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Bitter Lesson

Well before the first bell rings at Lamar Consolidated High School, Phyllis Landes arrives at classroom 238 to tutor students in algebra. A sturdy, middle-aged woman who was an outstanding basketball player in high school and college, Landes has a no-nonsense manner about her. She skips the small talk and gets right down to her business, which is helping students learn mathematics. After teaching six classes of ninth- and tenth-grade algebra, Landes stays after school until four o'clock and sometimes later, offering further help to students who want it.

For the last 17 years, Landes has kept similar hours at Lamar, one of two high schools that serve the small towns of Richmond and Rosenberg, 30 miles southwest of Houston. She clearly loves her job, to which she has dedicated her life. But during three hellish weeks in March, Phyllis Landes feared she might never be allowed in a classroom again.

Branded as a teacher who made racist remarks to a consultant from the Texas Education Agency, she was suspended from her classroom duties, and, fearful for her life and property, she left her home for a week. Landes steadfastly denied the accusations made against her, and on March 22, she was reinstated by her school board. She is back in her classroom now, with several thousand dollars of savings gone to pay lawyer's fees and a cloud of doubt lingering over her that she may never fully banish, even if she eventually confronts her adversaries in a courtroom.

Landes often asks herself why she was singled out for making racist slurs, when she recalls only a casual conversation with a TEA consultant in the doorway of her classroom. Even if she held such sentiments, she asks, why on earth would she share them with a TEA official? Landes says the consultant took no notes during the interview, and the TEA, which is charged by the Legislature with monitoring the performance of Texas schools, concedes that it has no proof other than the word of its consultant that Landes made racist remarks.

"I'm not proven innocent," Landes says of her encounter with the TEA, "I'm just not proven guilty."

And there is a larger question at stake, one that is more important than the guilt or innocence of one woman. It is not just how this happened to Phyllis Landes, but why it happened. Every teacher in Texas who knows of Landes' plight has to be just a little bit nervous. Who might be next? Could it happen again? After all, the events that almost cost Landes her good name and the job she loves began under the aegis of a TEA office that calls itself the Department of Accountability.

On the afternoon of the last day of February, Phyllis Landes was five minutes into a three-hour-long math tutoring session when she received word to report immediately to the assistant superintendent's office. Her duties would be covered. Landes' heart skipped a beat. This wasn't a request, it was a summons, and it took her out of a math tutorial that was vital to the school.

The previous spring, only 24 percent of Lamar's African-American students had passed the math portion of the state-required Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS tests, as they are often called. The low scores had triggered a mandatory weeklong visit in February by a "peer review team" of educational consultants from the TEA, and the school district was still reeling from the impact of its report. In educational jargon that few outsiders could comprehend, the team had excoriated the school for poor planning and committee procedure.

But the consultants wrote one passage describing teacher attitudes in terms that no one could misunderstand. The largely white faculty had low expectations for Hispanic and African-Americans, the report said, and the consultants cited what were purported to be direct quotations from a teacher: "For Hispanics, it's better to be dumb" and "They're (Hispanics) just animals." And students, the report stated, had told the consultants that teachers had said "Are you going stupid on me?" and "I could train an animal better than you."

On Thursday, February 22, the district had released the report to the public, and the alleged slurs, not the educational jargon, were dominating the news. Evidently there was a racist at Lamar Consolidated High School so bold that he or she had made these remarks directly to an agent of the state who was there to evaluate the school. Television crews were camping out at the school interviewing students, who complained angrily on the nightly news. On the following Wednesday, representatives from the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Fort Bend Interfaith Council descended on a meeting of the school board to demand that something be done about the teacher, who had yet to be identified.  

The next morning, when Landes and several of her colleagues attended the funeral of their department head's mother, the topic was still on their minds. Some Lamar teachers had burst into tears at the thought of such slurs. Many had asked themselves if something they had said had been misinterpreted. Teachers are always getting exasperated, and perhaps some remark they had made in frustration was taken out of context. And some of their colleagues, they conceded, might very well hold racist views. But, the little group of mourners asked themselves, who would be so stupid as to say those things to a TEA consultant? It just didn't make sense.

