Fighting The Power

June 01, 1990 13 min read

Harrison took a supervisory job in the county’s central office in 1985. A vocational education teacher with an advanced degree and administrative certification, she couldn’t help noticing that most of the male administrators actually did have coaching backgrounds. She also observed that, although there were female supervisors and coordinators, few women had made it into high-profile roles such as principals and assistant superintendents, where they could be visible role models for students.

For Harrison, that dawning awareness of inequity--the appearance of discrimination, if not the fact--rapidly evolved into a crusade. And although she wasn’t always popular, Harrison persisted. In the end, she lost a major battle--a federal investigation found no gender-based job discrimination in Cabell County--but for the many women who follow in her footsteps she may have won the war.

Says Harrison with her Appalachian drawl: “I have become not only notorious but sort of a celebrity. People I don’t know have thanked me. So I know it was all worth it.’'

Even among those who agreed with Harrison’s single-minded quest for equality--and particularly those who found themselves on the receiving end of Harrison’s pointed barbs-- few would quibble with her own claim to notoriety (See page XX). Harrison’s closest collaborators admit that, at times, her intensity was a bit hard to take, even for them. But many concede that were it not for Linda Harrison, the reforms eventually instituted by the Cabell County schools might never have materialized.

In September 1986, Harrison found a sympathetic partner in colleague Dorothy Scott. Over a period of years, both had reached for brass-ring promotions only to come out empty-handed. Scott, who was qualified and experienced as a school principal, was working on a number of curriculum-related projects, hoping to get back into a principalship. “You didn’t think much about it until you started looking back to see who had filled those positions,’' Scott says.

The two women pulled out the system directory and started counting. Recalls Harrison: “We noticed that we didn’t have many females, black or white, above the level of supervisor.’' There were no females superintendents or assistant superintendents. Three of the 20 assistant principals were female. And of the 43 principals, only eight were women, all relegated to elementary schools, where, Harrison alleges, administrators were paid less and perceived as having a more nurturing, “female’’ image.

Whether by accident or design, men appeared to have an edge. Harrison, for one, has long suspected, but been unable to prove, that coaching experience provided an express route to the central office. She explains: “Our philosophy in this county has been ‘muscle ‘em.’ The coaching style was believed to be the only management or administrative style that would succeed.’' In a 1987 Cabell County newspaper article, the local school superintendent was reported to have admitted that it was expected and accepted for coaches to move into administration. But, he was quoted as saying, “I know we’re beginning to look beyond the coach. I can’t emphasize enough--I think those days are behind us.’'

Harrison’s own experience tended to support her view that only those applicants who had been tested on the field of athletic competition were deemed worthy of promotion. In 1972, long before concerns about equity entered her mind, she had applied for an assistant principalship at a Cabell County high school. “I was told by two administrators that it was a man’s job, that it took a lot of muscle, and that there were easier ways to get into administration. At that point in my career, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to know that I was being discriminated against. These guys were super nice fellows--personally and professionally. I took them at their word and said, ‘Okay guys, thanks.’''

Fourteen years later, Harrison was less charitable. She and Scott decided to take action. The quiet, even-tempered Scott began doing research into federal employment regulations. Harrison’s approach was more direct. She made an appointment to talk about the issue with the superintendent of schools. “I was so naive,’' Harrison recalls. “I figured that no one had ever realized that there was this problem. I actually thought he would say, ‘My God, I’m so glad you came to me. You’re absolutely right. We’re going to change this.’''

But at that meeting, Harrison alleges that then superintendent Robert Frum leaned back in his chair, laughed, and said that the only way women were going to move into administration in Cabell County was when men retired, resigned, or died.

(Frum, contacted by telephone, said that federal investigators had found no discrimination and that those findings “spoke for themselves.’')

But Harrison wasn’t willing to wait that long.

She and Scott put their observations and research findings into a 68-page report that pointed out the specific areas where there was a gender imbalance and explained the federal laws that are supposed to protect employees from discrimination.

On January 15, 1987, after a meeting of administrators, Harrison handed the report to the superintendent. Copies of the document were also delivered to members of the school board. And then she waited for a response, feeling more than a little trepidation.

