Ruben Perez will forever divide his life into two periods: before Dec. 1, 1994, and after. Prior to that date, Perez was a little-known assistant principal at Denver’s Horace Mann Middle School, which sits in a quiet residential neighborhood just northwest of the city’s booming downtown. During his two and a half years at the school, the 41-year-old New Mexico native had taken his job as chief disciplinarian seriously. He had started a “Crimestoppers Fund’’ to reward students who snitched on troublemakers. He was known to suspend students who were caught fighting or talking back to their teachers. And if he didn’t always see eye to eye with Horace Mann’s principal, Martha Guevara, Perez felt he had strong support from the school’s 50 teachers when it came to matters of discipline, and he was proud of his track record. “Things have changed since I stepped into this building,’' he told me.
Still, Perez wasn’t satisfied. He believed there were too many disruptive students who were keeping Horace Mann from reaching its potential. “I went around to the teachers,’' Perez said, “and I said, ‘Give me the names of the worst of your worst. Give me the names of the kids who have excessive truancies, excessive tardies, excessive absences, in addition to the kids who just come to socialize.’ '' The teachers were more than happy to oblige; eventually, they came up with a list of 97 students.
What Perez had in mind was a mass suspension, a dramatic gesture that he hoped would send a strong message to all of the school’s 785 students. But there was one problem. “I knew that Martha would not go along with it,’' he said, “because she doesn’t like suspending kids. Her philosophy of discipline is totally different from mine.’' So Perez waited for the right moment to carry out his plan.
On Thursday, Dec. 1, that moment came. Guevara was in New York City, at a conference sponsored by the Ford Foundation, leaving Perez effectively in charge of the school. He decided to make his move. But first, someone at the school alerted the news media, who sensed that a good story was about to come down. As it turned out, the reporters ended up getting a much bigger story than they ever imagined. That’s because Perez never got to enact his plan; when administrators for the Denver Public Schools got wind of what was about to happen, they not only called off the mass suspension but also suspended Perez, turning the assistant principal into an instant folk hero.
Within days, Perez had appeared on The CBS Evening News, the Today show, and CNN and had been interviewed by People magazine, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Times, not to mention The Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News, and numerous local television and radio news outlets. While Denver Public Schools superintendent Irv Moskowitz was accusing Perez of “vigilante justice,’' others were praising the assistant principal for his courage and conviction. “All of Denver owes Ruben Perez a word--or a chorus--of thanks,’' The Denver Post editorialized. “In one day, he has done more to focus the city’s attention on the problems of school discipline than anyone else, from school board members on down, has done in a year or more....Perez should have been supported, not disciplined, for his action.’'
Perez was back at work on Monday, Dec. 5, but the debate over his unorthodox tactics continues to this day. By all rights, his 15 minutes of fame should have ended weeks ago, but it’s clear that he touched a raw nerve. School discipline, it seems, is on everybody’s minds these days. Not since Paterson, N.J., high school principal Joe Clark picked up a baseball bat and a bullhorn has there been such an uproar over the disciplinary actions of a single educator.
Perez has received hundreds of phone calls and letters commending him for his tough stand. He’s fielded job offers from all over the country. He’s been asked to speak to numerous professional organizations. He’s even got his own once-a-week talk show on a Denver radio station, where he takes phone calls from supporters and extols the benefits of corporal punishment. (“It worked for me,’' he likes to say.)
“I stirred up a lot of anger,’' he said recently, “and I’ve stirred up a lot of people, on both sides of the issue. What I was trying to do was simply make a good school become an excellent school. And the first step was to try to control the school....There are rules and regulations that you have to follow, whether you like it or not. And that’s what I was trying to tell these kids.’'
When I met with Perez in mid-January, I was struck by his physical appearance, which is completely nonthreatening. He’s short, compact, almost boyish, with a neatly trimmed beard and wire-rimmed glasses. He speaks in a soft, high-pitched voice. If it weren’t for the black Motorola walkie-talkie clipped to his belt, one could easily mistake Perez for a graduate student, or an engineer, or a computer technician.
