Anatomy of an Attempted Whitewash

HISD left Hamilton parents in the dark about Principal Goeddeke's "problem."
Deron Neblett

Hamilton Middle School on East 20th Street provides a beacon to the gentrifying middle- and upper-income neighborhoods of the Heights for parents who want their children educated in public rather than private schools. According to Hamilton parents, 33-year-old first-year principal Kenneth Gerard Goeddeke was the school's foremost ambassador and salesman.

The principal described himself as a "medium" focused on "empowering all of you so that your ideas, thoughts, and dreams, could be put into action." He personified that appeal with boyish good looks, an outgoing personality and an enthusiastic commitment to every aspect of school life, from the prestigious Vanguard program for gifted students at Hamilton to the PTA to after-school sports.

"He had a vision for the school, and since it was his first job as a principal, he was very energetic," says admirer Susan Schawe, who has a daughter in seventh grade at Hamilton.

The school year has gone smoothly, so faculty and parents were completely blindsided the week after Easter, when Goeddeke posted an emotional good-bye letter on the PTA Web site addressed to "Dear Hamilton Family."

"I am resigning my position at Hamilton Middle School for personal reasons," wrote Goeddeke, who lives with wife Laura in the Oak Forest subdivision.

"I regret not being able to tell you of my resignation in person, but circumstances did not allow for that."

Schawe says the immediate reaction from parents following the announcement was "bafflement and disappointment." Hamilton PTA president Christopher Hart calls the departure "bizarre" and says the school community is "still as completely out of the know as they were the day that it happened."

Queried by the Houston Press about the reasons behind Goeddeke's abrupt departure, HISD spokeswoman Heather Browne initially paraphrased district superintendent James LaVois, saying that the principal resigned for personal reasons. "To respect the principal's privacy," wrote Browne, "no further questions were asked."

On April 4, two days after Goeddeke posted his farewell letter, the HISD board voted in closed session to accept the principal's resignation in lieu of termination, with his salary to continue through the end of the semester on June 3. Trustee Karla Cisneros, whose district includes Hamilton, declined to discuss the action, saying that closed-session deliberations are confidential. By handling the matter discreetly, the board allowed Goeddeke to depart HISD with his Texas middle-management administration and teaching certification intact.

Contacted at his home, Goeddeke reiterated the personal nature of his resignation, praising HISD officials for the way it was handled. Asked about a rumored investigation and seizure of his computer, he responded: "Like I say, sir, it was a tough decision I had to make. I resigned for personal reasons. Really, it's nothing more than that…I wanted to keep this as personal as possible, and obviously, that's not the case now."

Goeddeke was hazy about future plans, saying he may relocate to Michigan, where he has family. As for his former colleagues, he says wistfully, "I anticipate positive things happening in the Heights with Hamilton Middle School."

After The Insider filed an open records request with HISD and submitted a list of questions, spokeswoman Browne finally confirmed that pornography was the cause of Goeddeke's departure.

According to a report compiled by Professional Standards investigations supervisor Mike Martin, HISD technology officials discovered that a computer at Hamilton had been used to access sexually explicit Web sites by means of Goeddeke's private e-mail account. The sites had been accessed for three or more hours at a time during school hours. When confronted, Goeddeke admitted he spent a lengthy amount of time during normal school hours viewing the Web sites, which included sexually explicit movies and still photos.

Browne says that when Goeddeke was confronted and questioned about the pornography, "he resigned on the spot." She says no referral was made to police or the district attorney, because adult pornography is not a reportable crime. Since neither children nor students were involved, Browne says, the district will not report the matter to the Texas education commissioner. Although Goeddeke will not be allowed to return to HISD, future employers will not be told the details of his resignation.

Teacher union officials are quick to contrast the relatively gentle treatment Goeddeke received from HISD officials with summary firings routinely meted out to clerical and teaching staff caught using computers to visit adult Web sites.

