Bertie Simmons explains her bat jokes at a press conference earlier this week.
Bertie Simmons explains her bat jokes at a press conference earlier this week.
Photo by Meagan Flynn

Supporters of Bertie Simmons Protest Second Probe Launched by HISD

The investigation into Furr High School Principal Dr. Bertie Simmons over whether she "threatened" students with a baseball bat for not adhering to dress code in the early part of the school year is old news.

As we reported on October 6, when HISD informed Simmons they were sending her home for a second week, they told her and her lawyer they were expanding their investigation of her into other areas, without saying what those were. Thursday the district still was not disclosing the details of their investigation.

On the same day that HISD released to various news outlets an audio recording of Simmons making the perceived bat "threat" over the intercom (below), HISD then announced that actually she wasn't under investigation for those comments anymore, and that in fact, more allegations were lobbed against her while she was on leave. Superintendent Richard Carranza cryptically told the Houston Chronicle she was being probed for "pretty serious" misconduct complaints, but declined to elaborate on even the nature of those complaints. He also voiced concerns about "tickets" students get for, in one example, violating dress code — and said this could cause "psychological trauma" among undocumented students concerned that "tickets" may be a path to real court, where they could be confronted by immigration authorities.

Dr. Jorge Arredondo, the east area superintendent who oversees Furr, confirmed to the Houston Press during a school board meeting Thursday that the investigation into these ticket concerns is also closed and that they aren't the subject of the second investigation, but he would not say what it instead involved.

Simmons's attorney, Scott Newar — who filed complaints with the U.S. departments of justice and education Monday, alleging the root of HISD's original investigation was to oust Simmons in favor of a younger and non-white principal — also declined comment. He said at this point he preferred to keep things within a "legal channel."

Had this second investigation not been launched, HISD administrators said, Simmons would have been allowed to return to Furr.

Supporters of Simmons took their complaints to the HISD school board meeting on Thursday evening, calling the investigation into Simmons politically motivated and asking to have their principal back. Simmons — an 83-year-old known for her tough-love attitude at a high school formerly notorious for rampant gang activity — is generally popular among students and highly regarded thanks to her efforts to bring the graduation rate up from below 50 percent in 2000 to more than 90 percent last year. Because of the progress and her innovative approach to discipline, she was awarded a $10 million grant by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, to go specifically toward projects at Furr, and nowhere else in the district (a reason Newar had previously said might be why administrators are targeting her, over a desire to control the grant money).

Jordan Davis, a senior at Furr and president of the student court, said that he did not believe that Simmons would ever threaten a student and that, rather, the principal's office is where students go to feel safe. The idea that Simmons would threaten a student with a bat for not following the dress code was particularly ironic, because in student court — where Simmons is the judge — Davis said students are never even suspended for violating the dress code. Student court has not been running since Simmons has been on leave, Davis said.

Simmons herself has said she's been teasing students for years about the bat in her office, which is inscribed and which she says she can "hardly pick up." The audio subject to the investigation, which HISD provided to the Houston Press Thursday, appears to back up her account:

"And those of you who are not dressed in dress code, you are to go to the gym, because we have over there a baseball bat, and we're gonna work you over for being out of dress code. You're gonna meet with the assistant principal in the gym. We're gonna have a long talk about following rules in the school. When we ask you to do something, we expect you to do it, and when you don't do it, then we're gonna start taking some action against you. So I want to congratulate everybody who is in dress code today. Thank you very much."

With that settled, it's unclear what the new problem is.

"I just feel like they're combing the school [looking for something wrong]," said Karen Taylor, Simmons's close friend and next-door neighbor, who spoke before the board. Taylor had said she heard from students that, ironically, with Simmons gone, students had been suspended — which is not how Simmons disciplined students. "What's sad is seeing all of [what Simmons built at Furr] be dismantled for no reason I can think of other than someone just wants to see her gone."

Arredondo confirmed that students involved in "mutual combat" were suspended. Asked whether that would have been the course of action if Simmons and student court were still there, he said the students would be disciplined according to HISD code of conduct — which, Arredondo clarified, is subject to administrators' discretion, such as Simmons's student court (which Arredondo said the district supports and is considering expanding).

If Carranza had been so concerned about Simmons's tactics with tickets in student court, a simple question posed to student court president Davis could have easily provided relief.

Davis said that student court is the primary course of discipline for Furr students. Students who get tickets appear before a jury of their peers and, with Simmons's approval, the students together decide a proper form of "educational discipline" rather than punitive measures such as detention or suspension, because that would mean they'd have to miss class, he said, which Simmons doesn't believe in. For example, Davis said a ticket for something like pulling a fire alarm could mean writing an apology to the fire department and to the school, and having to read it over the intercom. Sometimes students are made to write essays.

"The students who care about [Simmons] really want her back," Davis said. "It doesn't feel like the real Furr that we're used to."

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