Leaning against one wall of his office was a large poster signed by teachers and staff members of a Denver high school. Attached to the poster was a note that said, “The faculty and staff at Abraham Lincoln High School are PROUD of the stand you have made.’'
I asked Perez how he felt about being accused of “vigilante justice.’'
“But it wasn’t vigilante justice,’' he shot back. “If it had just been me doing it, being the judge, jury, and prosecutor, then yes, it would have been vigilante justice. I would have been out to lynch people. But that was not what I was out to do. I wasn’t the judge, jury, and prosecutor. The teachers helped me. We were trying to get parents involved in their children’s education.’'
To bolster his argument, he pulled out a copy of the letter that he had planned to send home with each of the suspended students. It said:
Following much debate and conferences with your son’s/daughter’s team of teachers, it is felt that your child is not progressing in our school. After numerous attempts to work with your child, and our willingness to meet your child’s needs, your child is not doing his/her part. Your child has repeatedly interfered with the school’s ability to provide a sound educational opportunity to other students and/or continues to willfully disobey proper authority and/or simply doesn’t do the work that is required of him/her. Therefore, your child will be sent home until we can facilitate a change in his/her attitude or behavior.
The letter went on to urge the parents to set up an appointment with their child’s team of teachers:
At that conference, it will be determined if your child should continue at Horace Mann Middle School or if the administration should start proceedings for his/her expulsion from all Denver Public Schools....Our mission at Horace Mann Middle School is to provide a quality education for all students. Our mission cannot be accomplished if our teachers have to spend a considerable amount of time dealing with disruptive students and/or students who just come to socialize. Our goal is clear: To make Horace Mann Middle School a place where you are proud to send your child with confidence that learning is taking place.
Perez expressed nothing but contempt for the “downtown’’ administrators who accused him of not following proper district guidelines for suspending students. “They continue to think,’' he said, “that the best way to take care of a school is from downtown. And the people who are in the trenches don’t count. And that includes the teachers. That’s the whole crux of the problem.’'
When DPS officials investigated Perez’s list, they concluded that a number of the students had been charged with “minor offenses,’' such as gum chewing, talking in class, failing grades, and non-attendance. Such offenses, they argued, are not usually handled by suspensions. Furthermore, the officials maintained that many of the cases were simply too old, that some of the students were going to be punished again for earlier offenses, and that 27 of the students had no files in Perez’s office that documented their infractions. Ultimately, none of the 97 students was suspended.
Superintendent Moskowitz told The Denver Post: “I would back, personally, this assistant principal’s actions if he had just gone through the due process procedures. The point is, do you take a hundred [students] and lump in gum chewers with fighters? Certainly we know better; as professional educators we know better.’'
Perez insisted that all of the students on the list deserved to be suspended, even the gum chewers. “It’s a rule,’' he told me. “It’s in our code of conduct. ‘Don’t bring gum; don’t chew it.’ And we tell them this every single day. The teachers keep telling them, ‘Spit it out,’ and then they put another one in--right in front of them! They do that to me! And that’s downright defiance. If we’re going to have a rule, we need to enforce it, and there have to be consequences if that rule is broken.’'
Yet Perez had defied his own principal--wasn’t that unprofessional? “Yes,’' he answered. “At the same time, I say, ‘Look, you give me a job to do, and then you put limitations on what I can do. How do you expect me to do the best job I possibly can?’ That’s the problem. If you give me a job, I’m going to do it. Let me do it. And after I’ve done it, if I’ve done something wrong, then point it out to me.’'
Among Perez’s critics are members of several Denver Latino organizations. One of the more outspoken groups, the National Brown Berets of Aztlan, issued a statement calling Perez a “colonial puppet’’ for his actions and characterizing the attempted mass suspension as “further proof that there is a deliberate agenda to push out Chicanos from the classroom into the streets and eventually into the penal system.’' (Others merely called Perez a “racist.’')