When Landes arrived that afternoon at the office of Paul Slocumb, the deputy superintendent for instruction for Lamar Consolidated Independent School District, she thought perhaps he had something to say about TAAS preparations. After chatting a moment about that morning's funeral, Slocumb broke off the conservation and informed Landes that before they talked further he would have to record their conversation. Landes waited apprehensively while he inserted a cassette into his recorder. As he proceeded, Slocumb's tone was gentle, almost supportive, and never accusatory.

Your name has been given to us by the Texas Education Agency as having made the comments in the report, Slocumb informed Landes.

"You mean the ones we've been seeing in the newspaper?" Landes asked.
Yes, those, said Slocumb, who then read the well-publicized remarks to Landes.

Landes' first response was to deny making the comments. The TEA consultant had asked only the most generic questions, she said, no more specific than "what is going on in school?" For about 20 minutes Landes had chatted with her while standing in the doorway of her classroom at the end of one class period and the beginning of another. Landes told Slocumb she had described her algebra classes and mentioned that she was assisted by an interpreter in one class in which she had many Hispanics with weak English. It was an upbeat, off-the-cuff encounter.

What follows on the tape is almost painful to hear, for Landes begins to examine herself. She remembers saying that she had difficulty with some students because she couldn't train them to bring their books and materials. She recalls having confronted some of her Hispanic female students after their grades had dropped, seemingly because they didn't want to look better than their boyfriends. She asks herself if she could possibly have said, "Are you going stupid on me?" Maybe she could have said that to a student, she admits, but not about Hispanics, not as a phrase aimed at a group of students. And, yes, she has put her hands on a student's shoulders and said, "Can't you do better than this?" Maybe some students hate me, she reflects, because I push them.

"We have been assured by agency officials that these comments have been attributed to you," Slocumb said.

It took a while for Landes to put her defenses up again. "I don't think you let things like that slip when you have taught for 27 years," she said. "We might not be the smartest people, if we're in education, but we've got to be smarter than to say something like that, even on the spur of the moment and to the TEA? ... I'm so shocked, I can't be mad."

Only six people know that you have been identified, Slocumb informed her, and your identity will be kept confidential.

"What am I supposed to do now?" Landes asked. "Wait for the hammer to come down?"

My advice, Slocumb said, is to get a lawyer.

From the start, there was something amiss with the TEA review process at Lamar Consolidated, and it had as much to do with the school's internal politics as questions of racism and student performance. For the last dozen years, the school reform movement has pushed to require that Texas public schools be held to a statewide, measurable objective, and the TAAS tests are the primary instrument for doing that. TAAS is supposed to measure whether students have actually learned anything, or are just being passed along to make them, their parents and the education system feel good.

For several years, the TAAS scores of all races were mixed together, but during the last two years the state has required the school districts to "disaggregate" their data. "Disaggregated data" is educationese for scores that are broken down by the ethnicity and income of the students. The results have not been good. The statewide scores indicate that white students score substantially higher than blacks and Hispanics and that middle-class students fare significantly better than low-income students.  

Last spring's math scores underlined the gap between black and white students at Lamar Consolidated. The statewide gap between black and white performance on the TAAS tests in reading, writing and mathematics is 36.5 percentage points. At Lamar, the disparity was 69.3 percentage points. Lamar's faculty was 85 percent white, hardly reflecting the student body, which was 40 percent white, 40 percent Hispanic and 18 percent black. A teacher committee calculated that if only two more black students had passed the tenth-grade math portion of TAAS, the TEA review would never have occurred.