"I think that they've created two classes of employees," charges HFT president Gayle Fallon. "One is nonmanagement teachers and others who get punished, and then there is management, which gets a slap on the wrist. The Professional Standards department actually once said in a letter to us that their job wasn't to investigate principals, it was to investigate teachers."

Fallon cites two recent cases that illustrate what she terms a double standard. One involved a clerical worker in his sixties who used a computer in his office at HISD headquarters to access gay porn sites during after-work hours. The man was summarily fired. Likewise, a female contract teacher who used a classroom computer to visit a Web site featuring grotesque photos of the corpses of accident victims was also fired from her job. She claimed she had only gone to the site at the suggestion of a student, and that no children had been in the room when she did so.

For teachers, comments HFT staffer Corina Ortiz, "there is no mercy. You are out of here. You could be watching cartoons that are pornographic, and you're outta here. Here's this administrator that is just ushered away via a resignation in lieu of termination, and everything is hunky-dory."

HISD's Browne denies that there's any disparity between the treatment of administrators and faculty for similar offenses.

"There is not a double standard," she contends. "In this district there have been past incidents where the same things happened to teachers, and they were given the choice of either being terminated or resigning in lieu of termination. Everyone is given that choice when they are faced with a situation like this, regardless of whether they are a teacher, a bus driver or a principal."

According to Fallon, the protection afforded administrators accused of wrongdoing is a continuing pattern in the district. She cites an investigation by Professional Standards staff of Terrell Alternative School administrators last year, following an investigative report aired on Channel 11.

The HISD probe concluded that the Terrell principal changed or ordered others to alter attendance and grade reports to increase state funding, failed to adequately supervise students and falsified an HISD report to disguise the fact that computers were missing from the school's inventory. The principal was allowed to quietly resign, and the issue of the stolen computers was never pursued.

Ortiz says the failure of top district officials to follow up on the conclusions of Professional Standards investigations is frustrating to the staff of that department, most of whom are credentialed law enforcement officers.

"They are seasoned investigators, and they know what the law is," says Ortiz. "The frustrating part of it is when they find wrongdoing, all they can do is submit a summary report with findings to the area superintendents. They are the ones that make the decision."

And the decisions generally favor the brass, claim the union officials.

"Management is always a quiet resignation at HISD," says Fallon. "With my people, they release everything up to and including photographs, and they take the harshest stands possible. Teachers don't get to make mistakes. Administrators don't get to make them only if they get caught publicly."

No Ho at City Hall

Insider readers have no doubt been eagerly awaiting the results of a City of Houston inspector general probe of a zany case of alleged solicitation of prostitution between employees in the city's legal and controller offices reported here last fall. ("City E-mail Endorses Terrorism," November 1).

The plotline runs like a municipal Three Stooges production: A Pakistani-American accountant in the controller's office sent an e-mail to a secretary in the legal department on September 12, gloating over the New York City and Washington, D.C., terrorist attacks and calling them "the best thing I've seen in my life." After the e-mail found its way to superiors, the man's computer was seized and was found to contain obscene e-mails soliciting sexual favors from another secretary in legal and then expressing dissatisfaction with the quality of the services rendered.

Controller Sylvia Garcia terminated the man, and inspector-general investigators went to work on the case. After interviewing all parties, Lieutenant L.S. Mayo reported that although there was some evidence of a sexual tryst for pay, "both deny that any such act occurred and the evidence is therefore not sufficient to prove or disprove the allegation." Both the accountant and secretary admitted she had visited his apartment, but both claimed she was there to purchase a couch. The accountant claimed he had fabricated the e-mail account of their sour liaison by using as inspiration several adult movies he had rented.

After reviewing the stream of obscene e-mails between the accountant and his friend in legal, Mayo concluded that the pair did conduct personal business during city time and misused city equipment, violating Mayor Lee Brown's policies 504 and 106. Case closed.

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