Perez, who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in Deming, N.M., about 40 miles from the Mexico border, laughed at the accusations. “They don’t know me,’' he said. “They have no idea who I am or where I come from. How can they call me a racist when 78 percent of the student population at Horace Mann is Hispanic? I’m concerned about the kids--the Hispanic kids, the white kids, the black kids, and all the other kids that we have here.’'
I had heard that Perez’s favorite movie is Patton, so I asked him to explain why he admired the controversial army general. “The reason I do,’' he said, “is because he did what he had to do. And though he took some unpopular stances, he helped win a war.’'
As I left his office, I realized that Ruben Perez sees himself as a man fighting a war of his own--not just a war against disruptive students but also a war against the bureaucrats who won’t let him do his job the way he sees fit. And just like Patton, he has no intention of giving in to his critics.
I returned to Horace Mann a few weeks later to talk to Martha Guevara, who has been principal at the school for almost nine years. She gave the impression of someone who wished the whole mess would just go away, yet she was generous with her time and answered all of my questions forthrightly.
I asked her how she felt when she first heard that her assistant principal had tried to suspend nearly 100 students. “Total shock,’' she replied. “I couldn’t imagine why 100 kids would be suspended. All I could think was that there had been a food fight in the lunchroom, and that 100 kids had gotten hurt and they had destroyed furniture, or that there had been a gang fight in front of the school. I couldn’t imagine.’'
Guevara left New York on Friday, Dec. 2, and was back in her office on Monday morning. The first thing she did was meet with Perez to find out exactly what had happened in her absence. After the meeting, she declined to comment to the press, and when she did finally start talking, she refused to pass judgment on Perez. “I am trying to stay very neutral in all this so we can get through it,’' she told faculty members on Dec. 6. A few days later, however, Guevara came out swinging, saying Perez had “trashed’’ the school’s image.
“It was a major breach of trust,’' she told me. “Insubordination. Poor judgment. Just terrible.’'
I asked about her philosophical differences with Perez. “I suspend as quickly as anybody else,’' she said, “if there is a reason to suspend a student. I believe in swift consequences.’' Before the Dec. 1 incident, 85 Horace Mann students had been suspended since the beginning of the school year. “But I also believe in intervention when kids are 10, 11, and 12 years old. We need to marshal our resources and do what we can to help kids. It doesn’t help society if there are 100 kids roaming the streets with no place to go.’'
Would she have suspended any of the students on Perez’s list, I asked the principal.
“Not without following due process,’' she replied. “There has to be an incident that occurred which we need to take action on. There needs to be a referral that’s been documented, that says, ‘This is what happened, and this is what I did.’ There needs to be an opportunity for students to respond and give their side of the story to an administrator. The parents need to be contacted. And it needs to be timely. You cannot be punishing kids for something that happened a long time ago. You cannot repunish kids for something that they’ve already been punished for.’'
I expressed surprise that not one of the 97 students on Perez’s list deserved to be suspended. Yet Guevara insisted that was the case. “I was hopeful that I could suspend,’' she said, “but I couldn’t. There were no incidents that week. In many cases, students didn’t even have files in the office. They had never been referred to the office before. The suspension forms were not filled out. Students had not been able to give their side of the story. There were just too many things that were not in place.’'
Although she didn’t come right out and say it, I had no doubt that Guevara was irritated by all the attention Perez--and Horace Mann--has gotten. For one thing, she believes the incident has given people the false impression that Horace Mann is a bad school. “Some parents have said they want to take their kids out of the school,’' she said, “and I’ve had to work with them to say, ‘No, it’s going to be OK.’ I think many people thought the school was totally out of control, which was not true.’'
I asked her if she had the support of the teachers. “I hope so,’' she said. “I’m working really closely with them. We have in the past, and we’ll continue to do so.’'
