Mr. Snyder's Opus
For the past eight years, Lamont Snyder could be found toiling on the football field at Hallandale High School, his intense expression shaded from the late-afternoon sun by a broad-brimmed straw hat, which comes off only when a point must be made emphatically.
Thanks to the hat, as well as to a booming voice that, from 20 yards away, can bust through the low, thick tones of a tuba, he has little use for a megaphone. He has broad shoulders that roll when he walks. On the field, he never breaks a smile.
Snyder takes band seriously, and so do the 100-plus Hallandale students who come out for it each year, participation that costs the price of an iPod and adds two hours to their school day, most of it on a sun-baked football field. None of them has to be here, which is why it's remarkable that they are.
The school, south of Pembroke Road, just east of I-95, is 93 percent minority. Two-thirds of its 1,550 students are poor enough to qualify for discounted lunches. When Snyder arrived in the late '90s, roughly half the students were testing in the lowest levels of reading comprehension measured by the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Music carries little weight in the hierarchy imposed by the FCAT and education policies like No Child Left Behind, which prioritize math and reading usually to the exclusion of music. "The students' test scores dictate what kinds of programs we offer," explains Principal Rosemary Chambers, who has two children of her own in the band. "Unfortunately, we have so many Level 1s and 2s" FCAT's two lowest achievement levels "that [these students] don't have the opportunity to take extracurricular activities. We have to 'double-dose' them in reading and math, rather than take an elective, like band."
Despite this, the band program at Hallandale has survived thrived, even during Snyder's tenure, reaching its zenith in early 2004, when he received national recognition with an award from the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, which every year recognizes the five best band directors in the country. Snyder is the only black teacher ever to receive the award.
It may not be entirely by coincidence that during Snyder's tenure, the school has improved. For seven straight years, Hallandale High scored a D from the state, putting it near the bottom of Broward County's schools. And while Florida's grading scheme is a sore point with many, it's a positive sign that in 2005-06, Hallandale earned a C. Not enough to inspire a movie, but it helps teachers and parents keep the faith.
"The students who are in band, they are higher achievers," Chambers says. Indeed, a study by the College Entrance Examination Board found that in 2005, students who took music courses scored 56 points higher on the SAT's verbal portion, 39 points higher on the math.
"The music itself... gives them the arts," Chambers says. "It makes them well-rounded students. It supports the discipline side. It's the reason they come to school it gets them in the building."
But in a school like Hallandale High that wrestles with social and political challenges, a band program like Snyder's is as fragile as it is precious.
No single incident underscores that point more than one that occurred two years ago, at a band meet. While scolding a student during a band competition, Snyder was tackled and beaten to the ground by police as his charges looked on. It was a shocking disruption in the band's euphoric routine, as cops, who were providing security at the scene, allegedly feared that Snyder was on the brink of striking the student. They left a measure of Snyder's blood on the pavement and, as tearful band members watched, hauled the band director off to jail.
Despite the distress the incident caused, it was not one Snyder was willing to sweep quickly under the carpet. Snyder, who had never been arrested before, could have pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and battery, thereby avoiding jail and settling the case in short order. By doing so, though, he risked losing his teaching license. Even more important to the band director, he believed passionately in his innocence. Of course, taking the case to trial posed a greater risk: A conviction could conceivably come with a two-year prison sentence.
The decision would test Snyder's dedication to Hallandale High and his belief in the very lessons he imparted to his students: to have faith in justice.
Ironically, it was Snyder who had invited police in the first place. As chairman of the booster club hosting the November 2004 Battle of the Bands event at Florida Atlantic's Lockhart Stadium, just east of Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, Snyder's group had contracted about three dozen members of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, including Jerry Williams, an officer who for 17 years had worked as a military policeman, then as a military recruiter in Shreveport, Louisiana, before joining the force in 2001.
Between music and marching lessons, Snyder preaches to students about respect for authority, especially when it takes the form of a police officer. Fighting, of course, is grounds for suspension from the band.
The Battle of the Bands pitted Hallandale's drumline against those from others in the area, like Fort Lauderdale's Stranahan High School. The competition was good-natured on the field, but in the stands, taunting started between fans of competing schools.
