Thomas Iocca had just finished teaching medieval literature to his seventh-grade English students and wanted to reward the kids with an end-of-the-semester holiday treat. So he planned for 125 Attucks Middle School students to see Lord of the Rings on opening day.
After all, the movie is filled with life lessons about good and evil, and power when it's in the wrong hands, he explains. And next semester, he plans to make the first book in the trilogy the major reading project.
An extra educational bonus for the trip was that several eager kids bought the 500-page novel and read it on their own in anticipation of the movie. Excitement escalated among the students as Iocca tended to the Houston Independent School District's paperwork. He says he got the formal approval after heeding the district's request to round up three more chaperones. Three buses were scheduled to transport the kids, and he collected more than $1,000 from them for the planned fun, which was to include post-movie pizza at CiCi's.
Iocca set up the reservations with the restaurant and theater for Wednesday, December 19. Just before lunch on the eve of the outing, the principal had him paged and told him there was bad news.
"I thought he was joking," Iocca says. "I s aid, 'The field trip's been canceled?' He nodded his head and said, 'Yeah.' " Iocca says when he asked why, the principal told him south district Superintendent Warner Ervin vetoed the trip "because it had no educational value."
"Why would he do this [at the] last minute?" a stunned Iocca asked. "Do you think this is personal?"
Somewhat differing explanations have emerged for calling off the outing, a move that left several of the kids teary-eyed and many parents upset.
HISD spokesperson Heather Browne says the field trip was not canceled, because Ervin never approved it in the first place.
She says the request form was returned to the school because the number of listed chaperones was inadequate. The form was never resubmitted, so officials assumed plans had been abandoned, she says.
Browne says that on the day before the trip the school principal phoned Ervin to confirm the approval, and that's when Ervin said no. Browne says Ervin had several objections. He hadn't been adequately briefed on the plans. Because of the time away from school -- five hours during finals week -- Browne says, Ervin declared that the trip lacked educational merit.
"It's the most widely read book besides the Bible," Iocca responds. "Apparently Mr. Ervin doesn't know that." Last year Iocca got approval to take his students to see The Mummy Returns, and the year before, they saw Mission: Impossible 2. Those films had far less educational value than this one, Iocca points out.
Ervin denies questioning the educational worth of the trip, saying he doesn't have enough information about the movie to discuss whether it has literary merit. "That was not stated by me or anybody in my office," he says. "I would not criticize a movie of any type."
And he disputes some other aspects of Browne's explanation of events. He says he was away with U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige at an educational conference in San Antonio (at times in the interview he gave the location as Austin).
Ervin says he already told all principals in the south district that there would be no field trips during finals week. "We let them know that we were just not gonna be approving any trips," Ervin says, "particularly if they were not turned in timely."
Citing exam week as a reason is bogus, Iocca says, because his middle school students didn't have finals. "That's bull," Iocca says. "He's either lying or he's stupid."
"I've been teaching 21 years at this school, and I've never had a field trip canceled," Iocca says.
He speculates on another motive -- a vendetta -- for Ervin to kill the trip.
Ervin, as principal of Madison High School in the mid-1990s, was the target of protests by several employees, including Iocca's wife, Beverly Iocca. Ervin was accused of labeling a female ninth-grade basketball player a lesbian and told her mother she needed to transfer to a different school, even though she lived within the district (see "Power to the Principal," by Shaila Dewan, April 2, 1998). Iocca's wife filed a formal grievance against the principal.
Iocca even wrote a letter on behalf of his wife that accused Ervin of "incompetence, cowardice and discriminatory practices." She was transferred every semester for the next couple of years until she quit.
Given that history, Iocca says, he joked that maybe he shouldn't use his name when making the field trip request. "I couldn't believe the guy would be that petty, so I went ahead and filled out the form," Iocca says.
Ervin says he hates that the teacher even brought up the incident with Iocca's wife in the current dispute. "That had nothing to do with it," he says. "I have six other trips on my desk that were denied and their spouse didn't work for me My concern was not who was sponsoring the trip, but that south district students be in their classrooms."
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After the trip was called off, Ervin suggested that the kids go two days later, on a Friday that was a school holiday. Iocca pitched that option to the kids, but fewer than half could make it. No one was excited about coming to school on a holiday, and several already had plans to be out of town.
Ervin insists that the kids spend every last minute there soaking up knowledge during regular class periods. "We continue to instruct students to the very last day and the very last hour of the school day," Ervin says.
And the students were there on that Wednesday. Instead of seeing the movie, kids sat in the classroom and finished reading the play A Christmas Carol. They were all clearly disappointed, Iocca says. Outraged, Iocca wrote a letter of protest to Superintendent Kaye Stripling. He thinks Ervin owes the students an apology.
"Instead of being apologetic or contrite or just shutting up, apparently he's hell-bent on some sort of revenge or teaching me a lesson or putting me in my place ," Iocca says. "I don't know if it was personal or if he doesn't like kids taking field trips. Our kids are always getting screwed over like this."