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There was no telling at first what William Price meant by "big news" when he called the Houston Press on the afternoon of February 2 from his doctor's office, where he had gone when his blood pressure shot sky high after the day's events. To Price, a librarian at Kashmere Gardens Elementary, big news could be anything from rumors of the embezzlement of thousands of dollars in donated money to the principal's removing the telephone from the teacher's lounge. For months, Price had been telling the Press about what he called serious mismanagement at Kashmere Gardens, including cheating on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills.
If some of Price's stories seemed outlandish, the story Price told that afternoon topped them all: Police officers had come to the school and searched his briefcase. They told him the principal had reported that Price was carrying a gun and intended to shoot her. When the police found no gun, Northeast District Superintendent E.O. Curtis, who was on the scene, asked Price to come to the district office. There, he was relieved of his duties with pay.
The memorandum Curtis gave Price said the librarian was accused of "calling students in your class 'niggers;' re-enacting the Jasper, Texas incident by having a child lie down on the floor with both feet in a chair while you slowly pulled; telling your students that you hated Blacks; telling your students that Ms. Jefferson, the principal, does not like you and you don't like her, etc." No mention was made of a gun.
In the view of local TV stations, Price was right about his big news. The tale of the racist librarian led Channel 2's "Live at Five" and ran on several stations on two consecutive days. But barely a peep was heard from parents of the children who were allegedly subjected to such abuse. The Houston Chronicle quoted the Kashmere Gardens PTA president quoting "a group of parents" quoting their children quoting Price as saying, "This is what happened to a man in Jasper, Texas, and this is what should happen to all [racial slur]" after he "grabbed a fourth-grade student by his feet Monday and dragged him across the library floor."
The district issued a statement saying, "HISD absolutely will not tolerate this type of behavior, and if this allegation is true, this person's employment with HISD will be terminated." Other than that, district spokesperson Terry Abbott declined to comment until an investigation is completed.
Except for one specialist who works with disabled children, Price is the only white teacher at Kashmere Gardens Elementary. He is hyperbolic -- visit his home a few times and he'll say you've been there "dozens of times." He also adjusts details to suit his needs. Curtis's repeatedly asking Price to clean off his desk before leaving campus is later recast as Curtis's refusing to let Price clean off his desk before leaving campus, an explanation for his inability to produce certain promised documents. Yet his exaggeration tends to the theatrical, not the cruel. When Good Morning America supposedly queried him about a possible appearance after the local news coverage, Price asked an acquaintance, deadpan, if a tuxedo wouldn't be "too much" to wear on the show.
"I ain't never heard him say nothing toward a black person. No black person -- no kids, no adults, since I've been working there with him," says Julia Keller, a black mother of twins who volunteered in the Kashmere Gardens library every day. Keller says Price asked Jefferson to give her a school lunch every day. When the school wouldn't, he bought it for her himself. She says he also purchased crayons, paper, pencils and other supplies for the students -- and a microwave and coffee maker for the teachers -- with his own money. The idea that Price would call students "niggers" doesn't add up for Keller.
"I feel this way: If he's the only white person in that school, and he's been there four years, how is he going to have racism toward a black person?" she asks. "That's what I don't understand. That's stupid."
So what did happen in the library on Monday, February 1, the first day of Black History Month? Price's story seems typically theatrical: He gave a fourth-grade class a lesson on civil rights, showing a movie about onetime slave Jane Pittman and explaining concepts such as racism and segregation. Students brought up the subject of the murder in Jasper, where a black man, James Byrd Jr., was dragged behind a truck and decapitated. The kids wanted to know why people do things like that to other people. They wanted to know what "decapitated" meant. They wanted to know why Byrd didn't just untie himself from the truck. Price says he asked a volunteer from the class to demonstrate by lying down and putting his feet up on a table, which he told the class to pretend was a moving truck. Then he asked Jeremy if the boy could reach up to his feet to untie an imaginary rope. He couldn't.
There was another teacher in the room when all this was going on, but according to Houston Federation of Teachers president Gayle Fallon, all teachers at the school have been instructed not to discuss the incident with anyone. "There are a number of teachers telling us, 'This charge isn't real,' " Fallon says.
Price says he referenced the "N word" as an example of racism but never actually said it. He says he also referenced the "H word" as the counterpart used to denigrate whites.
The following day, he was greeted by the HISD police. Department Captain Jeffery McMillin confirms that two officers did visit the school because of reports that Price had a gun, but the officers did not find a weapon. How that resulted in Price's suspension due to allegations of racism, McMillin could not say: "I don't know where the two connect."
Somehow, though, Officer R.E. Peters wrote up both the gun and the alleged racial harassment. His police report lists five complainants, all Kashmere Gardens parents. Each either failed to return calls from the Press or refused to discuss the allegations of racism, but one, Priscilla Wilson, did say Jefferson called her to the school that Tuesday, and another, Cynthia Catina, would say only that she reported the incident to the school herself.
Judging by the evidence, it's no wonder Jefferson would want to get rid of Price. For one thing, Price had his share of run-ins with his previous principal, Joyce Andrews at Bastian Elementary; in fact, the whole faculty was divided into two camps over Andrews. In 1994 Price was involuntarily transferred from Bastian after having a heart attack on campus; shortly afterward Andrews was removed from the school in an HISD "intervention."
At Kashmere Gardens, Price had been waging war with Jefferson for months over the way she runs the school. He claims his every offer to help the school, by calling in favors from contacts at Southwestern Bell and other businesses to running a reading competition, was rejected by Jefferson. "All that threatened her," Price says.
Frustrated, Price says, he started to fight back. Among Price's milder allegations: Jefferson refused to buy supplies for students, kept Price's orders for library books sitting on her desk for weeks and locked new audio-visual and computer equipment in a closet where no one could access it. In fact, only two weeks before the HISD police escorted him of campus, Price gave Jefferson a seven-page letter detailing his complaints. "Why when I mention our wonderful test scores in public people look at me and smile like I should be in an institution?" Price wrote. "Do they know something I don't know?"
Price says he made attempts to inform the district of allegations of cheating and mismanagement at the school. Since June, he says, he has contacted Curtis five times. "I told him something was going to happen to me" he says, adding that Curtis simply made note of his complaints. When the Press asked if Curtis would respond to Price's statements, spokesman Abbott said there would be no comment.
Price also points out that Jefferson has tried to pin charges of racism on him before. In October, when two HISD investigators visited Kashmere as part of their probe of cheating on the TAAS, Price says assistant principal Vivian Davis accused him of calling them. Shortly afterward, he says, Jefferson told him parents had complained about him. Price claims Jefferson also called children in one fifth-grade class to her office and tried to tape-record their saying Price had made racist comments.
Price's union representative, Carol Galloway, put an end to those accusations, though Galloway says she didn't know about the tape recording. "It was a parental complaint, but it wasn't about racism. They didn't present it within policy, that's all."
The race-related allegations, along with the added reports about the Jasper incident, apparently rematerialized after the gun search proved fruitless. Now, with the Jasper tie-in, the story has been getting nibbles from national reporters. Although Price agreed to be interviewed by several TV stations, he laments the resulting effect on his life; he says he's been recognized at restaurants, the grocery store and the copy shop. "Six million people now think I'm a racist," says Price. "People asking me if I said those things; people asking me why did I drag that kid -- it tears my heart out.
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