As Stranahan left the field, Snyder shepherded his band to the bleachers. Just as they sat down, though, a commotion started below. A Hallandale student a spectator, not a band member was brawling with a drummer from Stranahan. "Me and some parents ran down there to break up the fight," Snyder says. "And by the time I got there, the other teacher was trying to break it up. I asked the student why they were fighting. That's when the police officer came over and grabbed me."
This was Jerry Williams. He had not met Snyder in advance of the meet the hiring was done over the phone but Snyder was wearing a crimson Hallandale High T-shirt, and an ID card dangling from his neck identified him as a band director. When he felt Williams' grip, Snyder says, he told the cop he was a band director. Williams wasn't impressed. "He told me he didn't 'give a fuck' who I was," Snyder says. "Those were the words that came out of his mouth."
Williams, who is white, twisted Snyder's left hand and cuffed it. Then he did a leg sweep, throwing Snyder to the pavement. As Williams put his knee into Snyder's back, distraught band students swarmed Williams and his partner, Ian Sandman. "They started grabbing on the police officer," says Snyder, and while other parents and teachers tried to keep the students at bay, Williams struck Snyder hard over his left eye. Snyder thought it was Williams' fist, but witnesses claim it was the officer's baton.
According to witness reports, Sandman kicked Snyder, which only aggravated the Hallandale students. They kicked and punched at the officers, while from the ground Snyder yelled for the kids to back away. Williams pepper-sprayed them.
In the affidavit he filed in Snyder's arrest, Williams tells another story. He says Snyder took an "aggressive stance towards the student" involved in the fight. "I told him to 'Stop fighting,'" Williams writes. "'What will the school think if you fight a student?'" He claims that Snyder "pushed against me with his body and then struck me in the chest with his left elbow." Williams says that Snyder twice tried to break his grip and that, even after he took him down, Snyder was trying to stand up. This was why he hit him, the officer alleged.
There was a puddle of blood where Snyder had been lying, and before he could be jailed, he was taken to Holy Cross Hospital, where he received 17 stitches on a gash that had opened over his left eye. Snyder was booked on felony charges of resisting arrest and battery against a law enforcement officer. It would take till morning to bail him out; in the meantime, he sat in a jail cell, trying to make sense of what had happened.
"I always used to tell my kids, 'I want you to respect the police officers because they're the law,'" Snyder says. "But then they see different. I kept thinking, 'How am I going to explain to the kids not to let this distort their minds?' Because not all police officers are like that."
Lamont Snyder grew up in Carol City, in north Miami-Dade County, the second of eight children, all of whom went to college. His father, a dentist, wanted young Lamont to follow in his footsteps. The young man preferred the drums and followed that passion to Bethune-Cookman College. For a short period, Snyder played with K.C. and the Sunshine Band, but his real calling wasn't performance; it was education. Snyder earned his master's degree in music education and returned to South Florida for a job.
Along the way he married his high school sweetheart and raised a family of four daughters and one son. At 51, he already has nine grandchildren. Snyder counts the hundreds of past Hallandale High band members as his kids too. "Many of them come from homes that have one parent, so I'm like their parent," Snyder says. Some students even call him Daddy.
"He's a father figure to everybody," says Xavier Smith, a senior who is the band's second drum major. "He has done so much. We all look up to him."
Snyder also teaches band at Hallandale's Gulfstream Middle School and McNicol Middle School, on the Hollywood side of Pembroke Road. To the most promising students he encounters there, Snyder makes a nearly irresistible recruiting pitch: Continue under his tutelage and, when the recruiters come round, you'll get your chance to play your way into a college scholarship.
"Ever since I started recruiting, Hallandale High is a continuous stop," says Donovan Wells, band director of Bethune-Cookman's marching band. "One thing I've noticed about Mr. Snyder is not only is he concerned about educating the students as individuals; he cares about them attending college."
Snyder estimates that he's taught 150 students who have gone on to play for college bands, most of whom ended up at his alma mater, Bethune-Cookman, for which Snyder admits a slight bias.