I couldn’t help but feel a little bad for Guevara. After all, Perez had become a hero to those who think our public schools are going to hell in a handbasket, and Guevara and the DPS administrators had been cast as the heavies. Guevara, I figured, had every right to be angry at Perez; he had flouted her authority while she happened to be away on business, and now she had to sit back and watch while her assistant enjoyed his moment in the spotlight.
On the other hand, it was hard for me to dismiss Perez as just another nut trying to get his name in the papers. He insisted that he did what he did for the sake of the teachers and that he had their full backing, which seems to be the case. Two weeks after the thwarted mass suspension, about 75 parents and teachers, including a large number of teachers from Horace Mann, rallied at DPS headquarters to show support for the assistant principal.
Kevin Lindauer, who teaches 7th and 8th grade science at the school, told me, “I would say at least 90 percent of the faculty really feels that he is doing an outstanding job.’' He offered a reasonable explanation for what Perez was trying to do by suspending so many students at once. “There are kids who come to class every day,’' he said, “who are prepared to work, who are tuned in to class, who listen to what’s being said, and they’re excited about learning....Then you have some severe discipline problems. Those can be easily dealt with. Those are the kids who come in, they’re prepared to fight, they cause severe problems for the teacher, they disrupt the class, and they are removed--they are suspended.
“There is, however, in the middle, a gray zone, in which we have some kids who are low-level disrupters. They are the ones who are always standing up with a smart-aleck remark. They are the ones who are always throwing stuff across the room. They are the ones who never, or very rarely, turn in work. They are the kids who come with a very lackadaisical interest in school. They don’t want to be here. They’re here because, in their minds, they’re being forced into school.
“As a group, they are taking away from the education of the other students. And they make the teacher’s job very frustrating.’' It was these students, the “low-level disrupters,’' whom Perez was trying to deal with, Lindauer said.
I wanted to talk with some other faculty members, so I called Terri Freund, a longtime Horace Mann English teacher, and arranged to meet with her and three of her colleagues. We spoke one afternoon in Freund’s empty classroom.
I asked Freund, who has taught at the school for nine years, what things were like at Horace Mann before Perez arrived. “The halls were much rowdier,’' she said. “It was difficult to get through the halls at any given time, and we only had 450 students then. There wasn’t any follow-through. Discipline was a crock. The kids knew that there was no consistency. They knew that if they went to the right person, they could get away with things. And that sort of continued through the years.
“When Ruben arrived, the first thing he did was to come to all the teachers and ask, ‘How can I help?’ Which was real different from the previous assistant principal. Up until Ruben got here, it was a fight with the administration to make it better. When he got here, it became, instead of fighting against the administration, it was working with them.’'
Was this whole incident, then, a vote of no confidence in Martha Guevara, I asked.
“I’ll say that,’' said Ben Singh, who teaches 6th grade social studies. “And a lot of teachers will say that privately, but when it comes to putting up or shutting up, they’ll shut up.’'
I asked the teachers to describe some of the discipline problems they have to deal with.
“It really varies,’' Freund said. “Some days you have to deal with two kids fighting. There are other times when it’s just constant disruptions. We had parent conferences today, and we had several parents come in and say, ‘I keep hearing about these two kids in my kid’s class who won’t ever let my kid do anything.’ And the same names kept coming up over and over again. These are kids who we’re always saying to, ‘Be quiet. Don’t make faces.’ ''
“It stops you,’' added music teacher Sue Clayton. “It ruins your train of thought. Little things just add up when it’s affecting 35 other students, yet it’s not necessarily a reason for a referral.’'
But is suspending such students really the answer?
“I know there are a lot of people,’' Freund said, “who feel like every time we send a kid out, that’s exactly what they want. But the fact is, most kids don’t want to be suspended. Because it takes them away from their friends, even if they don’t want to be in their classes. And the idea that we’re throwing them out onto the streets, that’s an insult to the parents. If I’d ever gotten suspended, there’s no way I’d have been out on the streets.’'
