We Have a Problem

Filthy bathrooms, dirty pictures, teachers fleeing in droves -- sounds like Apollo Middle School is adrift

On November 16, 2000, Apollo Middle School principal Aimee Zekofsky summoned Ofcr. Bryan Roussell of the Hollywood Police Department to her office. The principal handed him what resembled a Rorschach test, then asked him to fold it and hold it up to the light. Roussell, Apollo's school resource officer, followed her directions; he quickly discerned the shadowy image of a woman and two men having sexual intercourse.

Zekofsky, a 45-year-old, third-year principal, told Roussell that a parent had brought the pornography to her after the parent's child, an Apollo student, came home from school with it. Zekofsky assured the cop that she had already started her own investigation: She spent the morning taking written statements from several female students, all of whom claimed Audrey Gissendanner-Brown, Apollo's security camera operator and girls' basketball coach, had supplied the smut. Given the sexual nature of the incident, Zekofsky explained, she had already decided to call in the school system's Special Investigative Unit (SIU) to work alongside Hollywood P.D. detectives to continue the inquiry.

The description of that initial conversation between Zekofsky and Roussell is the extent of Roussell's incident report, written two days later. The SIU case is still open; thus the file for the investigation is not yet a public record. (New Times obtained the report from Hollywood police.) But one parent involved in the case says he knows what actually happened and that Gissendanner-Brown is clearly not at fault.

At least 48 Apollo employees have left since principal Aimee Zekofsky came to the school in 1998
At least 48 Apollo employees have left since principal Aimee Zekofsky came to the school in 1998

About a week after the parent handed Zekofsky the ribald inkblot, Quintin Robinson came to school with his daughter, eighth grader Marshaynia Washington, who formally stated to administrators that she had found the pornography at school, then made photocopies of it in the front office. At the same meeting, another student admitted bringing it to school, Robinson says. Both students emphasized that Gissendanner-Brown had nothing to do with the offending erotica.

"The root of the problem is the students," Robinson says. "[Marshaynia] was willing to put herself on the line and risk getting expelled from school -- and getting killed by me." After the students confessed, Robinson says he thought the whole case against Gissendanner-Brown would be dropped.

Instead the SIU case is still open, Gissendanner-Brown has been removed as basketball coach, and the kids have gone unpunished -- facts that prompt Robinson and many teachers to question Zekofsky's motives. Those who support Gissendanner-Brown say Zekofsky had a problem with the coach's friendly relationship with students. So much of a problem, they say, that Zekofsky would ruin Gissendanner-Brown's reputation.

"The principal feels that [the students] are just covering for Ms. Audrey, and that's not the case," Robinson says. "[The investigation] wasn't to get to the square root of the problem. It was to bury [the coach]."

Robinson worries about the lesson his daughter is learning from the school's handling of the incident. "I always told her, "The truth will set you free,'" he says. "So why isn't the truth setting Ms. Audrey free?"

The pornography case does not stand as an isolated incident. Instead it is the most recent major blowup at a school plagued by insidious problems: inconsistent discipline, almost-daily fights, kids roaming the halls during classes, rock-bottom morale among employees, a polarized faculty, and an unprofessional, gossip-ridden atmosphere.

Current and former employees say the school at 6800 Arthur St. used to be "Broward's best-kept secret" because of its backbone of veteran teachers, a multicultural student body, and a familial bond among faculty. Some chuckle that it was such a good place to work that a teacher had to die to create a vacancy.

But ever since Aimee Zekofsky became principal at the beginning of the 1998-99 school year, teachers have been dying to get out of Apollo.

In the two and a half years of Zekofsky's leadership, the School Board has received at least 17 anonymous letters from teachers and parents pleading for relief. A spokeswoman for the Broward Teachers Union (BTU) says she has heard "countless" complaints about Zekofsky. And the echoing footsteps of employees fleeing the school signal trouble: Data compiled from faculty and staff rosters indicate at least 48 employees have left within the past two and a half years. Some teachers assert that the rosters are inaccurate and that the number is closer to 60. Either number, school officials say, would represent a high rate of turnover at Apollo, which employs approximately 120 people.

Nine teachers -- all of whom insisted they remain anonymous -- and several concerned parents interviewed for this article have told New Times the stories behind those numbers. In addition to raising concerns about such symptoms as dirty bathrooms and poor air quality, nearly all of those interviewed point to Zekofsky's lack of leadership skills as the root of the school's woes. The pornography investigation, they say, is just the latest battle in Zekofsky's ongoing war against anyone she perceives as a threat to her authority -- a struggle that has included her questionable handling of an adulterous romantic triangle among three of her employees.

Zekofsky declined to comment about the pornography incident or any other specific allegation in this story. She did, however, assert her confidence in her own leadership skills in a brief written statement.

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