For economically challenged minority youngsters, band offers a powerful incentive to continue their education.
"Anytime young people can see other young people bettering themselves for a career and also that they're band students who do what they do very well, I think it is a positive trend," Bethune-Cookman's Wells says. "Students should have people to look up to that are close to their age, who they can relate to."
There are other fringe benefits to membership in a well-regarded band program, such as collaborations with world-famous rappers. Snyder brought his kids to Miami for the shooting of a video starring Nelly and Snoop Dogg. Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew came to Hallandale to join a performance. The band has marched in the Orange Bowl Parade and played for Gov. Jeb Bush at an October 2001 drug summit.
Then there's the traveling. Atlanta is one annual stop. Orlando another. Tallahassee and Jacksonville are common destinations. "I had the opportunity to go with the band to Daytona last year," Principal Chambers says. "He didn't put them up in a motel. He put them up in a hotel on the beach. They had to dress up to go to dinner. He's not just teaching them band; he's exposing them to places and things that they would never have seen because of not having the money."
On a Sunday in September, the Hallandale High School marching band is in its classroom, dressed in shorts and engaged in a lethargic, uneven rehearsal, delaying till the last minute the wearing of their polyester uniforms and the walk outside into the afternoon sun.
A parent of one band member instructs a reporter, "Can you write that we need money? It's hard. A lot of these kids don't have money. They can compete musicwise, but they can't compete fashionwise, with the look."
If so, it's hard to tell at a glance. Some of the band members wear black tennis shoes, rather than the polished black boots, but the crisp white spats nearly cover the shoes anyway. The uniforms aren't ideal for marching through sweltering days in South Florida, but they look brand new: a crimson sash across cream blazers, a yellow lightning bolt that shoots through the H on the back.
Snyder is stationed in front of the band room, dressed in a sleeveless Hallandale High T-shirt, jean shorts, and sandals. This band is small by his standards 85 students but the season has just begun, and Snyder expects to have his usual 125 or so by year's end. He says he's "rebuilding." A talented group, but this one is young and in need of discipline. Snyder has a knack for it.
"Sit up, sit up, SIT UP!" he says to a slouching boy. Then to another: "Take off your hat! You're in a building, son."
The second drum major, Xavier Smith, is Snyder's stand-in during performances. Band members are expected to obey him the same way they do Snyder, though the smooth-faced Xavier lacks Snyder's gravitas. "Melvin? Melvin!" Snyder barks to a boy who is slow to follow Xavier's order. "You heard what he said and you just keep playing. Put your jacket on. Put your jacket on."
"Mr. Snyder runs a tight ship," says Jewel Figueroas, mother of Jessica Scott, a freshman who plays cymbals. The practices and weekend meets mean extra driving, but Figueroas knows that "a busy kid is a child who is not in trouble. When they're in practice, there's somewhere else they're not."
This is the day the band will perform at Clash of the Titans, a band meet featuring a showdown between two of the black colleges' best marching bands: Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman. Hallandale is among six South Florida high school bands invited to compete in the event's opening act. Two coaches, a school bus, and a van are idling outside.
Snyder changes into a pumpkin-colored suit, and the band members, in full garb and grouped according to musical specialty, march to the buses. Plumes of diesel exhaust fill the Hallandale High parking lot as the buses turn out of the school's parking lot onto NW Ninth Avenue. Parents follow in a phalanx of minivans and SUVs.
The meet is to be staged at the football stadium on the Miami campus of Florida International University. A northbound storm intercepts the southbound motorcade, low-slung clouds hurling intermittent showers, enough so that by the time the buses park, band members must march through a parking lot that's all mud. Each strides in time with the beat of its percussion section. Hallandale High's baton girls wear toothy grins. In crimson leotards and white boots, they strut proudly through the quagmire, ignoring the mud that splatters their feet and ankles.
Another downpour sends band members back to shelter; when they finally return, the sun is an even crueler menace. In the bleachers, there's no escaping it.
It's here that Snyder's influence is most apparent as the temperature rises, the Hallandale High kids keep their jackets zipped. The dancing girls are careful to all sit in the same coquettish pose, managing smiles, betraying only some nervous blinks as their gold eye shadow begins to run with sweat. Hallandale High is on last.
