Annapolis High principal removed from post

Reassignment follows 8 months of contention

March 18, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

The tumultuous tenure of Deborah Williams - the Annapolis High School principal whose arrival eight months ago bitterly divided a school community - ended abruptly yesterday when Anne Arundel County schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith announced that he is removing her from her post.

At a morning briefing, Smith said his decision to reassign Williams in midyear was prompted by concerns that students are not being adequately supervised at the county's flagship school.

"Issues of safety and security have just fallen short of my expectation at this time of year," said Smith. "I feel I have no choice but to make the decision I have made."

The dispute over Williams, a former Prince George's educator who came to the school in July with a mandate to crack down on academic and discipline problems, polarized the Annapolis community and revived racial tensions. Williams is an African-American.

It also highlighted the difficulties that a divided community and school faculty can pose for a school leader trying to make substantial changes. Smith touched on those complicated issues yesterday, but emphasized that his immediate reason for replacing Williams had to do with student safety.

He noted as an example of the school's security problems a November incident in which a group of students stripped a teen-age boy of his clothes on a school sports field. Two teachers received letters of dismissal last week after an internal investigation into the assault, which took place during a physical education class, officials said yesterday.

Smith said Donald Lilley, the principal of Annapolis Middle School for the past two years, would immediately assume leadership of the high school.

Reached by telephone at home yesterday, Williams, 50, said she was too upset to comment about her reassignment. School officials said she will be transferred to a position in the curriculum department.

Williams' removal stunned both supporters and opponents.

"We were really shocked, because Dr. Smith has been so fervent in her support," said Leslie Stefany, an Annapolis High government teacher who has been one of Williams' most vocal opponents. "I think there's a great sense of relief that we can move forward and rebuild Annapolis."

But among Williams' supporters, surprise was quickly replaced by outrage.

"The superintendent caved in to the people who wanted her out," said Annapolis Alderwoman Classie Gillis Hoyle, one of about 20 African-American community members who met with Smith yesterday.

About 100 black residents gathered in an Annapolis church last night to discuss Williams' dismissal and brainstorm ideas for future action. All speakers said they were angry at Smith, and some wanted to take a vote of no-confidence in the superintendent.

Other suggestions ranged from starting a private school for black students, organizing a demonstration or filing a class action lawsuit against the school system.

Williams' removal appears to end one of the most polarizing episodes in Annapolis High's history.

She arrived at the 1,600-student school with directions from Smith to establish discipline and improve the academic performance of black and Hispanic youngsters, which lags behinds that of white students.

But some students, teachers and parents were angered by her methods toward students and staff, which they characterized as heavy-handed and inconsistent.

The criticism, vitriolic at times, prompted a reaction from members of the African-American community, who accused opponents of racism. The dispute eventually spilled over into a larger political arena, as several Annapolis city council members and a state legislator publicly took sides.

Smith told reporters yesterday that he did not blame Williams for the school's failings. He called her efforts on behalf of the school "heroic" in light of the fierce opposition she faced.

"I think it's a credit to Deborah Williams that she's been able to endure what she's endured," Smith said.

Almost immediately after taking over, Williams attracted the ire of students and parents with strict rules of behavior and dress, including requiring students to carry belongings in see-through backpacks.

Several dozen students wore orange one day last fall to protest what they called prison-like conditions. And some teachers clashed with Williams, saying she unfairly berated them when students misbehaved.

A group of parents launched a campaign to have Williams ousted. They created a Web site to exchange complaints and bombarded the news media and school and elected officials with letters demanding her removal.

Until yesterday, Smith had steadfastly expressed confidence in Williams' ability to work out differences with disgruntled members of her staff and prove herself an effective school leader. But in the meantime, Smith had privately decided to closely monitor the situation at Annapolis High. Smith's scrutiny was prompted by a report from the state's child protective services program, which investigated the December student assault.

The January report found management-level problems involving the supervision of students, Smith said. The superintendent said he followed up with in-house investigations of possible management failures, and hired a school-safety consultant to evaluate the situation.

All of the findings pointed to administrative problems.

Sun staff writer Jason Song contributed to this article.

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