I asked the teachers if they thought student behavior had gotten worse over the years.
Juanita Halverson, who teaches English and Spanish in the school’s bilingual program, said yes. “I think students are more disruptive,’' she said, “and they’re gutsier. They’re more willing to express themselves and to use certain language that would never have been acceptable in the past. And a lot of times they get away with it.’'
Freund pointed out that middle school students have always been a challenge for teachers. The reason? “Hormones!’' she said, as the other teachers nodded in agreement. “The fact is, at this age, I am not ever going to be as interesting to a 14-year-old boy as a 14-year-old girl. I don’t care what I’m doing.’'
I asked about the students on Perez’s list. What, I wondered, had some of these students done?
“The behaviors varied,’' Singh said. “We had some kids on the list who were just bumps on logs. Not doing anything. They weren’t necessarily problems, but they definitely weren’t doing their jobs. We were trying to jolt them into action.’' Others, he said, were guilty of “low-level disruptions,’' like talking all the time. “And then we had kids who were just pains in the ass--defiant, rude.’'
“Our kids,’' Freund said, “were mostly attendance problems, tardies, consistent talking, making faces. We didn’t have anybody on [the list] who we wanted to expel. They were mostly kids whose parents we were unable to contact.’'
Like Perez, the teachers were angry that the “downtown’’ administrators had decided that none of the 97 students on the list would be suspended. They were especially stung by the administrators’ claim that many of the cases had been improperly documented by Perez and the teachers.
“It was very demoralizing,’' Freund said. “What it basically meant was that what they want me to do is spend my time keeping black books on the kids. They want me to write down everything instead of trusting my professional judgment. It’s all about trust.’'
“Why aren’t our records valid?’' Halverson wanted to know.
Freund and her colleagues struck me as good, caring teachers who just wanted to do their jobs without constantly having to waste precious time dealing with unruly students. When discipline problems did arise, they preferred to handle them on their own, but when things got rough, they valued having an assistant principal like Perez to back them up.
A poll taken by The Denver Post in January found that nine of every 10 people in Denver knew of Ruben Perez and his attempted mass suspension; of those who were aware of the assistant principal, a whopping 81 percent supported his tactics.
Given the current mood of the nation, it’s no great mystery why Perez was hailed as a hero for his take-no-prisoners approach to discipline. There’s a widely held perception that the public schools have become too lenient, that disruptive students are being “coddled’’ by spineless teachers and administrators.
According to the most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, “fighting, violence, and gangs’’ and “poor discipline’’ share top billing as the most serious problems facing public schools, ahead of such issues as “lack of proper financial support,’' “drug abuse,’' and “standards and quality of education.’'
Asked to choose from a list of possible causes for the increase of violence in schools, survey respondents selected “increased use of drugs and alcohol among school-age youth’’ as the most important reason, followed by (in descending order of severity) “growth of youth gangs,’' “easy availability of weapons,’' “a breakdown in the American family,’' “schools do not have the authority to discipline that they once had,’' “increased portrayal of violence in the media,’' “inability of school staff to resolve conflicts between students,’' “shortages in school personnel,’' “trying to deal with troubled or emotionally disturbed students in the regular classroom instead of in special classes or schools,’' “a curriculum that is out of touch with the needs of today’s students,’' “cutbacks in many school programs,’' “increased poverty among parents,’' and “increased cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity among the public school student population.’'
Clearly, the public has come to associate discipline--or rather, the lack of discipline--with the rise in school violence. Yet many teachers believe that it is school violence, or the threat of violence, that has made teachers less eager to challenge or discipline students. At least that’s what 35 percent of the teachers surveyed for The Metropolitan Life Survey of The American Teacher, 1993: Violence in America’s Public Schools said. Among urban schoolteachers, 42 percent agreed with the notion, while among teachers who rate their schools’ quality of education “fair or poor,’' a shocking 68 percent thought it was true.