Show business was never more challenging.
The Hallandale kids do a laudable job of keeping their composure, which is broken only after they spy the arrival of the awesome Bethune-Cookman marching band.
The collegians march in perfect lockstep to a precise snare drum, looking impossibly cool despite the heat, resplendent in their maroon uniforms with gold trim. The younger Hallandale students gape with admiration; the seniors among them holler out the names of Bethune-Cookman students who came from Hallandale, hoping their friends will turn their heads.
Members of this band played in the 2002 film Drumline, which celebrated a style of marching that is equal parts musical performance and modern dance. The movement has grown slowly but steadily since the 1960s, advanced by Dr. William P. Foster, band director at Florida A&M, who wanted to distinguish his "Marching 100" from the conventional marches at most universities.
"Dr. Foster at Florida A&M took that same style... and kind of customized it to fit the needs and the desires of our young black college musicians," says Bethune-Cookman director Wells, whose band is an old rival of FAMU's. "The steps changed a little bit. The knees went a little higher. It was more aggressive, more entertaining, more stylish, more exciting."
Foster and those who admired his style freed their bands to play more contemporary music pop, rhythm and blues, and, more recently, hip-hop. "The final thing, that really is our signature piece, is that we started to dance," Wells says.
All of this gave a fresh coat of glamour to being in band. "I think it's the selection of the music," Xavier Smith says of the band's popularity at the school. Alongside standards like "The Pink Panther," the band mixes the familiar bass lines of hip-hop hits like E-40's "U and Dat." The crowd is happy to supply the lyrics.
One recent afternoon, the band shared its football field with the football team. A crowd of student spectators all sat on the band's side of the field. When a football player made a spectacular catch, no one noticed, but when the band left the field, the bleachers emptied. Here, band seems to have more social cachet than football.
On the evening of November 7, 2004, as a bruised and bandaged Snyder sat in a Broward County Jail cell, the job of repairing the marching band's spirit fell to the parents.
Pamela Lamar-Dukes had a daughter in the band, and she'd watched Snyder conduct practices many times before the night she saw him taken down by police.
"If you're in a marching band, there's certain discipline that you have to have," she says. "You must have respect for authority. You must be where you are supposed to be."
It came as a huge shock to those students to see what happened to the conveyor of that message. "They're seeing their band director manhandled by cops; they see him kicked and punched there was no way for him to defend himself," Lamar-Dukes says. "They arrest him. We hear that it's for assault, and that makes no sense, because he didn't hit anyone. The students could see him."
Lamar-Dukes and other parents brought the band back to its room at Hallandale High, the site of so many Snyder lessons.
"You're dealing with a lot of emotions," Lamar-Dukes says. "You have some kids who are very angry about what was going on. A lot of them were crying. There were tears of not understanding. We had to go to the band room and just let them talk it out, let them process it."
Of course, the students were not blind to the racial component. "The kids see a lot of police officers who are white doing this to their band director, who is black," Lamar-Dukes says. "They say, 'This is a Rodney King thing.' Basically, they feel 'If it happened to him, it could be me as well. '"
Snyder never even considered a guilty plea. Not after prosecutors tried to induce one by reducing the felony charges to misdemeanors. Not even after his attorney warned him that, by taking the case to trial, he faced the possibility of two years in prison and a minimum of 60 days.
Snyder wanted to keep his teaching license, and pleading to the misdemeanor meant accepting a suspension, if not permanent revocation. But perhaps more than that, Snyder had a point to make. "Whatever the police think, my school, my kids, and my family, they know the truth," he says. And for their sake and his own, he had to stand up in his own defense.
That the arrest and beating took place in front of the band, their parents, and his professional colleagues was humiliating for Snyder the band director. But as a defendant, the circumstances were heaven-sent. Scores of witnesses could corroborate Snyder's version of events.
Lamar-Dukes had joined Snyder in dashing from the stands to break up the fight. At trial, she testified that Snyder never struck the police officer, that he appeared cooperative. Another parent, Kerris Delgado, said the same, as did the vice president of the Hallandale Band Parents Association, Myrna Sims.