But it would be a sad mistake to imagine that the TEA sent in a crack team of the state's best math teachers with a proven record of raising the TAAS scores of African-American students. What happens in a TEA peer review is that a team of administrators from other districts, led by TEA professionals, fans out through the district administration offices and onto the campus being scrutinized, questioning and interviewing, often with a focus on how well the school uses site-based decision-making committees, or SBDMCs. In contrast to traditional school organization, where all power is concentrated in the hands of principals and superintendents, these state-required committees of teachers, parents and administrators are supposed to share decision-making power. A great many teachers and at least one member of the Lamar Consolidated board think SBDMCs are a sham. All real power still remains in the hands of administrators, and one of the cardinal rules of educational bureaucracy is that administrators do not speak ill of other administrators.

Before Lamar Consolidated High was visited during the week of February 19, Lamar's site-based committee sent the TEA a report about what steps the school was taking to improve scores. The tone was neutral and without blame, and the report indicated that a great many steps were being taken to address Lamar's problems.

But Paul Slocumb and superintendent Michael Zolkoski also sent a separate letter to the TEA that essentially blamed the teachers for the problems in the school. Ineffective teachers had gone "unchecked" for many years at Lamar Consolidated, the administrators wrote, but Lamar's new principal was addressing the problem by introducing a "high degree of teacher accountability." Most of the faculty was "still looking to the students as the blame" for the school's low performance on the TAAS tests, Slocumb and Zolkoski wrote, and they singled out the math department, which had been supplied with new materials but where "much training" was needed to change some of the teachers' attitudes.

Neither Zolkoski nor his handpicked choice as principal of Lamar, Don Levinski, were widely liked in the district. A thin, handsome man with teased and sprayed bleached-blond hair, Zolkoski had run into trouble for seeking favored treatment for his children in class rankings and the cheerleader selection process.

Levinski, who came from Stafford High School, had replaced Kay Dawes, a well-liked, tough-talking former elementary school principal who tended to treat the teachers, many of whom had worked at Lamar for 20 years or more, as professionals who could run the school. Levinski, according to some teachers, tended to operate behind closed doors and was not known as an open manager. A gray, quiet man, he seemed threatened by the older teachers, some of whom were revered by parents, students and some board members for their devotion to teaching. Lamar Consolidated is a small district, and the dissatisfaction with Levinski rippled back to the school board, which was not entirely happy with Zolkoski, either. Shortly before the TEA team visited Lamar, the school board had declined by one vote to renew Levinski's contract.

The TEA visit offered the district administration an opportunity to win some state approval for its attempts to reform Lamar. Having been given an open invitation from the district to criticize its teachers, the TEA review team made the most of it. An April 1 summary of the team's visit by Judy Krohn, the TEA consultant who led the review of the district, gives a revealing picture of the how the consultants worked. While Zolkoski and Levinski have repeatedly told teachers and board members that they never saw a completed final report and were surprised by the racial slurs in it, the TEA consultants insist that the administration collaborated with them in reaching their findings.

The first phase of the review included a one-hour public forum on February 19, in which 15 parents and students signed up to talk. Their concern was not low math scores, but expressing support of Levinski. The following morning, the peer review team, consisting of three elementary school principals, a high school counselor and a TEA consultant named Jack Grimes, went to the school to meet with its site-based management committee. According to a teacher on the committee, Grimes never asked the teachers what they thought of the committee process or how they had been chosen to serve. But in his final report, Grimes wrote that the Lamar committee was too small and unrepresentative of the faculty, even though it was "ostensibly elected at-large," seeming to imply that it hadn't been chosen in a democratic process. Levinski complained to the team, Krohn writes, that he couldn't get the old department heads to accept the concept of an elected committee. "He said that they had simply refused to cooperate and he was without means to make them do so."  

At ten that morning, the five review team members scattered across the school, interviewing teachers in their doorways at the end and beginning of classes. Just three and a half hours later, the team came back to Levinski's office and advised him that the "interviews were not producing positive results" and that the "report was beginning to look quite negative," according to Krohn's memo. By that evening, the consultants had determined that the school was being "run by teachers for teachers" and that students were unhappy with a school in which they felt belittled.