When asked, “What kinds of steps has your school taken to stop or reduce the violence in or around your school?’' 81 percent of the teachers surveyed answered, “suspended or expelled students when they were violent,’' followed by “instituted a dress code or banned certain types of clothing’’ (63 percent), “started a disciplinary code’’ (50 percent), and “provided counseling for students or their families’’ (45 percent).
Students, too, are concerned about school violence. As any teacher will tell you, most students want to be in school, and they want school to be a safe place in which to learn. So it comes as no surprise to learn that many students believe the best way to deal with violence is to suspend or expel violent students. For The Metropolitan Life Survey of The American Teacher, 1994, a sampling of students was asked to rate a number of methods that schools have taken to reduce violence. Forty-three percent of the students rated suspension or expulsion as “very successful,’' followed by “security guards or police in or around the school’’ (36 percent), “a mentoring program’’ (34 percent), “a disciplinary code’’ (29 percent), and “counseling for students and their families’’ (29 percent).
Another survey question seems to support the public’s contention that schools have gotten soft on discipline. When the students were asked if they agreed with the statement “Students often break the rules in this school because they know they can get away with it,’' 51 percent of the respondents answered yes, 39 percent answered no, and 10 percent weren’t sure. Among students who rate the quality of their schools as “fair or poor,’' 68 percent answered yes, 33 percent answered no, and 9 percent weren’t sure.
Tom Tancredo is a former top education official with the Reagan and Bush administrations who now heads the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank in Golden, Colo. I called Tancredo to ask why he thought Perez had achieved folk-hero status. It turned out that, in late December, he had invited Perez to speak at one of the institute’s monthly breakfast meetings, where the assistant principal had been well-received by the group’s members. “It may have been the largest audience we’ve had,’' he said. “They came in here believers right from the start.’'
Tancredo praised Perez for putting the topic of discipline on the front burner. “A lot of people consider him to be a hot-dogging opportunist,’' he said. “I don’t really care, as long as it’s an important issue, and it is.’'
Why the overwhelming support? “It’s a reflection of the educational system,’' he told me. “It doesn’t work anymore. It’s outdated and outmoded. And the people in the system are doing the best they can within that system.
“Nothing will change because of what Mr. Perez did,’' he added, “but it will hasten the move toward school choice and vouchers, which I support wholeheartedly.’'
Why, I asked, will Perez’s action lead to such changes?
“Because people don’t want to put their kids into those kinds of schools,’' he replied.
(I wondered if Perez was aware of Tancredo’s views on public schools. After all, Perez had told me, “How can our nation function without a solid and good public education system? When people talk about vouchers--that’s abandoning the public schools. And I don’t think we need to abandon them; we need to fix them.’' But it seemed to me that many of Perez’s supporters were more inclined to shut down the public schools than to fix them.)
Rexford Brown, senior fellow at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, offered a slightly different take on the Perez phenomenon. Public schools, he told me, are not as bad as people think, yet they have an image problem. “There is a general perception of urban schools,’' he said, “the Blackboard Jungle perception, that’s been around for a long, long time.’' When someone like Perez comes along and takes a drastic measure, it merely reinforces a false impression. “We have an exaggerated sense of the amount of crime going on in the world,’' he said, “and we have an exaggerated sense of the amount of ‘wildness’ going on in the schools.’'
Yet Brown, like Tancredo, is no fan of the factory model of schooling. “A lot of kids are bored--bored stiff,’' he said. “And bored kids tend toward discipline problems. Also, part of their job at that age is to rebel against authority. You’ve got to expect that. But the bottom line is that kids who are really involved in learning tend to control themselves, instead of having to be controlled by authority figures.’'
