Harassment at Haltom?
Last March, Faith Ayala, a teacher of 32 years, stood up at a Birdville school district board meeting and said something so radical that it could jeopardize her job:
“There is something wrong at Haltom High.”
Ayala talked about the district’s mission to preserve a democratic society and respect individual ideas and voices. “Yet many of the students in our Haltom community no longer feel that they have any voice,” she said. “Students are afraid to speak out. Teachers are afraid to defend them. Haltom has indeed taken on the repressive air of a prison.
“We claim to be building a community of respect, and so each week we highlight core values, such as empathy and kindness,” Ayala said in her speech to the school board. “We keep students safe from bullying one another, but on a daily basis students tell me how they feel disrespected, demeaned, and dismissed as unworthy by those at the highest levels of leadership. … I know that our students are hurting, and I have witnessed their ill treatment on more than one occasion.”
The five teachers whom Fort Worth Weekly interviewed for this story agreed that there’s a new culture of intimidation and bullying at Haltom High School, initiated by the school’s new principal, Clarence Elvin Simmons, who took over in July 2011.
Teachers said they are afraid to voice concerns to the administration or to question new security measures that don’t allow teachers to see Simmons without an escort. And they feel powerless to change new teacher-evaluation procedures that make them feel harassed and unworthy.
The school administrators apparently are also insecure about their image, attempting to withhold the results of one opinion survey and apparently trying to skew the results of another. And in a curious but telling incident, they forbade students to wear t-shirts with a cryptic design that administrators apparently felt criticized Simmons.
Information obtained by the Weekly through an open-records request and a source within the administration show 43 employees have left Haltom since Simmons became principal. During that same school year, 26 employees left the district’s Richland High and 21 left Birdville High. Veteran teachers, including one nationally recognized history teacher, are on the list of those who have retired, quit the district altogether, or transferred to another school.
The Weekly has also learned that at a previous post in the state of New York, Simmons was the subject of a half-dozen official complaint proceedings that ultimately were settled out of court.
Simmons declined to comment for this story, through district spokesman Mark Thomas.
“Some of the best people are being chased away,” said former Haltom teacher Kelvin Dilks.
That list includes Lloyd Sizemore, a nationally recognized history teacher who’d been at Haltom for 30 years and opted to retire early rather than endure another year under Simmons’ direction.
At the end of last year, Dilks, an award-winning teacher and 26-year Haltom veteran, made an unprecedented mid-year transfer to another high school in the district because of Simmons’ bullying. But for Dilks, that wasn’t the end of it.
During the district’s graduation ceremony in May, Dilks said, Simmons came up behind him and slapped him on the back so hard that the sting of Simmons’ handprint lingered long after the principal walked away.
Simmons came to Haltom in July 2011, after three years as principal at Waco High School. Before that, he spent nearly a decade working in New York at Williamsville Central school district, serving as principal of Williamsville South High School for the majority of that time.
“Mr. Sizemore and Mr. Dilks are two of the best teachers — best people — that I’ve ever met in my life,” said Khalid Hamza, a former student and now a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin. “And when you see such great teachers just up and leave … it’s impactful on the whole school. It’s kind of a gloomy feeling.
“I know a lot of teachers are just holding their tongues because they don’t want a target on their back,” Hamza said. The majority of the teachers whom the Weekly contacted either declined to be interviewed or requested that their names be withheld for fear of retaliation.
But not everyone was afraid to talk. In May, Sizemore filed a grievance with the United Educators Association against Simmons. The UEA is a Texas-based teacher association that tries to improve working conditions for its members. “Campus administration (under the leadership of principal Clarence Elvin Simmons) has created an unprofessional and hostile work and educational environment where employees and their students are often subjected to harassment, intimidation, and discrimination,” the grievance said.
Examples listed in the grievance include denying regular lunches to students who didn’t have their ID badges — a sign in the cafeteria read “No ID. No Service. No Kidding”; falsification of a UEA computer survey sent out to Haltom teachers; and withholding the results of the district’s annual Gallup Organizational Survey, which measures teacher satisfaction. That survey, incidentally, showed a dramatic decline in overall teacher satisfaction during Simmons’ first year as principal.
District rules require that, in order for a complaint to be valid, it has to be filed within 15 workings days of the event or the date that the employee became aware of the situation. Sizemore submitted 12 different complaints in his grievance, and all were dismissed for timeliness.
