Ex-Annapolis principal settles

Wrongful-termination suit had been filed against Arundel school system

February 23, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County school system has reached a financial settlement with former Annapolis High School Principal Deborah Williams, who had filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against officials after she was removed eight months into her stormy tenure.

A settlement order was filed Jan. 25 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, but Williams' attorney, Jay Holland, said that all details of the agreement have not been made final.

"It's more than an informal agreement," he said. "It's an enforceable agreement. [But] there's still more to do."

Williams did not return telephone calls to her home yesterday. However, Carl Snowden, an aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens and a local civil rights activist, said Williams told him the school system agreed to pay her about $100,000.

"Deborah Williams stood up against great odds at a time when many people counseled her not to," he said. "She fought the good fight and stood there and continued to fight."

"The reason she filed suit was a form of vindication," he added. "From her perspective, she's now been fully vindicated."

Tony Ruffin, a school system spokesman, said officials had no comment on the case because it is a personnel matter.

Williams, an African-American and a former Prince George's County administrator, was hired by Anne Arundel schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith in 2003 to address problems at the school, including the significant achievement gap between minority students and higher-performing white students.

Within months, some parents' dismay over what they perceived as her overly harsh manner with students or strong-arm tactics -- such as requiring clear backpacks to prevent weapons from being brought into the school building -- boiled over into public forums, including a Web site where some posted comments critical of Williams.

The debate split largely along racial lines as some in the African-American community supported her, valuing her enforcement of standards for minority students, and some contended that she was targeted because of her race.

Smith backed Williams until March, when he removed her from the post, noting "security concerns" under her leadership. She was temporarily reassigned and then informed her contract would not be renewed.

Smith later named former Annapolis Middle Principal Donald R. Lilley, who is also African-American, to the position.

In June, Williams filed suit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court against Smith and the Board of Education, alleging that she was wrongfully terminated based on racial discrimination. The case was moved to U.S. District Court, which required mediation.

"I think everybody's worked hard to try to reach a resolution, including the Board of Education," Holland said.

The case has ramifications, Snowden said. Williams' termination was part of a racial discrimination complaint filed by some parents and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights last spring, and now that aspect has been resolved, said Snowden, who participated in the complaint.

Since Williams left, things have quieted at Annapolis High. "I think the school community has on the whole moved on," said parent Steve Johnson.

Johnson said the school still faces many of the problems that Williams was hired to address.

"The incident, that will recede in the rearview mirror, but the issues ... they're still in front of us in the windshield," he said.

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