To her surprise, a few board members applauded Harrison for bringing the information to light. And even among those who didn’t offer praise, no one could dispute that there were more male than female administrators. Julia Hagan, a board member who has since become president, and Jerry Brewster, who was assistant superintendent at the time, both agreed that men had been promoted more frequently than women but said that the disparity was not intentional.

Today, Hagan points to her own rise in power as proof that the system is not discriminatory. “I don’t feel that there has been an effort to hold anybody back,’' she says. “Conversely, I don’t think there has been a great effort in this county school system to mentor, assist, or help any particular minority.’'

Some of the women who worked in the Cabell County schools had another opinion. That same evening, about 25 of them were invited by Scott to a local restaurant to talk about the study. As it turned out, most of the women had stories of their own to tell. Many were teachers with administrative degrees who had applied for administrative positions and been denied.

Some women complained that, although they had applied for such positions, they had never been asked to interview. Others who were interviewed said they were asked inappropriate questions that reflected the male-only bias: How would you discipline an angry adolescent boy? What do you know about lining a football field? How would your husband feel if you had to chaperone dances and games?

Brewster, who had been a part of screening committees for seven years, admits that some of the interviewers in the past were not properly trained. “They may have asked questions that were inappropriate,’' he says. “But I never heard one that I thought was blatantly discriminatory.’'

For more than a week, the district did nothing. Then, in late January, Frum reorganized his administrative staff, appointing several women. And in early February, he established a special task force to examine the issue. He did all this, in spite of the administration’s public stance that no discrimination was occurring.

Harrison was asked to serve on the task force, as was Nathaniel Ruffin, vice president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a Cabell County resident. Earlier that year, Ruffin had written an official complaint to the board charging that its hiring practices were racially discriminatory. Both Harrison and Ruffin agreed to serve on the panel, but they threatened to file charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if the district administration did not expeditiously adopt an affirmative action plan.

Both Harrison and Ruffin thought the creation of the task force was a delaying tactic. “The task force had one of those time-consuming missions,’' says Ruffin. “We were supposed to find out if there was a problem. But they could tell by looking at their own personnel data that there was a problem.’'

After several weeks, it seemed clear to Harrison and Ruffin that the board was not serious about taking action. Recalls Harrison: “We had given the board a certain amount of time. When they refused to recognize the situation, we contacted the EEOC in the Pittsburgh region. We sent them a position paper, and they said that we had grounds to file a charge.’'

Harrison says she was advised by the EEOC that three or more women should file a charge on behalf of “all similarly situated females.’' Harrison, Scott, and Mary Campbell, a teacher who had tried for years to get a principalship, signed the charge. Scott and another black educator, William Smith, signed a separate complaint, charging the county with racial discrimination.

Some residents cheered openly. Letters of support appeared in the Cabell County Herald-Dispatch. The newspaper also published at least two editorials calling for the school board to implement an affirmative action program and put an end to sex discrimination. “The time has long since come to reject the ‘good ol’ boy’ philosophy which for decades has been at the heart of personnel decisions in the system,’' one of the editorials stated.

Many others wrote and telephoned Harrison and Scott--sometimes anonymously--to express their support. An 82-year-old retired teacher wrote to say that she had been aware of the problem all her life but didn’t have the courage to do anything about it. Ruffin also received encouraging calls. “I had lots of calls from black and white women saying, ‘I’m glad to see that somebody has gotten on the administration’s case,’'' Ruffin recalls. “And, board members would call and tell me, off the record, that they knew it was a ‘good old boy’’ system but that no one would admit it.’'

But not everyone in Cabell County was cheering. Sue Bowen and Mary Curnutte, who had received administrative jobs when Frum reorganized his staff, praised the administration in an article than ran in the Herald Dispatch. “It just never seemed I ran into anyone to whom it made any difference whether I was a man or a woman,’' Curnette was quoted as saying. “It always seemed to me that ability to do the job, your initiative, and the old Christian ethic of hard work paid off.’'

