By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
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.
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.
Many of her employees would beg to differ. "Our school was like a family. Now it feels like a divorce," one teacher wrote in an e-mail. "Most of the teachers who left want to come back if they remove the principal."
Many teachers call Zekofsky's predecessor, Patricia Yaffa-Connor, who left to become a high-school principal, the best leader the school ever had. And even though losing Yaffa-Connor saddened many, the prospect of gaining Zekofsky softened the blow. Apollo Middle School would be her first job as a principal, but Zekofsky's reputation as an excellent assistant principal at Indian Ridge Middle School in Davie convinced Apollo's faculty that she would rise to the occasion. "Before [Zekofsky] came, we heard she was wonderful," one teacher remembers. "We were really excited to get her."
Zekofsky's résumé and evaluations also reflect promise. Born Aimee Rodriguez in 1955, she grew up in Puerto Rico. After earning her bachelor's and master's degrees, she began her career on the island, teaching elementary, middle, and high school from 1976 to 1984. She spent a year at an elementary school in New Jersey, and then in 1985 she started as a "bilingual teacher" at Sunrise Middle School in Fort Lauderdale. In 1993 she began taking classes at Nova Southeastern University toward a doctorate in educational leadership. She served as an assistant principal at New River Middle School from 1993 to 1995 and then at Indian Ridge from 1995 to 1998. During her tenure at Indian Ridge she married and changed her last name.
Her evaluations sing her praises as an assistant principal. Many current and former Apollo teachers and parents, however, think her superiors greatly overestimated her ability to lead others. "I believe it when people say Aimee was a good assistant principal," one former Apollo teacher says. "I believe you can be a good assistant principal and not be a good principal."
Once they saw Zekofsky at work, many teachers gathered that the new boss had the wrong idea about their school. "I got the feeling that Aimee came in, and Aimee thought Apollo was a bad school. She was under the perception she was supposed to clean it up," one former Apollo teacher says, adding that the school in no way needed a structural overhaul. "Apollo was a school that could kind of run on autopilot. It didn't need a principal there to run. There were veteran teachers there, and there was a rhythm to the school. It's all lost now."
A principal new to a school often refrains from making sweeping changes right away, instead spending the first year observing the faculty dynamic and building relationships with employees. But as soon as Zekofsky arrived at Apollo, she began tweaking the routine: She reassigned teachers' classrooms, reworked the schedule, and rewrote the budget, teachers remember. She also made smaller changes that, more than anything else, rubbed teachers the wrong way.
Her preoccupation with gum-chewing perplexed many teachers. "With all the fighting [among students], her main concern is chewing gum," one teacher sighs. "That may have been the biggest problem at Indian Ridge but not at Apollo."
As Zekofsky spent most of her energy fixing what wasn't broken, teachers say, the school's day-to-day operations began to deteriorate. Several teachers tell stories of handouts going home to parents weeks late, last-minute faculty meetings, and haphazard planning for school events. Teachers say Zekofsky also did not consistently hold employees accountable for their work -- that, they say, is why the school steadily grew filthy.
Teachers' distrust of Zekofsky grew, especially in light of the adversarial posture she assumed toward her most experienced staffers. "She went after the veteran teachers," one teacher declares. "She said she wanted to get rid of the cliques. What's a clique? A group of people that get along with each other."
Zekofsky only validated that suspicion when she fired Lorenzo Alvarez, a man who worked as the school's security guard and who helped coach athletic teams. According to teachers and a signed statement that Alvarez wrote to document the occurrence, Zekofsky accused Alvarez of cursing at an athletic event she did not attend. "Aimee Zekofsky proceeded to write me up and did not listen to a word I said in my own defense," Alvarez wrote. "I have always been very professional with staff and students at extracurricular events." Zekofsky's decision to cut an employee who, teachers say, had a gift for controlling unruly children upset many faculty and staff members.
But despite the brewing trouble of the first year, many teachers stayed on because they knew it was only Zekofsky's first stab at leading a school. School Board member Lois Wexler says she thinks teachers mainly had a "wait and see" attitude. "Her leadership style didn't seem to blend with the structure of the school, and that happens sometimes," Wexler allows.
Samuel Gregg, the south area superintendent, also says initial problems are normal when a new principal comes to a school. "There's always resentment from teachers when someone new takes the helm," he says. "She has a very different leadership style. A lot of teachers at Apollo have been there 15 or 20 years. It takes some time for teachers and staff to get used to Ms. Zekofsky."
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.
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."
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.
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.
The camera pans for about ten seconds across tiles all but hidden by coffee-color dirt, the amber residue of a mysterious fluid, and crumpled toilet paper. Sinks clogged with dark debris jut from the walls. Above them, dingy, half-corroded mirrors produce reflections resembling grainy Polaroids. There are no soap dispensers and no paper-towel holders. The bathroom stalls do not have doors, and the toilets are white, porcelain islands in a sea of dried-up brown liquid. Months-old used sanitary napkins poke over the edge of their designated receptacle. Outside the bathroom, debris clogs a water fountain, dirt left by rats clings to the walls, and a thick layer of dust coats bent air filters. The camera lingers on a fat cockroach browsing through the gunk.
