Smith backs school official

Some ask superintendent to fire embattled principal

Critics say violence has risen

Annapolis High teachers raise concerns at meeting

December 14, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith found himself surrounded last week by a dozen Annapolis High School teachers urging him to do something about an unflagging controversy involving new principal Deborah Williams.

The encounter came at the end of an impromptu faculty meeting with Smith days after a fight between a student and a teacher gave more fuel to Williams' opponents, who say there has been a rise in violent and disrespectful behavior since she took charge this fall.

"There's a need to bring the conversation inside the school," Smith said after Thursday's 30-minute meeting in the school's auditorium - the first time he had addressed the staff as a whole about the complaints. "We need to face each other and talk to each other."

Parents, students and teachers have asked that Williams be replaced, saying she is overbearing, uncommunicative and has heightened tensions between whites and blacks at the school.

Williams, who is black, has maintained that she wants to impose order in a school with discipline problems and severe academic inequities between racial groups. She has the support of African-American community leaders, including the Anne Arundel County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which plans to send members expressing support for her to a school board meeting Wednesday.

In past weeks, Williams' critics have accused Smith of ignoring their complaints about the principal's leadership. Smith has told reporters that he supports Williams' efforts.

But his direct communications with the principal's opponents have been limited to a form letter sent to parents who have put their complaints in writing. In the letter, Smith writes that he is monitoring the situation and urges parents to "communicate directly with the principal about any concerns." On Thursday, he had a similar message for teachers, whom he urged to address complaints through the proper channels, not the media or on an anti-Williams Web site created by parents. At the conclusion of the meeting, he invited teachers to stay and speak with him individually.

Some teachers appreciated Smith's overture.

"It did not allay all the frustrations," said art teacher June Perry, "but I think that he needed to [do it]. I felt positive about the fact that he made the attempt."

Perry said Smith put to rest a rumor that had made her uneasy. He told teachers it was untrue that the school administration had put a limit on the number of students it was suspending - presumably to make the school appear more disciplined. Smith said, 188 students had been suspended this year, compared with 123 by the same time last year.

`A lot of gossip'

But many teachers said they were disappointed that he did not address other specific complaints against Williams.

"It didn't get down to the nitty-gritty," said Karen Graff, also an art teacher. "I feel like there's a lot of gossip, and that kind of disturbs me. I'd like to know what's really happening."

The opposition to Williams has cast a pall over the school. Teachers say they are distracted by a constant barrage of rumors about fights between students or injustices committed by Williams. An incident last month in which a girl struck a boy in the head with a hole puncher, for example, spawned stories that a student had been stabbed.

Police say there has not been an increase of violent incidents at the school compared with last year. But in the current climate, Williams' critics note each fight as an indication that she does not have control over the school.

Last week, a 16-year-old boy and a veteran social studies teacher became involved in a shoving match during class, according to police. The student was expected to be charged with second-degree assault, police said, and the teacher was transferred out of Annapolis High pending an administrative investigation.

Rumored `sick-out'

On Friday, 31 teachers - about a fourth of the faculty - called in sick and did not report to work. There had been rumors in previous days of a teacher "sick-out," an illegal form of protest under state law.

Lee Shackelford, a human resources manager for the school system, said teacher absences at Annapolis High were 30 percent higher than the same Friday last year. But he noted that a bad flu season and the approaching holiday might have contributed to the absences.

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