At Deerfield Beach High School, Staffers Say Principal Is a Bully and Mentally Disabled Students Are Treated Like Janitors
Late last year, a Deerfield Beach High School teacher named Juliet Hibbs was hurled into the international spotlight when a set of parents accused her of encouraging their daughter to become a lesbian. Soon, her name materialized in the Huffington Post, the U.K.'s Daily Mail, and the National Examiner.
Hibbs fought back. She said the girl's stepfather had bullied the girl on Twitter and Hibbs was only doing her duty by reporting the abuse. She said the real problem was her "bullying principal," who, instead of dealing with the issue quietly, kicked it up to the school district, bringing more attention to a delicate situation.
The school district cleared Hibbs of wrongdoing, and she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint last March. (Her case is pending.) Soon, the furtive hacker group Anonymous injected itself into the fracas, publishing the contact information for producers of the Ellen DeGeneres Show in a strange attempt to get Hibbs on TV to tell her tale.
But there's much more to the high school's story.
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Deerfield Beach High has become quite possibly the most controversy-soaked institution in Broward County Public Schools. An assistant principal, Keith Roberson, was convicted of drunk driving at the end of 2011 but kept his job. Another administrator allegedly "tussled" with a student, and now staff are concerned about a program in which mentally disabled students pick up recyclables.
Five school employees say the problems began when Principal Jon Marlow took over around 2006. "As soon as Mr. Marlow came on campus, a lot of problems started up," said Wanda Kearney, a school security guard. "All of the time, he harasses me. He lashes out at me."
She said she witnessed an assistant principal, Ken May, scuffle with a student last January near a vending machine between classes. She claims that she was later called to a meeting with Marlow and that he asked her to write an incident report saying she "hadn't seen anything." Kearney claimed the tall and powerfully built Marlow said that if she refused, she'd be suspended for three days.
Kearney did file a report describing the incident and accusing the principal of harassment, but the student was later suspended for "defiance."
Tracy Clark, a spokesperson for the school district, said she could not confirm whether the matter was investigated or whether May was disciplined.
There are other alleged troubling incidents. A female student says that a male student sexually assaulted her at the end of the 2011-12 school year and that administrators ignored her complaint. Because of privacy concerns, records related to the incident cannot be released, according to an email sent by the school district's public affairs department.
The student, who spoke to New Times on the condition of anonymity, said she was penetrated while bent over stretching during a Friday-afternoon gym class last year. A male student, she said, approached from behind and "went inside with his hand." That Monday, she said, she complained to school administrators, who asked if she was raped. "When I said no, they swept everything under the rug," she said.
The male student was never punished, she said, and retaliated against her with threatening text messages. "Now I feel I shouldn't have said anything at all," she said, adding that the complaint damaged her reputation. "This taught me not to open my mouth. If I hadn't said anything, that would have been the best thing."
The district was alerted to problems at the high school during a June School Board meeting, where more than a dozen employees spoke out condemning Marlow. Teachers had come to the meeting to support Racquel Lipscomb, whom Marlow had demoted from vice principal to teacher. They complained about Marlow's bellicose management style. At that meeting, Superintendent Robert Runcie said he'd investigate the embattled principal, but as of last week, spokesperson Clark could not confirm whether Runcie ever took action.
Now, Lipscomb and other teachers tell New Times about an additional concern: a program that puts mentally disabled students on recycling duty. The "Community Based Instruction" program is designed to help students develop job skills. According to the program's curriculum, one of the students' tasks is to "collect recycling from participating classrooms and offices."
But three separate educators said the task is much dirtier than picking up office paper. "The students who are picking up the garbage are the lowest-of-the-low mentally," Lipscomb said. "You have kids out there picking up trash who cannot speak, and they're rummaging through the trash... And there are people from the community who dump their garbage in our bins."
Added Kim Frazier, the school's former budget keeper: "They would make them clean up the cafeteria. They weren't given gloves. It was upsetting, because that's why we have custodians. I've been with the district for 13 years, and this is stuff that was not going on at other schools."
An attendance clerk who requested anonymity to protect her job said Marlow uses intimidation to squash talk of the school's problems. "Everyone's afraid to talk," the clerk said. "He'll get you moved or fired. He'll do something. They plot. It's a very uncomfortable place to work. I'm scared every day. You can't trust Marlow or anybody." Hibbs said if a teacher usurps his authority, Marlow launches an investigation. In the past five years, according to a public records request, Marlow has asked for five investigations of teachers at the school.
"If you're not on his side," Kearney said, "if you don't agree with him, he comes after you."
Marlow, reached on his cell phone, said "Hold on -- there are some reception problems" and hung up. He didn't return phone calls afterward. Clark said she could not confirm whether any formal complaints had been filed against Marlow's administration or whether investigations had been opened.
Follow the writer @terrence_mccoy
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