These images -- with their eerie, fetid simplicity -- would be fitting opening shots for a low-budget 1950s horror flick about roaches taking over the world. Instead they appear in Maria Farrell's ten-minute home video documenting Apollo Middle School's custodial problems.
During Zekofsky's second year, as the Sosa/Parnham imbroglio raged, Farrell began her own battle against the school's visible filth. The bathrooms were so disgusting, Farrell says, that many kids refused to use them throughout the day.
Farrell, who lives in an immaculate house in Pembroke Pines, is a small woman with long chestnut hair, bangs, and a high voice. Outside the one-story home, her half-moon driveway is lined with orb-shape bushes. She is something of a Donna Reed for the 21st Century, brimming with intellectual curiosity, compassion, and common sense.
Though she makes it a point to stay neutral amid the hostility between teachers and Zekofsky, Farrell doesn't hesitate to pin the sanitation problems on the principal. The combination of low wages and poor leadership, she says, gave custodians little incentive to do their jobs.
Farrell says when she started campaigning for a cleaner school, she had thought she was tackling a fairly straightforward problem. But for months and months, Farrell lobbied for Zekofsky to force custodians to do their jobs. Farrell held countless meetings with Zekofsky and the school's assistant principals -- all of which she meticulously documented in a thick three-ring binder full of typed notes and e-mails. Farrell talked to district administrators, to school board members, and to the school's custodians. Nothing happened.
She even ripped from the wall and placed on Zekofsky's desk an overflowing receptacle for used sanitary napkins that she speculated had not been emptied in months. Everyone, including the principal, told Farrell they would do something, but their words rang empty.
Last spring Farrell listened to so many student complaints about the dirty school that Farrell organized a spring cleaning activity. About 10 percent of students and several faculty members and administrators (including Zekofsky and her husband) showed up on a Saturday to do an exhaustive cleanup of a school that seemed as though a broom or mop hadn't touched it in months.
However, when she saw a whole new layer of dirt build up after the spring cleaning, Farrell says she realized the principal still hadn't gotten the message. "The inspectors come out, show a violation. The principal signs off on it. They come again. The principal signs off on it," Farrell says, lamenting that there was no mechanism in place to make the principal actually do what inspectors prescribed.
Only recently, Farrell says, has the school's cleanliness improved -- but Farrell isn't stopping there. This past month, Farrell has turned up the heat in her quest to make Zekofsky do something about Apollo's lousy air quality. Last year, after hearing teachers' complaints of respiratory problems (coupled with her own daughter's stories of dry air causing her contact lenses to pop out in class), Farrell set up air monitors in several teachers' rooms to gauge carbon dioxide levels. Outside air generally has a rating of 200 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide; experts say inside air should never have more than 600 ppm. Farrell discovered that some rooms had ratings well above 2000 ppm; the teachers in those classrooms generally had above-average numbers of health-related absences.
Farrell has managed to convince school administrators to open the air conditioning vents more so new air comes in instead of recycling the air already in the school. That suggestion, however, did not help matters much.
On March 12 of this year, Farrell wrote a letter to Zekofsky, outlining the problem and presenting the data she gathered from her air monitors. "I am very concerned about the air quality at Apollo Middle School. It was brought to my attention last year and you and I have spoken about it several times," Farrell wrote. She included several pages of evidence that it is difficult for children to learn and teachers to lead classes when the air is so difficult to breathe.
To date, Farrell says, Zekofsky has not responded to her missive.
"I don't understand why my principal couldn't have taken care of this," Farrell laments. "I don't understand why something so serious as the health of our employees wasn't addressed."
The stale air provides a convenient metaphor for what many teachers saw as a suffocating professional atmosphere. After the end of the 1999-2000 school year last June, at least 35 employees bolted from Apollo. "A lot of people were physically and emotionally sick from her," one teacher says. "It's not like it's just you and five others. It's you and twenty others."
Both Broward schools superintendent Frank Till and area superintendent Samuel Gregg admit that an uncommonly large number of teachers have left the school. Till explains that, while the high numbers merit an examination of the school, he hesitates to make assumptions about why teachers are leaving. He points out that teachers move for many reasons.
"I can say that quite a few people have left," Gregg says. "I don't know why so many teachers left."
Clearly, though, Gregg has had ample opportunity to learn about the problem. In late July 2000, about 15 Apollo Middle School teachers filed into a conference room inside the South Area Office on SW 90th Avenue in Cooper City. With Gregg and South Area Director Jackie Box presiding, the teachers and staff members went around the room and read from written statements. Their stories concerned false accusations, threats, and worries about a steep decline in school discipline. But one common vein ran through all the testimony: a deep resentment -- sometimes even a hatred -- for Aimee Zekofsky.