Because detailed notes were not kept, it has never been clear whether TEA team member Vicki Sargent, a Denton elementary school principal, interviewed Phyllis Landes on Tuesday or Wednesday. But according to Krohn's summary, by Wednesday morning the team had documented offensive remarks. Levinski, Krohn writes, "advised that he had documented worse examples; for example, one teacher who used racially offensive language in addressing students." Levinski also "stated that since the board had not acted on his contract renewal the previous week, the core group of defiant teachers had taken this as a sign of victory and were refusing to accept any of his proposed reforms."

Although every peer evaluator is trained by the TEA through a summer academy, the agency appears to have no standards for noting remarks that could destroy a person's career. Ruben Olivarez, a TEA supervisor of the review team in Austin, says that it was difficult for Sargent to take notes while she was standing in the doorway, so after interviewing Landes, she immediately sat down at a hallway desk and wrote notes of her conversation that included the damning remarks. After the district began pressing his office for the teacher's identity, Olivarez says he had a TEA investigator phone Sargent to verify Landes' identity. Sargent said she no longer had her notes, but was positive that it was Landes who made the remarks, and went so far as to offer a description of Landes and her classroom location that matched reality. (Sargent did not return calls from the Press for this story.)

Joe Neely, the TEA's deputy commissioner for finance and accountability, says that the quotations should never have been part of the report. "This is not our accepted procedure. We're there to evaluate programs, not individual teachers. The fact there appeared to be insensitivity to certain groups was a valid concern and should have been addressed."

Because the report contained such strong negative views, the team presented a final draft to Levinski and superintendent Zolkoski on Wednesday afternoon, the day before it was released to the public and the Lamar faculty. That draft, the review team later insisted, contained the quotations that were eventually attributed to Landes. Ruben Olivarez would write state Education Commissioner Mike Moses that "a peer review team member reported to me that when the report was reviewed with the superintendent, he asked the team members present if they thought the comments in the report were strong enough to help the principal address the problem with staff. Neither the superintendent nor the principal objected to the specific language used in the report."

After the turmoil erupted, Zolkoski himself would write Moses blaming the TEA for the district's problems: "Even though this report contains some needed information, we do not feel that it was necessary to include a quote from a teacher to accentuate the urgency of this report."

Although neither Zolkoski nor Levinski would talk to the Press about the review, both have denied to the Fort Bend Herald Coaster and to school board members that they had fully read the report or knew of the racially charged quotations in it. That seems curious: what administrator would want to admit that he had so casually treated a process and a document that would embroil his school in such controversy? On the other hand, what administrator would want to be identified with the creation of a document that almost destroyed a school?

School board member Sally Yates, a former teacher who admits to a bias in favor of the Lamar teachers, believes that the administration set up the teachers for condemnation, helping to create a report that it is now trying to "weasel back out on."  

"The teachers are not a docile bunch of folks," she says. "They have not been real supportive of this superintendent. They feel they were targeted and I happen to agree with them. They have the guts to come to the school board meetings and talk about what's going on. And that's a real no-no in the secretive world of education."

Whatever the case, the report was presented to the faculty on Thursday afternoon by Grimes, a flamboyant 58-year-old who had worked for the TEA since 1989. One day during the evaluation of Lamar, Grimes had worn red suspenders and red socks. On the afternoon he addressed the faculty, he wore sunglasses. Faculty members who met with him recall his name tag indicated he was a Ph.D., but they later found out he didn't have his doctorate. They say he seemed inclined to rush to judgment. He scolded the teachers for their lousy committee work. He told them they were running a teacher-centered, not a student-centered school. He accused them of being out of touch with modern teaching methods.