The clincher, perhaps, was the testimony of Robert Scott, who had originally shown up in Snyder's case as a witness for the state, based on an interview he gave police shortly after the incident. At a subsequent deposition, however, Scott would testify that the police interviewer never asked him whether Snyder had struck Williams, nor did the interviewer read Scott the affidavit Williams filed in the case.
"No, he did not," Scott testified, "because if he would have, I would have told him then that they was lying."
Scott, a volunteer who had been leading Stranahan off the field when the altercation began, did not know Snyder. But he remembered Snyder's appearance, how he was facing Scott when police arrived. "At this time, when they grabbed him," Scott testified, "I guess Mr. Snyder thought that was the student, so he did shake... but he didn't like, it was no force to hit anybody. He shook when he realized when he said, 'No, no, no, no, not me,' but I don't know why [police] would even say that pack of lies... They went against their own law."
The allegation that Snyder tried to stand up after being taken down is also false, Scott testified. "You have to understand... it was two police officers that grabbed at the same time and took him to the ground. One had his knee in his back, had him down the whole time, so I don't see how they can say that he tried to get up, because they had him pinned."
Predictably, Scott was dropped from the state's witness list. He remembers fielding a call from a detective who wanted to conduct a deposition over the phone, "but when I was getting to the part to what actually happened, he cut the conversation, 'OK. that's all I wanted to hear. Thank you very much,' and hung up the phone."
Ultimately, the police version of the story was overwhelmed by witnesses who told another version, in which the cop was the aggressor. Snyder was acquitted on all charges.
A county School Board investigator who looked into the incident would find no cause for penalizing Snyder.
In fact, the only parties who may yet feel repercussions are police officers. A spokesman for the Fort Lauderdale police confirmed that the incident is now under active investigation by its Division of Internal Affairs. This means that no police officers are free to speak of it publicly, including Williams and Sandman.
So far, Williams has had good luck with Internal Affairs. A public records request by New Times shows that seven complaints have been filed against him, including a 2002 case in which he was accused of "bias-based policing," two separate allegations of false arrest in 2003, and allegations of excessive force in 2004 and 2006. In each instance, Internal Affairs cleared him of wrongdoing.
It may have been tempting for Snyder to simply be grateful for the judge's ruling and not look back. Except that in his mind and for those who believe in him justice still hasn't been completely served.
"To try and sweep this under the rug, that is also sending a bad message to the kids," Lamar-Dukes says. "For him to be put in this situation in the first place, where he faced the risk of losing his job and going to jail, somebody should be held responsible. The kids should learn that there is a process."
Part of that is Snyder's cooperation in the Internal Affairs investigation. And another part of it began in July, when Snyder's attorney, Lynn Overmann, filed a notice of claim with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department.
If the department's claims adjusters don't offer a handsome settlement and they rarely do Overmann will file suit on grounds of false arrest and battery. She says Snyder wants to recover the roughly $20,000 he spent in medical and legal fees, plus receive compensation for the emotional distress the incident caused him.
Otherwise, the experience is one Snyder wants to put in the past, so he can concern himself more with the future of his program.
As the Hallandale High band finally takes the field for September's Clash of the Titans, the incident seems far from Snyder's mind. He watches from beneath a goal post, pacing like a football coach, wearing that stern game face, and occasionally pointing and waving directions. "Move! Move!" Snyder yells to the flag girls, who are slow to leave the sidelines. He goes through a series of hand signals as inscrutable as those by a third-base coach, but they make sense to the kids on the field.
A band that seemed to struggle with its concentration during the indoor rehearsal appears to have come alive with motion in the space of the football field and with a crowd to please.
For all that intensity during the performance, its completion brings a rare smile to Snyder's face. "They did good for a group that has a lot of young kids."
Receiving their 20-ounce sodas and boxes of chicken wings, band members stay to watch Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M wage musical combat. Then at Snyder's signal, the Hallandale drums sound the beat, and like a victorious army regiment, the band marches in time back to the bus.
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