteen-year-old at South Miami Senior High was caught with "mood modifiers" on August 29. On September 8, the DEA and Miami Police arrested Tanzie Ware, a cafeteria monitor at Frances S. Tucker Elementary, on suspicion of selling narcotics. On April 30, a fourteen-year-old girl at Everglades K-8 Center was caught with a bag of cocaine.
And administrators at Paul Bell Middle arrived at work one day to discover that someone had broken into the school. The perps, obviously urchins, broke a few windows, flooded a classroom by leaving the sinks on, discharged a fire extinguisher, and then stole it.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter