A Little Respect

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Antonia Rivas didn't want much out of life. She loved her family: two daughters living in Houston and a son in the U.S. Army stationed in Louisiana. She liked cooking for them and their children on Saturdays. She loved the school where she worked — Shadowbriar Elementary — the only job she'd held since coming to the United States 16 years ago. She loved her church.

The 69-year-old didn't speak much English. As a custodian at Shadowbriar, located near Westheimer and S. Dairy Ashford in the Houston Independent School District, she didn't make much money — a little more than $20,000 a year — but it was enough for her to keep up with the mortgage on the small one-story house she'd been able to buy a few years back.

But she didn't have enough money to retire and still make the mortgage payments. And she wanted that house. A Bolivian national who had residency status here, she considered a house a very important achievement, two of her children say. And she didn't want help with it.

So she kept working. She didn't drive, so she rode the bus to work or one of her relatives would give her a lift. If she could hang on two more years till her son got out of the service and could come live with her, she'd be able to handle everything.

Except that she couldn't.

In the last days before the Christmas break, when things were already busy enough at the school, the head custodian fell off a ladder while trying to change a lightbulb, breaking ribs and other bones. As the custodial employee with the longest time on the job, Rivas became head of the crew.

But no replacement was brought in. Instead, Rivas's son and daughter say, their mother was told she was going to have to work a 16-hour day to cover for the missing man. Principal Lauren Topek gave her task after task, and one fellow employee said when Rivas finished her work and tried to go home early one day, Topek said no, she hadn't finished her shift.

"She told me, 'I have to work 16 hours. They don't have anybody else,'" Marisol Humerez said. "They told her just one day." But when she came home the next day, Humerez said, her mom said she'd been told to come in the next day for another 16 hours.

And the next day, and the next day.

Others at the school and her family say Rivas voiced her unhappiness, complaining that she was overwhelmed and exhausted, with no time to sleep. But she didn't refuse the duty, frightened that she might lose her job if she told new principal Topek she couldn't handle all the hours, all the work. She'd been worried all year about the young principal, afraid she wouldn't like having someone of Rivas's age around.

Finally, the winter break came, and Rivas could get some rest. Her son was coming in from Louisiana. The families would celebrate the holiday, and there were lots of activities and services planned at their church.

The only pall over the proceedings was that Rivas was so tired. And that she had been told she was going to have to go in to school to work the Tuesday after Christmas.

She never made it. On December 18, while at church, Rivas fainted and, once revived, complained of a blinding headache. She was rushed to the emergency room with what turned out to be a brain aneurysm. Three days later, after life support was removed, she died without ever having spoken to her family again. Her funeral was held two days before Christmas.

Several employees think she was worked to death and blame Principal Topek, saying she made Rivas work impossible hours. Certainly, there's no way of knowing whether the work in any way caused Rivas's death. It could have happened no matter what Rivas did.

The funeral turnout was impressive. Several people, including Shadowbriar's new and former principal, came to do their part to honor the custodian's memory as a woman who worked hard and liked to give hugs to others.

But all that wasn't enough for one employee, who wrote Joanna Pasternak, a union rep with the Houston Federation of Teachers, to say this:

On December 23 we (the staff at Shadowbriar Elementary School) went to Antonia Rivas' funeral. For sixteen years, she was one of our custodians. She died from an aneurysm that happened on the prior Sunday. She told me the last week of school before the Christmas break that she was overloaded with work and that she had to work from 6AM to 10 PM and she did not have enough  time to sleep. She was tired and angry for this situation. The last Friday before Winter break I saw her at 7:30 AM trying to carry eight 6x3 ft tables upstairs. The elevator wasn't working and I told her to wait for another person to help her. She said that the principal wanted the tables upstairs immediately. She was a 69 years old petite woman. Where is the compassion?

Many teachers like me are angry for what happened and we want to speak for Antonia who is in heaven and her family that may not know how Antonia was treated in Shadowbriar this year by the principal. The death of Antonia may be consequence of all the extra work that was imposed to her. 

Again, as the letter writer says, no one can be certain that all the extra work led to Rivas's death.

But it might have helped if Rivas had been able to catch her breath before going to her maker.

By all accounts, Antonia Rivas hadn't been the only one feeling the strain this school year at Shadowbriar, a Title I third-through-fifth-grade school with more than 60 percent of the students on free or reduced-price lunches. (None of the school personnel who talked to the Press wanted their names disclosed, saying they were afraid they would be fired for speaking up. Parents also didn't want their names used, saying they feared retaliation against their children.)

Topek, who declined to be interviewed by the Houston Press, came to the school last May for a few weeks of transition with outgoing longtime principal Patti May.

It's never easy replacing a beloved principal, which by all accounts May was, but Topek seems to have stumbled at the starting gate unnecessarily. Among her first actions: abruptly announcing the dress code would change in an early-morning automated call to students' homes — which was almost immediately rescinded after parental outcry to the district — and rewriting the "school cheer" and turning it into what one parent referred to as sounding like a "North Korean chant."

Of course, given Superintendent Terry Grier's desire to rapidly improve things in HISD, no principal is going to be allowed to sit on his hands for a year — however much parents might want the status quo.

"If there's something that needs to change, he expects them to change it," said HISD spokesman Jason Spencer. "The students can't afford to wait. [But] you know you just don't go in like a bull in a china shop and change things just for the sake of changing them."

But, citing these two examples, that's exactly what parents say Topek did — make meaningless and infuriating changes that had nothing to do with academic improvement. The school already had a "recognized" rating from the Texas Education Agency in its last assessment — did it really need to revamp?

Shadowbriar employees complain that the new atmosphere at school is filled with tension and fear. "We no longer say good morning to each other," one said drily. "We say, 'How many times did you get written up?'"

All the employees we talked with said they were very upset with the way ­Rivas was treated and urged her to stand up to the principal, but she refused.

Parents say Topek lacks experience — she's in her early thirties and, according to them, had only a year as a classroom teacher and only three months as an assistant principal at a middle school before coming to Shadowbriar.

Spencer said Topek had been a classroom teacher during the 2002-3, 2004-5 and 2005-6 school years (although on her school Web site, Topek herself only refers to her one year as a classroom teacher) and was a science content specialist from 2006 to 2011.

"HISD principal candidates are not required to have any assistant principal experience," Spencer made clear.

Spencer also pointed to Topek's educational credentials: "She graduated summa cum laude from New York University and received her master's degree from Harvard University in 2004. She is pursuing her doctoral degree."

Big whoop, say parents. Topek refers to Harvard all the time, they say. "That's intimidating to people at our school," one said. Or, perhaps, a sign of insecurity.

Discussions with Topek don't go far, parents say. "She responds but never answers your questions," one said. Another said she felt after talking with Topek that her child "would be an experiment" at Shadowbriar. They were additionally upset when their kids came back from mid-year break to find many of them reassigned to different teachers and/or with different schedules.

They are convinced, as one said, that Topek really doesn't want to be a principal. "This is just a stepping stone to where she wants to go," another said.

When one employee missed several days of school because her daughter was sick, Topek called the daughter's school, checking to see that the child was really out of class. The principal apologized later, but, as one other employee put it: "I would like a new principal. We all have one vision, and it's not with her."

Edwin Humerez knew something was wrong when his mother didn't get up to greet him when he arrived at her home before Christmas. "Usually I would just hold the knob and she would get up. But that night she didn't get up." On Sunday, she was slow getting up again, which meant she was late for the day's activities at the church.

HISD job requirements say custodians should be able to lift 50 pounds. The custodial staff hierarchy is part of Construction and Facility Services, and its "team leaders and area managers" set the shifts and assign hours, Spencer said. There is no mandatory retirement age.

Asked if a principal was in charge of a custodian, Spencer said a principal was a "customer."

Asked if a principal or custodial department supervisor can demand a custodian work extra hours, Spencer responded: "Overtime is requested of an employee, at the employee's right of refusal."

Edwin and Marisol Humerez were sure HISD was breaking some kind of law by requiring their mother to work that much. But no, according to Spencer, the only limitations are that an employee can't work more than twice his regular hours in a week. Rivas's four days of 16-hour shifts didn't exceed this.

Edwin wanted to know why, in a district of HISD's size, there weren't more fill-in personnel on standby. "Don't they have people they can move in?" There is supposed to be a "relief custodian" system in place which services the entire district, but if a replacement can't be found right away (could be tough right before Christmas), then "work is divided up among the remaining staff," Spencer said.

The employee who wrote the letter had this to say as well: "It's a lesson, isn't it? As human beings we need more respect for what we do. And we shouldn't be pushed to work beyond our physical capacities. She was an old woman and she didn't speak English, so maybe she couldn't say anything or complain."

After her death, Rivas's children checked her bank statement and found she hadn't been paid for the overtime work in the days prior to her death. They say the department supervisor told them he hadn't known she'd worked any overtime. The matter was sorted out quickly, and the additional payment made.

They say they are bringing all this up because they don't want what happened to their mother to happen to anyone else. They want those in charge to know that people like their mom shouldn't be taken for granted.

Many people will say that if Antonia Rivas didn't want the extra hours, she should have just said so and taken her chances. Employees say several staff members left the school this year and others are looking to leave.

There's a learning curve in management, just like any other job. The best managers-in-training make their mistakes while trying to do the least damage possible. Certainly Principal Topek could not be expected to know the unstated fears going on in the mind of Antonia Rivas.

Then again, she did know the hours Rivas was working and what she was asking her to do.

A young principal was in a hurry to tie up loose ends before the holiday. It's her job to keep the school running to the best of her ability. Let's give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she never meant to hurt anyone. A huge school district didn't find anyone to fill in for one of its custodians, leaving another one to do the best she could.

Antonio Rivas went to her death, scared for her livelihood, feeling her wants and needs at work were not valued.

No one did anything illegal. But they could have done better.


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