One teacher recalls a particularly patronizing remark by Grimes that sounded rehearsed: "On the eve of the advent of the 21st century, it is incumbent upon teachers to at least acknowledge the 20th century."

Grimes made one curious omission in his peroration. He never quoted the racist slurs his team had attributed to one of them. But he did predict that they would read about them in the newspaper the next day. He concluded the meeting by stalking out of the cafeteria without taking questions from the teachers.

By the time the story fanned out from the Fort Bend newspaper to the Houston news media, no one was talking about Jack Grimes or site-based decision-making committees or whether minority students were being properly motivated. The one question people wanted answered was who had made the racist comments. While many of the white teachers were shocked at the stupidity of anyone making such slurs, perhaps they had overlooked some habits of mind among their colleagues.

LaNelle Simpson, a black business teacher at Lamar, says she has seen racist practices at the school. The advanced placement classes tended to be all white, and minority kids are not being challenged to take them, a problem that she credits Levinski for addressing. Simpson says she hears a lot of plain "negativism" from teachers who say, "Those kids will never learn."

"I've got a sense," Simpson says, "that the victims were being blamed." She recalls that on career day, a former black student at Lamar came back "to show those counselors who said she would never make it. I have had students who complain that they are steered away from certain colleges."

As for the racial allegations in the TEA report, Simpson says, "I knew they were not talking about me. I was pretty shocked that they came on so strong, but I thought it was about time someone spoke up."

While minority students were having a tough time at Lamar, Simpson didn't think of it as a racially tense campus. That changed once the hunt was on for one teacher on whom to pin the quotations.

On Friday, March 1, the day after Landes was informed that she was the culprit, the school was in turmoil. Slocumb had told the news media that the TEA had identified the teacher to the district, and that the teacher would not be in school that day by her own choice. He did not release Landes' name, so any of several teachers not present could have been the one. The TAAS tests, which had been scheduled for the following week, had been postponed. Students roamed the halls freely. That afternoon, Levinski came on the public address system and told students that anyone who felt concerned about the racial issues should report to the auditorium for counseling. A Hispanic mother entered the auditorium, picked up a microphone and encouraged the children to walk out of the school, and about 100 of them did, right into the waiting television cameras outside.

While all that was transpiring, Landes took off on a long-scheduled out-of-town trip. By Sunday afternoon she had returned home, where she sat down at her kitchen table with her older brother, Don Landes, Lamar's head football coach. They had grown up in the small rural town of Lewisville, Arkansas, 30 miles east of Texarkana, where their dad had a been a farmer and the family had kept a small country store. After attending Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, Phyllis had taught in Arkansas schools for ten years.  

In 1979, Don Landes helped his sister secure a job as a math teacher and coach at Lamar when the school started a girls' basketball team. Phyllis had coached many black and Hispanic girls during her first ten years at the school, and never had a problem, her brother says. He didn't believe for a second that she had made the comments. As a football coach he was used to being criticized; that comes with the job. There was only one thing to do, he told his sister: "Get mad and stay mad." And hire the best lawyer you can find.

By Monday morning, the whole school knew that the TEA had identified a teacher to the district, and that while the teacher would not be named, he or she would be suspended from school. Landes met with Slocumb at 7:15, a time when she was usually helping students, and was placed on administrative leave with pay. But because many of her colleagues knew she had a seriously ill uncle in Arkansas, and other teachers were absent from school for various reasons, it took a few days to figure out who had been fingered.

