We Have a Problem

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

Unfortunately personality clashes at Apollo were to become not the exception but the rule.

The nine teachers interviewed for this story unanimously state that Zekofsky's treatment and discipline of her employees rested on her relationships with them: They assert she lightly reprimanded teachers she called friends while she aggressively pursued teachers she disliked. Rumors of perceived favoritism ate away at the heart of the faculty, which eventually became polarized into a pro-Zekofsky camp and an anti-Zekofsky camp: The chaos ultimately bred unprofessional behavior among employees.

Yvette Smith withdrew her children Joseph and Sugar from Apollo after another student shoved a pencil up Joseph's nose
Yvette Smith withdrew her children Joseph and Sugar from Apollo after another student shoved a pencil up Joseph's nose

Of the many odd tales that played themselves out at school, the most bizarre is that of Lesa Parnham, Drew Parnham, and Suzanne Sosa. Lesa and Drew, both long-time teachers at Apollo, had met at the school and gotten married in 1992. Sosa, who knew Zekofsky from Indian Ridge, came with the new principal to teach in Apollo's dropout-prevention program.

The three teachers' problems began early in Zekofsky's second year at the school. Several teachers say the now 35-year-old Sosa would openly flirt with Drew, who is 37 years old. As the now-39-year-old Lesa grew increasingly suspicious, both women began constantly criticizing each other. "Sosa was always complaining about Lesa, trying to paint Lesa as this jealous wife," one teacher says. Everyone knew about the rivalry, and it dominated discussion among faculty and staff.

Both Parnhams declined to comment for this article. However, in a letter to area superintendent Gregg in July 2000, Lesa tells her side of the story.

According to Lesa's letter, Zekofsky eventually offered to help the two women talk through their problem. "To keep the peace, and because I knew that Ms. Sosa was one of Mrs. Zekofsky's friends, I agreed," Lesa wrote. The day before a scheduled mediation session, however, Lesa found e-mail evidence that proved her worst fears true: Her husband and Sosa had indeed had an affair over the summer. The next day both Parnhams and teacher Sue Haight, a union steward, came to Zekofsky's office. "Ms. Zekofsky refused to allow Ms. Haight to enter the room and actually slammed the door in her face," wrote Lesa, who then requested that another administrator sit in on the discussion.

"During this meeting I told Mrs. Zekofsky what I had learned. Ms. Sosa repeatedly denied any wrongdoing even in the face of my husband's saying, "Stop lying Suzanne, I want to save my marriage,'" Parnham wrote. Zekofsky ended the meeting saying she would call in South Area Director Jackie Box and that one of the three teachers would probably have to leave the school. Because Sosa was the least senior of them, the Parnhams assumed she would be the one to go, Lesa wrote.

When confirmation of the affair leaked out, the school erupted into a war zone, teachers say. Some anonymous employee or employees mail-ordered gumballs, ceramic dolls, and CD club memberships and sent them to Zekofsky's house. Teachers left nasty notes, acne medication, and other malicious trinkets in Sosa's box at school. Apollo's employees, it seemed, had taken to acting like the children they taught.

Then Lesa received a threatening e-mail from Sosa. Lesa immediately showed the e-mail to administrators and to Roussell's predecessor, David Smith, a school resource officer and a Hollywood cop. When Lesa told Zekofsky she intended to press charges, according to Lesa's letter, Zekofsky "insinuated that I had somehow written the e-mail myself."

Shortly thereafter, teachers say, Zekofsky accused both Drew and another teacher of scripting the threat. Zekofsky, they allege, had plans to call the district's special investigative unit before she even discussed the problem with her suspects. It seemed a refrain of a common theme: Sosa, Zekofsky's friend, could do no wrong, while other teachers got the shaft.

Lesa wrote that, when she confronted Zekofsky, the principal said Lesa would be embarrassed if she pursued an investigation. "I asked her what she thought I had to be embarrassed about as I was clearly the victim in this situation. She told me to think about it." Lesa met with Zekofsky the next day with her husband and a union rep. "[Zekofsky] told me at this point if I let the [e-mail] investigation drop, she would not pursue an involuntary transfer for my husband," Lesa wrote. "I reluctantly agreed."

As Lesa tells the story, it seems not only did Zekofsky fail to control the Apollo melodrama, she added to it. Lesa wrote: "Mrs. Zekofsky met with Mr. Arculeo, Ms. Box and Ms. Dianne Watts of the BTU concerning this situation. During this meeting she said in front of these people, "I don't know why Lesa is so upset about this, I hear that she had an affair with Drew before she was divorced." Upon hearing this, I questioned her about it. She replied, "Oh, I heard it from several senior teachers.'"

After a protracted back and forth, Drew agreed to take another job midyear with the understanding that Sosa also would leave. Sosa, who now teaches at Pines Middle School, left that summer.

Neither Sosa nor Zekofsky would comment on the matter. Several teachers corroborate the events described in Lesa's letter.

One teacher, though she stresses that the teachers who participated in the soap opera-style work environment are responsible for their immature behavior, believes the real problem was Zekofsky's poor leadership skills. "It's because of the management style that it became a Peyton Place," the teacher says. The previous principal would have stopped the problems before they started, according to the teacher. "[Yaffa-Connor] let us know she doesn't want to hear anyone ratting anybody else out," the teacher says, adding that Connor kept teachers so busy improving the school and working on academic projects that they wouldn't have had time for so much gossip. "[Before Zekofsky] we were very professional people. People just carried themselves in a different fashion."

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