"We are a group of teachers who are dedicated to Apollo Middle School and its students. I have worked at Apollo for 15 years and I am incredibly saddened by what has taken place recently," Lesa Parnham read -- from the same letter quoted earlier in this article. "I know the concerns that other people are going to be bringing to you are professional as they should be. Unfortunately mine are of a personal nature because Mrs. Zekofsky chose to involve herself in a very personal part of my life. I was too shocked and intimidated at the time to keep her out of it, as she is the principal and has a reputation for being vindictful [sic]."
Physical education teacher and union steward Sue Haight organized the meeting with Gregg and Box because "these teachers needed to voice their concerns of personal treatment. Many more wanted to be there but were afraid to attend," she explains. "The main focus was to voice personal and school concerns and to find a solution to work together as a faculty for the benefit of the children of Apollo. Mr. Gregg and Ms. Box were sincerely interested and receptive."
Gregg says that Apollo is now on the upswing: "It appears that the principal is trying to straighten out a lot of things at that school. The things I have looked into have been corrected." Till adds that he has not heard any teacher complaint during the 2000-2001 school year.
Teachers interviewed for this story, both those who have left and those still at the school, say Zekofsky's third year there is quieter simply because so many of the teachers are new and don't know how a school is actually supposed to function.
In just the past few weeks, at least two parents have pulled their children out of Apollo because they do not think the school is safe.
Sharon Willover, who now home-schools her daughter Amanda, says she took the girl out of Apollo because three boys -- one of whom recently broke into the Willovers' home while they were on vacation -- were stalking Amanda, an eighth grader. Willover says she complained about the problem to administrators, but the harassment continued.
When Willover continued to complain, administrators' solution, she says, was to find ways to have Amanda go out of her way to avoid the boys: For example they gave Amanda a pass to leave each class five minutes early.
"She's the one being punished for something she never did," Willover declares. "There is not enough disciplinary action. It's disorganized. The whole school has changed." She adds that she has observed the teacher exodus. "I just notice there are a lot of teachers leaving who were good teachers," she says. "All the teachers started leaving when [Zekofsky] got there."
Another parent, Yvette Smith, says she withdrew her son, sixth grader Joseph, and her daughter, eighth grader Sugar, from Apollo because she was so concerned for their safety that she would spend all day at work consumed by worry.
According to Smith, a fellow student started picking on Joseph about sixth months ago. For the first three months of the problem, Smith told Joseph to tell his teacher. When the harassment continued, Smith says, she met with a guidance counselor, who vowed to solve the problem.
Smith worried that the two boys would fight, and she wasn't being overly protective. Joseph has a hole in his heart; even minor cuts and scrapes can lead to serious infections. Smith insists the school knew about the medical problem. When the school suspended both boys for fighting a month later, Smith again met with administrators, who assured her they would put the boys in separate classes -- but that never happened. Then, a few days later, Smith received a letter stating that Joseph had been arrested the day of the fight. Angry that no one had told her about the arrest sooner, Smith went back to the school again and demanded answers from administrators. Again, she says, no one responded to her.
When the other boy shoved a pencil up Joseph's nose a week later, Yvette lost all patience with Apollo administrators. On that day Smith withdrew her children, who now attend McNicol Middle School in Hollywood.
Smith, who sent four of her children through Apollo before Joseph and Sugar, says that this is the first time she's had a problem with the school. "When my other kids went there, I was very happy with the school," she says.
When contacted for this story, Zekofsky told New Timesthat her preparations for the FCAT would keep her too busy to be interviewed. New Timessubsequently faxed Zekofsky a list of specific questions about the mass teacher exodus, the allegations coming from teachers and parents, cleanliness and air-quality issues, the pornography investigation, and the Parnham/Sosa situation.
Zekofsky faxed back a brief written statement explaining her desire to "avoid a "he said, she said' situation" when it came to specific personnel matters. Zekofsky did address questions about her ability to lead Apollo. "[A]n overwhelming majority of my staff, including instructional personnel, have been supportive and enthusiastic and have embraced my leadership and share my dedication to helping all of our students succeed," she wrote. She also stated that she follows all school board policies and procedures, "especially those that pertain to the hiring and disciplining of any staff member."
In response to questions about employees leaving Apollo, she implied the school has not experienced anything out of the ordinary: "In any school, whether it's due to a spouse relocating, a promotion or simply moving to another city in Broward County, the administration will experience teachers leaving and new teachers arriving.... I have worked with any staff member who felt a transfer would benefit their career and I will continue to help any of my staff take steps to better their careers."
Because Zekofsky is an interim principal (teachers joke that the system gives principals three years to hang themselves), the nine teachers interviewed for this story speculate that this might be her last year at Apollo. Many of them believe that the old guard would return if Zekofsky left; others declare they would consider the South Area Office inexcusably negligent if Apollo continues to decline.
But even if the district ousts Zekofsky, the school's recovery won't be easy. Facing the morass of hurt feelings, shattered pride, ruined reputations, and squabbling factions that has become Apollo Middle School, any new leader will face a daunting task. One former Apollo teacher sighs, "It's going to take a veteran principal to reconstruct that school."