The Lamar faculty tended to believe that someone in their ranks had actually made the remarks, but once it was clear that Landes had been accused, teachers had their doubts that any consultant had directly heard the remarks from one of their colleagues. Landes was not a particularly outspoken teacher. She didn't hang out in the teachers lounge or raise her voice in school board meetings. It seemed completely out of character for her to say such hateful things to a TEA consultant she had never met. "I have never heard Phyllis say anything even close to a racial comment, or even an ugly statement about her kids," says Pat Wynne, Landes' colleague in the mathematics department for 11 years. "Maybe 'the kids are wearing me out,' or 'I'm not getting it across.' "

After her suspension, Landes went home, a modest brick house not more than a mile from campus, and phoned her professional organization, the Texas Classroom Teachers' Association, in Austin. The TCTA referred her to a Houston lawyer, who quickly took in the seriousness of the situation but didn't seem to get Landes' point. During the next two days, as Landes talked to him, she saw that he wanted to negotiate while she wanted to fight. He talked in terms of maintaining her marketability, Landes recalls. She began to think of the lawyer as "a wimp."

One name that her fellow teachers kept mentioning was Larry Watts, a Houston specialist in defending teachers against school districts. Watts has a reputation for shredding bureaucratic double talk in his cross-examinations. Landes couldn't get through to Watts right away, but she talked to his associate, Carleton Casteel, a former Bellaire High teacher who knew the lingo of education as well as the law. While her TCTA lawyer worked on arranging a meeting with Texas Education Agency officials, Landes decided she needed Watts.

A meeting was arranged on Wednesday, March 6, with two TEA officials from Austin so that Landes could confront her accusers. Her answers rang true, for two days later, state Education Commissioner Moses informed Zolkoski that both Sargent and Landes were believable and there were no witnesses or other evidence to corroborate the statements. "This agency must concur that no definitive judgment can be made, either positive or negative, on the validity of the accusations," Moses wrote.

It was, as Landes somewhat forlornly calls it, a "jump ball."
While Landes was sorting through lawyers and confronting the TEA, the tension was building at campus. Rumors were circulating that a Hispanic student was going to shoot a white student. Whoever had been accused of making the remarks might not be safe. Landes was not worried about children from her own campus, she says, but about hotheaded outsiders whose idea of revenge might be a drive-by shooting. As the rumors intensified, the local police took Don Landes aside and suggested that he and his sister might be better off if they left town for a while. Phyllis Landes owned a 29-foot-long recreational vehicle in which she traveled during the summer, often taking her roommate, her mother and sometimes one of her brother's sons. So Landes, her brother and sister-in-law and their son Jake, a student at Lamar, packed up on Wednesday afternoon and drove to see some friends in Sugar Land. Their spring break came two days early.

By that Friday, several hundred parents had pulled their children from school because of rumors of violence. Fliers signed by representatives of LULAC, the NAACP and the Fort Bend Interfaith Council assured the students that they would work with school personnel to resolve the problems. "Some of our greatest leaders like Martin Luther King, Willie Velasquez, and our own, Selena, have stood for the best in us. It is up to all of us to continue their dreams," the flier reminded students. The Lamar campus was crawling with cops, and there were no incidents. The school broke for its weeklong spring vacation.  

Phyllis Landes' problem was how to take the offensive. She drove to her hometown in Arkansas to let things cool down and plan a strategy. On Monday, March 11, she drove east to Killeen at Watts' instruction, and took a lie detector test from a forensic criminologist named Antonio S. Barrio. Barrio asked her pointed questions about the quotes concerning Hispanics, and concluded she was truthful when she said she hadn't made the remarks.

Watts then decided it was time for Landes to bring her side of the story to the public. He arranged for Landes to talk to Chronicle reporter Patti Muck, on the condition that Landes' name not be used in Muck's story, and also agreed to an interview with Channel 11, as long as Landes' face was not shown during the station's report. The Chronicle ran a front page story in which Landes defended herself but remained anonymous. Channel 11 also did not reveal Landes' name. But in its report, the station did not disguise Landes' voice, inadvertently unmasking her to many of her students, both past and present.

Houston news organizations had inundated the TEA with requests for Landes' identity, but Watts had taken steps to protect her from being revealed under the Texas Open Records Act. By the middle of March, though, Landes' identity as the accused was well known in Richmond and Rosenberg, and, she now theorizes, that may have been to the good. She had taught entire families of Hispanic students, and she believes that once the Hispanic community knew who was accused, the word went out: it couldn't have been Phyllis Landes.

