Chaos at Sunrise Middle School

Once upon a time, Sunrise Middle School had such a good reputation that some parents considered it better than private school. It is the only middle school around with a Montessori program.  It has a gifted program. There's an accelerated group called the "Golden Hammers" (like other school groups, it's named after a bird). The seventh grade math class was just as hard as the ninth grade class at St. Thomas Aquinas, one mom said.

These days, there's either some serious chaos going on, or the rumor mill has gotten out of control. 

Students at Sunrise began this school year with their longtime principal, Rebecca Dahl. She was soon replaced  -- the rumor among some parents is that Dahl was forced into retirement -- and Oslay Gil, an award-winning administrator from Margate, took over. When he was accused of sexual harassment by a teacher in February, Sandra Shipman stepped in as interim principal.

That's just a smidgen of the turmoil. 

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In January, a substitute teacher was charged with felony battery for pushing a child who hit his head on a TV. Lately, parents have heard about middle-schoolers smoking pot. There has been talk of a stabbing. The latest buzz is that some kids were caught mixing cocktails in a school bathroom. 

About two weeks ago, language arts teacher Paula Johnson was banished from her classroom. A longtime friend of Johnson's, Wendy Frank, whose children used to attend Sunrise, sent out an e-mail to parents that read, "Paula was removed from her classroom very suddenly last week. The School Board has told Paula that she is being investigated for inappropriate conduct and, allegedly, use of profanity. She was forbidden by the School system to talk about the matter with any witnesses or she would face charges of insubordination. She does not know who the witnesses are or what the charges are. She has been advised by an attorney that she can't reach out to the parents."

Neither Johnson's lawyer nor school officials could be reached after hours Friday.Carmela Rosenthal, whose children had Johnson as a teacher for five years combined, says Johnson "was a great teacher. I can't even imagine what they could accuse her of."

Parents say they are upset about the decline in behavior, the alleged incidents, and perhaps most of all, the lack of transparency at the school. Frank points out the trouble with anonymous accusations: "Whether he's guilty or innocent, Mr. Gil has been accused of something that will ruin his life." Multiple parents have said that when they write to the School Board to get information, they receive only a form letter in response.

Trish Halliday, whose daughter is in seventh grade at Sunrise, has a more specific concern: "The fact that they took [Ms. Johnson] out of her class during the FCAT is just appalling to me." She adds sadly, "The school seems to have lost its way." 

The hubub has caused parents to rise up.  They have demanded a meeting Monday night at 6:30 p.m. in the school's media center. Broward Schools Superintendent James Notter and School Board Member Maureen Dinnen are expected to attend.


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