By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The December 2 hearing marked a significant comedown for Jackson, an inspirational speaker who for years has made his living teaching the secrets of success -- be it to corporate audiences, schoolteachers or students enrolled at his private school, the Classical School for Brilliant Children. In October, Jackson and his wife filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Now, under questioning from his creditors' lawyers, Jackson claimed to be sleeping on the floor of his sister's house, unable to afford a dentist to care for his aching teeth and reduced to begging for money to keep the Classical School open. Though he still drives a Mercedes-Benz, and his wife a Ford Explorer, he professed not to own either vehicle.
Jackson instructs his students not to make excuses for their failures, but he blamed his own troubles on an incident involving a former student. In November 1996, Jackson spanked 13-year-old Erik Vidor -- and set in motion a lively local debate over corporal punishment. [See "School of Hard Knocks" in the April 24 Press.]
Though Jackson denied causing the alarming welter of bruises on the boy's buttocks and was eventually no-billed by a Harris County grand jury, witnesses confirmed that Jackson had spanked the boy with a fraternity paddle, and an investigator from Children's Protective Services found that the action had been abusive. But CPS had no one to receive its report: Texas law doesn't require private schools to be accredited, and the Classical School answered to no independent accrediting body.
Furious, Erik Vidor's parents turned to the courts -- and to the media. According to Jackson, their statements to the press have already ruined his reputation, making it hard to line up speaking engagements and causing him to lose a regular TV appearance on an Atlanta morning show.
The Vidors' suit is still pending. But it was another lawsuit by a former student and his mother that more immediately forced Jackson and the school into bankruptcy. Former student Torrence Lively and his mother, Sherry Lively-Atkinson, charged that in 1993 Jackson presented his teachers as highly qualified, claiming that all were certified by the state and some were Rice University graduate students. Lively-Atkinson was enraged to find out that that wasn't the case: The teachers weren't certified by the Texas Education Association, and none were Rice grad students. Jackson claimed that students would learn six languages, but Lively-Atkinson soon realized that the teachers couldn't speak six languages, much less teach them.
Worse, she alleged, the staff failed to supervise the students sufficiently. In October 1993, Torrence was treated at a hospital after another student clubbed him in the head with a six-foot-long two-by-four. Torrence's injury -- a blunt trauma to the head -- could easily have been more serious, says Lively-Atkinson's lawyer, Gary Janssen.
Jackson promised to expel the offending student, but when the child remained in the school, Lively-Atkinson withdrew her son and asked that the school reimburse her for his medical expenses and refund his prepaid tuition. Jackson agreed, says Janssen, but the payment never materialized. Eventually, Lively-Atkinson took Jackson to court, charging that he'd violated the Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
Jackson didn't bother to appear in court to tell his side of the story. At the bankruptcy hearing, when the Lively-Atkinson case was brought up, Jackson exclaimed, "I didn't know anything about that one!" But court documents and Lively-Atkinson's lawyers confirm that Jackson was well aware of the case.
In January of this year, Lively-Atkinson won a default judgment of $20,791, plus court costs and interest. Once again, the money didn't materialize. And on the day Jackson was scheduled to meet with a court-appointed receiver, he filed for bankruptcy.
Jackson has tried to cast himself as a victim of racism -- oppressed by "white man's justice," as he angrily told lawyer Fred Hoelke, who represents the Vidors, a white family. But the Vidors' unresolved case is not the immediate cause of Jackson's woes. Lively-Atkinson and her son -- the largest creditors Jackson listed in his bankruptcy petition -- are black. Says lawyer Janssen, "I don't think race is the issue at all."
At the bankruptcy hearing, when questioned about the Classical School's application for nonprofit status, Jackson put his head on the table and appeared to cry. The school continues to operate in the Greenway Plaza area, though in smaller quarters. According to Jackson, since the widespread publicity surrounding the Erik Vidor incident, he's had a harder time attracting potential students and has found it impossible to subsidize the school through his speaking engagements.
"I'm having to go out there and beg!" he sobbed. "Man! I hate to beg! And they won't let me beg unless it's a 501(3)c!"
But he vowed not to let his detractors close the Classical School. "I'm going to still help the kids!" he shouted at the creditors' lawyers. "You're not going to drive me out! You don't care about the kids! The kids are all black!"
A creditor's lawyer rolled his eyes at the outburst. "I don't even see crocodile tears," he muttered.