The last day of the hearings on the former Arlington Heights High School assistant principal and noted whistleblower Joe Palazzolo’s appeal of his firing by the district was full of fireworks, the most explosive following the testimony of the Rev. Kyev Tatum, one of Palazzolo’s key witnesses. Tatum, a long-time civil rights activist and head of the Tarrant County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, testified late in the day last Wednesday (Feb. 9) that Palazzolo was a fair and equal-opportunity-disciplinarian in direct conflict with the claims of Superintendent Melody Johnson that Palazzolo discriminated against minority students by hauling them up for disciplinary hearings more frequently and for less serious reasons than Anglo kids. It was the former Heights principal Neta Alexander, Tatum testified, who favored white kids over the minorities and the discrimination there had been going on long before Palazzolo arrived two years ago.
He and a number of teachers, counselors and coaches all testified during the trial that Palazzolo was the best friend minority kids had on the campus and had helped turn many of their lives around.
When Tatum left the stand, he said, he took out his “very ancient Blackberry” as he described it, to call home. At that point, according to several eye-witnesses in the room, school district administrator Sylvia Reyna, the head of the investigative group that brought the charges against Palazzolo, jumped up and yelled that Tatum had been “recording” the session, which would have been a violation of the judges orders, if true. It wasn’t Trouble with that was that the old phone has no recording ability. “It is just a phone,” Tatum said later. Nonetheless, chaos ensued, one witness said, as the district’s head of legal services Bertha Whatley ran up and down the hall calling for a policeman to go get Tatum and bring him back. It was a “Chicken-little moment,” one witness said. “They were running around like the sky was falling.” The hearing came to a standstill.
Tatum by then was in the lobby. At the request of the judge to bring Tatum back so he could put him on the stand and let him explain, Palazzolo’s lawyer Jason Smith called the minister who promptly came back. But he was angry, he said, “that my integrity had been questioned. …I showed the judge the old phone and told him that I was very insulted, that anyone in that room would think that I would put the hearing in jeopardy. I was a witness for Mr. Palazzolo,” he pointed out. “It would have been stupid of me to do anything to cause a mistrial. I want the truth to be heard as much as Mr. Palazzolo,” he said. When the judge saw that the phone had no recording ability, he dismissed Tatum.
That may not be the end of it however, as Tatum told Fort Worth Weekly that he was going to file a grievance and possibly a lawsuit against the district for libeling his name and trying, again, to intimidate a witness for Palazzolo. “All they were doing was trying to discredit me and my testimony,” he said. “Because they haven’t got a case against Mr. Palazzolo.” Tatum is a thorn in the side of this district and has been for years. He has filed numerous charges of discrimination against minority kids in the district with the Department of Education’s Division of Civil Rights and recently that office announced that it would open an investigation into his claims.
Earlier on the last day of the hearing, teacher and head boys’ soccer coach at Heights, Chad Whitt, another witness on behalf of Palazzolo, testified that following his testimony in which he admitted that he had been arrested as a teenager more than 20 years ago for “kicking a car” and failed to put that on his application for employment when he was hired seven years ago, was taken into a room by the five lawyers trying the Palazzolo case for the district and threatened that he would now likely be fired for “lying on his application.” Trouble with that was the fact that Whitt testified that the district’s finger-print person found the old arrest record shortly after Whitt applied, called him in to explain and when Whitt told him that the incident occurred when he was 17, no charges had been filed, that he had paid for the damages and that the judge had dismissed the case, he was told “no problem,” and was hired without further ado. While the lawyers for the district denied that they were “threatening” Whitt in the middle of a trial, Whitt said that he certainly felt threatened. The visibly angry hearing judge Rick Rickman of Dallas, called the attorneys aside for a private conference following Whitt’s testimony. There has been no report on what was said.
In Texas, tampering with a witness is a state jail felony punishable from 180 days to two years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Rickman has said that he will hand down a decision on the 25th of February. As soon as the transcripts and depositions are released, the Weekly will have a full story on the hearings, reporting the testimony of all of the witnesses on both sides of the table.