District officials formally investigated the grievance and Sizemore’s complaints and, according to the investigative report, found no wrongdoing by Simmons or his administrative staff. Spokesman Mark Thomas added in an e-mail responding to the Weekly’s questions, “BISD is pleased with how the campus is being run under the current administration.”
Judy Luttrell, associate director of UEA, said the main goal of the grievance was to let the district know that there were “significant problems on this campus that needed to be addressed.” And, she added, “I think the problems are still there.”
In one complaint, Sizemore described a computer survey that the UEA sent out to teachers in March. The survey instructed teachers to fill it out on their home computers.
Sizemore said that the administrative office staff was instructed by Simmons to “fix the survey” by using computers in the school library to answer survey questions and falsify results in favor of Simmons.
By tracing the internet provider addresses from the submitted surveys, UEA officials were able to determine that many of the surveys were filled out on campus computers and submitted within a one-hour time frame.
“We have no doubt that there was hanky-panky going on at the school with that survey,” said Luttrell. “Do we have witnesses willing to come forward? No, because they are scared of retaliation.”
Last year the district paid $56,800 to conduct the district-wide Gallup “organizational health survey.” The district has been conducting the survey for many years, but Sizemore said that last year was the first year that the results were not released to the teachers at Haltom.
The Weekly obtained the results through an open-records request. They show that the “health” of Haltom has declined significantly in almost every category since Simmons took over. The survey was sent out to teachers during the last week of November 2011 — the first semester of Simmons’ leadership at the school.
The survey measures things like progress, overall satisfaction, and opportunity to do one’s best. Under the school’s previous principal, Michael Jasso, the overall satisfaction or “health” of the school had improved from the previous year.
School board president Ralph Kunkel attributes the poor results of the survey to the school adjusting to its new principal. He said another survey needs to be done to really measure employee satisfaction.
“Our prior superintendent loved those surveys,” he added. “We don’t know if we’re going to continue doing them.”
Asked about the complaints made against Simmons by teachers, Kunkel said, “I haven’t talked to any of these people specifically … but all these things have been investigated by our administration.” Kunkel said the district takes all complaints seriously and that the “board has been assured that there was nothing to them.”
The Weekly contacted all seven school trustees, but only Kunkel agreed to an interview.
Sizemore, Dilks, and other teachers in the district point out that this isn’t the first time Simmons has been accused of creating an atmosphere of intimidation.
In 2008 six employees at South High School in New York filed complaints against then-Principal Simmons with the New York Division of Human Rights, alleging sex discrimination, illegal retaliation, and sexual harassment. While the state investigated, Simmons took five months of paid medical leave from his job, during which time he also secured a new job with the Waco school district.
The Buffalo News reported in 2009 that the state human rights agency found probable cause on some of the counts, which means “illegal discrimination may have occurred.”
In an interview with that paper, Simmons’ attorney, Robert Boreanaz, called the staffers who filed the complaints “disgruntled employees” and said that “there is no conclusion that can be drawn that the allegations are accurate.”
But those complaints never reached the courtroom.
“There was a settlement,” said Lindy Korn, the lawyer representing the complaining employees, although she couldn’t legally divulge any further details.
Last November, an anonymous source sent trustee Joe Tolbert information about Simmons’ controversial past in New York. Through an open-records request, the Weekly discovered a subsequent e-mail that Tolbert sent to the board and Simmons.
“I am throwing this useless garbage in the trash,” wrote Tolbert. “Funny though, the people that sent this are about as bright as a lump of coal. To save you the wasted time reading this dross, apparently they were trying to send information that was critical of Mr. Simmons, but instead ended up proving he did nothing wrong. I have a special place for anonymous sources right under my desk labeled ‘trash can,’ ” the e-mail said. “Save yourself some time and do the same.”
The information Tolbert received involved the complaints filed against Simmons and the New York agency’s finding of probable cause that violations had occurred.
“There’s this attitude with the board and central administration that if we admit he’s bad, we have to admit that we screwed up,” said Sizemore.
A curious thing happened when Simmons moved to Texas to take the job in Waco. He started going by his first name Clarence instead of his middle name Elvin, which he had previously used.
“Going by a different name is a real red flag,” said Sizemore.
The fact wasn’t lost on the students at Haltom High. When the students found out about their principal’s midlife name change they made t-shirts that said “Where’s Elvin?” Students wore the shirts to school until administration intervened.
Fort Worth freelancer Sarah Angle writes for national and regional publications.