Are Uniforms and a Bat Joke Really the Basis for Sending Principal Bertie Simmons Home, HISD? [UPDATED]

Principal Bertie Simmons regularly patrols the hallways at Furr High School.
Principal Bertie Simmons regularly patrols the hallways at Furr High School.
Photo by Margaret Downing
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Update 3 p.m. October 6, 2017: Principal Bertie Simmons was told in a meeting with her supervisor Jorge Arredondo this afternoon that she is suspended for another week and that the investigation into her performance is being expanded. *See below for more details.

Dr. Bertie Simmons, the longtime and much-acclaimed principal of Furr High School in the Houston Independent School District, has been sent home – apparently in large part as a result of a disagreement she had with higher-ups over the use of school uniforms.

Karen Taylor, a friend of the 83-year-old Simmons, said the former Principal of the Year had told the district that gang activity seemed to be increasing at the school – evidenced by the increasing display of gang colors by students – and that she wanted to stop or at least slow it down by requiring uniforms. “She was saying that Lamar and other schools use uniforms and she really needs them.”

Instead she was told by her superiors that HISD does not want to expand the use of uniforms and her request was denied, Taylor said.

Also included in the letter sent to Simmons by the district was a reference to Simmons allegedly threatening a student with a bat, as reportedly observed by a teacher. For years, Simmons has referred to getting a bat in some form as a joke. Again, Simmons is 83 years old and, well, remarkably short.

“It’s always been a joke since she’s been at Furr that when she walks up to a student and someone says something to her that’s joking, she says, ‘Oh, don’t make me get my bat.’”

Asked for a statement, the HISD press office responded with this:

"The Principal at Furr High School in the Houston Independent School District has been temporarily relieved of duties due to a personnel matter. We cannot provide specific details out of respect for the privacy of the individuals involved. Administrators from Central Office are working closely with the school community and the campus leadership team to ensure there is no disruption to student learning."

Taylor said she believes there is jealousy at work in the attack on Simmons, who has been frequently highlighted in local and national media for her ability to turn around Furr High School. There is a famous true story about her negotiating a deal with warring gangsters at her school that if they behaved for the rest of the school year, she’d take them to New York City to prove 9/11 happened. And she did just that, including having the group take in a Broadway show.

More recently she headed up a yearlong effort by the school that successfully secured a $10 million grant in a national contest from Lauren Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs, for Furr. Taylor said HISD officials had told Simmons the money should be spread around the district, which she didn’t want to do. And when she contacted the organizers of The Super School Project, she was told that unless the entire grant amount went to Furr, Taylor said, there wouldn’t be any money forthcoming.

Simmons's attorney, Scott Newar, sent a letter to Carranza today in which he denied the allegations made by
Dr. Jorge Arredondo, HISD’s East Area Superintendent, in a memo to Simmons. According to Arredondo's memo: " Dr. Simmons “failed to adhere to the district’s decision to relax student dress code for the first semester and…verbally threatened students with a baseball bat.”

Here's the letter Simmons's attorney sent to Carranza:

Taylor also said that most teachers at Furr are very upset about what’s happened to Simmons and wanted to show their support, but were warned by the administration that there should be no such demonstrations.

We attempted to contact Simmons directly but she was not immediately available, on the advice of her attorney.

Updated, 4:30 p.m.: Bertie Simmons says she doesn't understand why the district has done this. "I don't know why, what I've done or haven't done."

"All I can say is I love these students, and clearly the district doesn't love me. I've just been in shock because last Friday when they ushered me off campus and gave me that letter, I was just shocked." Simmons said she had a hearing with a hearing officer on Tuesday and thought it went well. "I'm energized by this. When I see something is wrong I get energized," she said. "I'm ready to go now. I'm ready to fight I'm ready to do whatever to make things right. Because this is obviously wrong."

Updated 3 p.m. October 6, 2017: Scott Newar, the attorney Bertie Simmons has engaged in this matter, said today that they are weighing their response to the latest move by the district. "They are continuing their investigation of Bertie. Now the investigation has expanded from these bogus allegations of a threat with a baseball bat and a violation of the relaxed uniform policy to investigating her for unstated issues involving her administration of Furr High School.

"They have an internal auditor out at the school district continuing a sort of witch hunt against her and this is going to go on for the next week at least," Newar said.

Her friend Karen Taylor also sent this letter to Superintendent Carranza:

Superintendent Carranza,

I would like to register my strenuous objection to HISD's suspension of Bertie Simmons, principal of Furr High School. I am furious that you would treat such a dedicated, innovative principal so shamefully. Ms. Simmons works 60 to 80 hours a week to see that "her kids" receive an education that will allow them to excel in any field they choose. Under her leadership, the graduation rate has risen from less than 50% to 95%. She cares for all aspects of her students' lives and they know it. Three of them even called her during Hurricane Harvey and asked that she rescue them. She just organized a clothing drive to replace some of the clothes her students lost in the flood.

I have personally seen the results of her innovations. I challenge you to actually go to the school and talk to the teachers and students. Call the parents and ask how she has impacted their lives. Ms. Simmons has transformed many lives and her accomplishments are recognized nationally. What is HISD thinking to suspend someone who is recognized as one of the best principals in the United States? Educators come from all over the country and the world to see her model school. I thought maybe you were going to be a breath of fresh air for a notoriously poorly run and corrupt district. Perhaps I was wrong.

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