Harrison had naively and blithely assumed that the facts of the case would be indisputable. But circumstantial evidence, she soon discovered, is not necessarily proof of discrimination. When the EEOC finally got around to investigating the case in 1988, all of her hopes were dashed in an instant. The EEOC found no evidence of discrimination and dismissed the complaint. Harrison, Scott, and Ruffin simply could not accept the federal findings. They questioned the EEOC’s thoroughness. Investigators never visited Cabell County, and all interviews were conducted by telephone. And Harrison never had an opportunity to review school district documents submitted in evidence.

Harrison also fears that the EEOC focused its investigation on the specific cases of those who filed the charges instead of investigating how the system treated women and minorities in general. She admits that the individual cases were not strong. Harrison and Scott were, after all, working in the central office. And, after the complaint was filed but before the investigation began, Campbell and Smith were given administrative positions. “There were women in Cabell County with strong and recent cases who could have signed if we had known,’' Harrison says.

She believes that if investigators had looked beyond the individual cases, they would have discovered a problem. Experience is a key prerequisite for winning job promotions. But since few women had been hired as principals, few had gained the seniority needed to win higher level appointments. Says Harrison: “We couldn’t move up the ladder because we couldn’t get to the first rung.’'

And, she alleges, when men and women competed for the bottom-rung positions, such as assistant principal slots, too often the job went to the male because of coaching experience.

That practice may have happened years ago, says Jerry Brewster, but things have changed. “There were many administrators who were former coaches,’' the school board president says. “I don’t know if that was wrong. Many coaches did make good administrators.’' But, he adds, in the seven years he has been with the system, he thinks the number has dropped.

Harrison will never know how deeply the EEOC probed. To gain access to most of the records in the EEOC case file, she would have had to go to court. But starting--and paying for--a legal battle just didn’t seem practical, says Harrison. Although frustrated with the unanswered questions, Harrison says that she and the others were able to let go, mainly because they had already achieved their objective of making the district and the public aware of the problem.

All along, the school district claimed that its policy was to hire the most qualified candidate as required by state law, which stipulates that qualifications and evaluations be given first consideration. When two equally qualified candidates apply, the candidates’ seniority is also taken into account.

Even if such policies wind up giving men an advantage, says Raj Gupta, a senior legal advisor for the EEOC, that doesn’t necessarily mean they violate the law. Only if the EEOC finds that the policies were adopted with the intent to discriminate would they be considered in violation. Regardless of the intent, Harrison still believes that women in the Cabell County schools were held back. And what’s more, she says, the administration knows it.

In the months since the EEOC absolved the district of guilt, the school system has added both an affirmative action officer and an equal employment opportunity officer to its staff. And the task force unanimously approved a recommendation for an affirmative action advisory board. Although the positions are only part- time and the advisory board has yet to meet, Ruffin says it’s an excellent start.

But there is more. When a batch of administrative jobs opened up recently, women and blacks received promotions. Says Scott: “You know, when you see six or seven women hired in the course of a year, you can step back and say, ‘I was a part of that.’ Maybe those women will never know it, or maybe they’ll never understand it, but I know it.’'

Some locals, however, do not give credit to Harrison and her colleagues for even the smallest of gains. Hagan, for one, believes that the county was heading in the right direction anyway. As she puts it, “the cream has risen to the top in spite of, not because of, Linda’s actions.’'

Although the number of women and minorities in administrative positions--35, according to Brewster--still doesn’t satisfy Harrison, she is pleased that the number of grievances filed by employees has risen since she began her fight. It is important, she says, for women to be activists as well as teachers. “As a group, we teachers have given away our power too easily.’'

Both Harrison and Scott have been recognized for their efforts. In the past couple of years, they have each received a leadership award from the West Virginia Education Association and the National Organization of Women’s Susan B. Anthony Award.

But the best reward they’ve received is not one they can hang on their wall.

This year, in the busy hallway of Miller Elementary School, a 2nd grade girl asked Scott a seemingly logical question: “Mrs. Scott, what grade do you teach?’' When the tall, elegant woman explained that she was the school’s principal, the little girl laughed with surprise. “I never saw a lady principal before!’' she exclaimed.

“You see, Dorothy is a role model for that little girl,’' Harrison says with a nod and a smile tinged with pride. “That’s what it’s all about.’'

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Fighting The Power