Within days of Landes' anonymous denials, she and Watts decided to go public. With no more students walking out, with no more rumors of impending shootings, with no more mystery as to the identity of the teacher, the sizzle was gone from the story. At a crowded meeting on March 22, the Lamar Consolidated school board reinstated Landes with only one trustee, Alice Flores, dissenting. Flores, the lone Hispanic on the board, refused to talk to the Press. But at the time of her vote, Flores said she feared that Landes could no longer be effective in the classroom.

The administration offered Landes her choice of jobs: a desk in administration or transfer to another school. But for Phyllis Landes, anything less than a return to her classes might be seen as an admission of guilt.

"What else was I to do?" she says. "Hide behind my desk? Take a desk job on another campus? Why would I go to another campus?"

Landes returned to her classes on March 26. School administrators should have sent someone to talk to her students before she returned, Landes says, but they didn't.

"The kids were angry that they couldn't learn in that atmosphere," she says. "I know they threw pencils at my substitute."

She told her students that if any of them for any reason felt uncomfortable working with her, they could transfer, no questions asked, no hard feelings. One student switched. As for the others, Landes reports finding written comments from students on their tests welcoming her back.

"You focus on discipline first." Landes says. "The problem is getting them quiet and putting them on task. And making up all that work we had missed."

Students showed up for early morning tutorials, anticipating the postponed TAAS tests. The scores came though on April 26, and Phyllis Landes was ecstatic. The rate of passing among African-American students had risen from 24 percent to 45 percent. That's still not good enough, Landes says, but at least the students were headed in the right direction, and the higher scores seem to undercut the administration's contention that the teachers had sabotaged the tutorial system their new principal had instituted.

While the students seem to have been learning their lessons despite the turmoil, the adults seem to have learned some lessons as well. Jack Grimes, the TEA consultant who led the troubled review, is using built-up vacation and sick time and will take early retirement in June. Moses has decreed that all visiting review teams will submit their reports to the TEA in Austin before handing them over to the school districts. All of the Lamar teachers are taking classes in racial sensitivity, as directed by the school's principal and superintendent's office, not without some resentment. Lupe Nieto, a representative of the Fort Bend Interfaith Council who has been troubled for years that the district's high schools don't encourage minority students, has been appointed to a "tri-ethnic" committee for Lamar. He says if the principal expects the committee to be a rubber stamp, he will raise his voice in protest.  

Phyllis Landes has never been able to confront Vicki Sargent, the Denton school principal who accused her of spouting racist remarks in the doorway of her classroom. But her lawyer has filed a subpoena for Sargent's deposition, and plans for a lawsuit are under way. The teachers at Lamar have raised several thousand dollars to help Landes with her legal bills if her professional organization does not come through. And there is talk that if Landes doesn't need the money, maybe they'd better save it in case one of them faces similar accusations in the future.

Landes says she wonders if the district administration has any second thoughts about its procedures, since she has never had an apology from Slocumb or Zolkoski, who suspended her before investigating the charges thoroughly.

"When I read that Levinski and Zolkoski are saying that the TEA lied about showing them the review," Landes says, "my question is, 'Why would an entire peer team lie?' Every member of that team said that Zolkoski and Levinski had seen those quotes. They were given the chance to tone down that report, and that's why we think it was a setup."

Phyllis Landes isn't one to wear her feelings on her sleeve. After she was first informed of the TEA accusation, simple survival was foremost on her mind. "I just thought there was a mistake made," she says, "and they were going to say they made a mistake and correct it."

They didn't, and lately Landes has been feeling more anger. Slowly but surely, she's come to the realization that something very precious that she'd built over 27 years of teaching was taken from her during those three weeks in March.

"I still want to know, 'Why me?' It's going to be a long time before it gets back to normal, if there is ever a normal again.


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