Power to the Principal

At Madison High, Principal Warner Ervin's word is law. Teachers say that's the problem.

By most accounts, Ervin's crackdowns brought the hallways under control. Academic improvement proved more elusive: Though the school's TAAS reading scores have improved significantly during his tenure, its math scores have plummeted, placing Madison near the bottom of the high school rankings. Still, the number of students passing all three subjects -- reading, math and writing -- has increased from 22 to 35 percent. Based on the school's test scores, attendance and dropout rate, the Texas Education Agency deems Madison "acceptable" -- the same rank it awards most HISD high schools.

Ervin and his backers point to other accomplishments at Madison. The principal, they note, has introduced advanced placement courses, finagled a magnet program in meteorology and space science (a financial plum), and increased participation in extracurricular activities. Under Ervin, Madison has built a new, larger library. And last year, Madison won a $250,000 grant from General Electric to prepare students for college.

Naturally, Ervin's authoritarian stance doesn't endear him to the school's teenage students. But sometimes, his quest for an orderly school has run afoul even of parents. Annette Eggleston says Ervin went over the line with her son Justin, a kid with little history of disciplinary trouble who appeared at school one day in 1996 sporting a short haircut with a little loop design shaved into his temple. Ervin decided this was a "gang haircut" and ordered Justin not to return to school until he'd gotten rid of it. (Though Ervin won't discuss cases involving individual students, he says that, in general, designs carved in the hair are "threatening and intimidating to youngsters.")

Annette and Justin Eggleston both deny that the haircut had anything to do with a gang, and there's little evidence otherwise. In fact, HISD Police Sergeant Richard Berrera, of the Gang Intervention Unit, says he does not classify any particular haircut as a sign of gang membership. "[Kids] put designs in their hair and in their fades," he says. "But it's not just gangs. A lot of good kids wear it."

For help, Annette Eggleston says she went to HISD's central administration, and that Director of School Operations Carrie McAfee called Ervin with instructions to allow Justin back in school. (McAfee denies calling Ervin for any disciplinary reason, and did not recall Eggleston; but Eggleston displays a worn business card of McAfee's as proof of their meeting.) Justin returned to school, but a week later, Eggleston was called to Madison to collect her son, who was in handcuffs. Again, she says, the haircut was the problem. She withdrew Justin from the school.

Another parents, who asks to be identified only as Sharon, is even more incensed about the treatment of her daughter, nicknamed Sleepy. In 1996, Sharon complained to Ervin that she'd heard a rumor that older female basketball players were engaging in sex acts on the school's roof; Sharon was worried that these students might influence Sleepy, then a freshman athlete.

But instead of investigating the other girls right away, Sharon says, Ervin first turned on Sleepy, an honors student who says she was indeed questioning her sexuality. He told Sharon to have Sleepy psychologically evaluated. Sharon complied, checking Sleepy into Spring Shadows Glen for two days.

Sleepy received a clean bill of psychological health, but Ervin then refused to allow her to return to school, and suspended her for the alleged sexual harassment of another female student -- which Sleepy denies. Another student, Elena Stephens, says that Ervin had tried to get her to trump up charges that Sleepy harassed her, but that she refused to go along.

Once again, Ervin says he can't comment on a case involving an individual student.

Sleepy was not allowed to return to Madison. Ervin explains that the student was not living within the school's neighborhood boundaries; Sharon says otherwise.

Sleepy wasn't the only person who left Madison after the incident. Beverly Iocca, a substance abuse monitor, had worked at the school since 1988; she had a good record and a reputation for being tough but fair with students. But she says she displeased Ervin when he asked her to report other employees' infractions and she refused. She returned to school in '96 to find that she no longer had a private office where she could discuss students' problems with drugs and alcohol. That, she says, is when she should have seen the writing on the wall.

Iocca sponsored a weekly group rap session for students who wanted to talk about their problems. Sleepy participated in the group, and one day, she confided to the others that she was "not heterosexual."

After Sharon complained to Ervin about the antics supposedly taking place on Madison's roof, an assistant principal told him about Sleepy's statement to the group. Afterward, Ervin called Iocca into his office and told her Sharon was angry with her. In his follow-up memo to Iocca, he wrote that "a parent was very upset and felt that some of her daughter's problems resulted from topics you allowed the students to openly discuss in your sessions."

But in point of fact, Sharon says she never complained about Iocca -- she didn't even know about the rap sessions.

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