William Glasser argues much the same point in his book The Quality School: Managing Students Without Coercion. “Kicking disruptive students out of class,’' he writes, “keeping them after school in detention, or suspending them may control the immediate situation, but it does not deal with the basic problem: how to get them involved in quality learning. In the quality school, lead teachers must learn how to handle a disruptive student in a way that is not punitive yet gets the situation under control and, at the same time, opens the student’s mind to the option of beginning to work in class.’'
Glasser believes that suspending students--or even sending them to a “time out’’ room--should only be done as a last resort. “Whether it happens early in elementary school or in the last part of high school,’' he writes, “the first time a student disrupts enough to be asked to leave the class is a crucial point in that student’s school career. If this situation is dealt with well, it may be the last time he disrupts to this extent, but once it becomes a chronic problem where he is kicked out of class over and over, it becomes almost impossible to solve.’'
In her book Who’s In Charge? A Teacher Speaks Her Mind, Susan Ohanian argues that school discipline based on traditional authority--that is, where “the teacher is always right: respect the office, if not the person’'--is doomed for failure. “The crumbling bulwark of most principals, traditional authority is already dead for most educators outside of military academies and some parochial schools,’' she writes. “Nowadays, parents are more likely to say, ‘Stop harassing my child!’ And if a student is suspended, she comes to the hearing with a lawyer.’'
For Ohanian, the best kind of authority is charismatic, which must stem from the teacher’s personality, not from a code of discipline. “The charismatic teacher,’' she asserts, “holds her kids--in the style of the Ancient Mariner--by her glittering eye, not her handfuls of M&Ms. The charismatic teacher knows in her bones when she is right. She doesn’t have checklists to prove it. She expresses herself in the work she does, not in pretty slogans and colorful charts.’'
Furthermore, Ohanian questions one of the most widely repeated axioms of school administrators: “In order for learning to take place, there must be order in the classroom.’' (I’d heard Ruben Perez recite those very words.)
“That may be true,’' Ohanian writes, “but I feel the emphasis is in the wrong place. In order that learning may take place, there should be something worth learning. Sad to say, an orderly classroom is too often considered accomplishment enough for teachers. One need not take home a book, prepare a lesson, or do anything beyond assigning daily reading in class; teachers who never file disciplinary referrals make the administrative honor role.’'
Through January and the first two weeks of February, Ruben Perez continued to go about his business at Horace Mann, although his wings had been clipped by DPS administrators; all suspensions at the school had to be approved by Martha Guevara. Perez wasn’t happy about the change in policy. “I’ve never had to get anything approved by her in the past,’' he told me.
Emboldened by his widespread support, Perez vowed to fight back. He had a lawyer working for him, pro bono, and he hinted that a lawsuit was in the offing. For damages? I asked. “No,’' he said. “That’s not my style. I want to make things better for our kids. That’s what I want. It’s not that I want to punish the district, either. I want to run this school. Leave me alone--I know what I’m doing.’'
DPS officials, apparently, felt otherwise. On Feb. 16, just when it seemed as if the school district had decided to drop the matter, Perez was abruptly transferred to another middle school. Assistant district administrator Bernadette Seick said the reassignment was necessary because Perez’s working relationship with Martha Guevara had “deteriorated.’' “It seemed like a good opportunity for him to move on,’' she said, “and let the school get on with the business of educating.’'
The following day, about 15 Horace Mann teachers, including Terri Freund, demanded that Guevara resign, but the principal refused to do so. “It’s incredible to me that they did this,’' Freund said. “If they wanted to settle this down, this was not the way to do it. This doesn’t fix anything. It just makes things worse.’'
Meanwhile, Perez is biding his time in a closet-sized office at Kepner Middle School, in southwest Denver. He is one of three assistant principals, but he is not in charge of discipline. His lawyer has submitted a letter to DPS officials calling for Perez’s reinstatement to Horace Mann and demanding that all letters of reprimand be removed from his file.
Perez, however, wants more than just his old job. “My plan,’' he said, “is to go back to Horace Mann--as principal.’'
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as The Lord Of Discipline