We Have a Problem

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

Though Lesa's letter provides only one side of an undoubtedly complex interpersonal mess, other factors also cast some doubt on Sosa's credibility -- notably her arrest record.

On November 15, 1996, a judge granted Sosa's ex-fiancé, Andres Fernandez, a permanent injunction ordering Sosa to stay at least 500 feet away from him. After that, during the course of about three years, he repeatedly accused her of violating the injunction. The Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office twice charged her criminally for these violations: once in 1997 for aggravated stalking, a felony; and once in 1998 for a misdemeanor violation of the order. In the felony case, prosecutors dropped the charges. A judge acquitted Sosa of the misdemeanor.

"In my opinion this was a case in which [Sosa] was very much a victim, and there were a lot of abuses of the system," says attorney Jacquie Valdespino, a lawyer who defended Sosa for part of her three-year legal battle. Depositions and court transcripts from the proceedings reveal that Fernandez, who owns an ammunition-supply business, sold bullets to and trained officers from the Hialeah Police Department -- the same organization that initially arrested Sosa. It appears defense lawyers tried to prove Fernandez used his connections to the Hialeah P.D. to have Sosa arrested.

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

That aside, the portrait of Sosa that emerges from these court documents is troubling. In an August 14, 1997, deposition, Fernandez answered questions about violence in his relationship with Sosa. "On many occasions she'd get violent," Fernandez said, alleging that Sosa pulled a gun on him twice, struck him, and hit him with a car. (At the time Sosa had a license to carry a concealed weapon; it expired in 1999.) He says he never assaulted her, however. Depositions by others do not substantiate these claims, but they do depict a woman with a quick temper and a tendency to lose control.

Joe Melita, director of Broward County Schools' professional standards office, says the only information his department has on Sosa is an anonymous complaint about the threatening e-mail. Because Sosa was never convicted in the lengthy domestic dispute with Fernandez, the district took no action in the matter, he explains.

Though Sosa did not return a recent phone call seeking comment on her legal troubles, she did display a bit of a temper in an earlier conversation with New Times. When Broward County Schools notified her that New Times requested her personnel file (along with the files of the Parnhams, Zekofsky, and several other teachers), she called this reporter and launched into an angry tirade before she even knew the premise of the article. "If you print anything slanderous, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," she threatened.

The trouble went beyond malicious pranks and a personnel civil war, however. A faculty survey and 17 anonymous letters to the School Board conveyed a damning message about Apollo. The letters, some of which administrators speculate came from the same person, lament a school that had taken a quick turn south.

On November 2, 1999, a person identified as a parent wrote, "I've never seen such dedicated teachers and [faculty] with such low morale. I've never been in such a position where I am afraid to sign this letter for the retribution it could have upon my child attending Apollo Middle School."

The letters from teachers make the same points over and over again. One teacher writes in May 2000, "I am about to fill out my transfer papers. I will be leaving Apollo Middle School with great sadness. I have taught there for twelve years. I have given all I am as a teacher and a person to this school. I can no longer deal with Mrs. [Aimee] Zekofsky and her attacks against veteran teachers who like myself made Apollo what it was.... Mrs. Zekofsky has destroyed our school in the two years she has been principal. We have lost so many excellent teachers and more will leave this year."

School Board member Lois Wexler says the anonymous letters prompted her to investigate Apollo's troubles. "It was very disturbing to receive those indicators of unrest and unfair treatment at the school," she says. "Talking to [teachers], I realized there really is a problem here." She adds, however, that it is difficult for the school board to respond to anything unsigned.

In November 1999 Apollo's faculty council surveyed teachers with questions based on problems brought up by the first few anonymous letters. The survey results paint a picture of a staff in crisis. In a January 2000 memo to faculty and staff, Zekofsky summarized the results. Of 110 employees, 59 responded. Of these:

33 people said that the "overall picture of Apollo is that a critical situation exists";

31 said they "felt frustrated by poor planning pertaining to events, assemblies, and open house";

34 "feel that staff morale is low";

33 feel that there are "problems with safety, discipline, and security at the school"; and

18 said they were "considering a transfer due to the seriousness of the situation."

The written comments from teachers show extreme polarization. The statements range from "There is an extremely high level of incompetence," to "I do not feel the principal is vindictive in my meetings with her. It appears she has excellent leadership abilities." Few comments represent anything close to a middle ground.

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