Tough Guy

Fired for trying to suspend 100 students in one day, Ruben Perez is now at home at a no-nonsense school

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Five years ago, Ruben Perez was an unknown assistant principal at Denver's Horace Mann Middle School. Tired of putting up with disruptive students--and of his principal's failure to act on the problem--Perez decided to take matters into his own hands.

On a day when the principal was out of town, Perez attempted to suspend nearly 100 of the school's worst offenders. The teachers were thrilled at the prospect. But when district administrators got wind of what was about to happen, they called off the mass suspension and suspended Perez instead, turning him into an instant national folk hero. Superintendent Irv Moscowitz accused the assistant principal of trying to carry out "vigilante justice," while others praised him for his courage. Not since New Jersey high school principal Joe Clark picked up a baseball bat and a bullhorn had there been such an uproar over the disciplinary actions of a single educator.

Perez was quickly transferred to another middle school. "My plan is to go back to Horace Mann--as principal," he said at the time. But that didn't happen. Instead, the district fired him altogether. Three months later, however, he was hired as assistant principal by an Adams County charter school that liked the disciplinarian's no-nonsense philosophy. But when he clashed with that school's principal and parent-run board of directors, Perez got sacked.

"They were right-wing, extremist, fundamentalist Christian, Republican Amway distributors," Perez says. "And that's not my style."

A splinter group of unhappy parents decided to form a new charter school and tapped Perez to be principal. Housed in a former storefront in Thornton, just north of Denver, Pinnacle Charter School uses a curriculum based on cultural-literacy guru E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge books.

"It's a very good fit," says Perez, who runs the school with a tight grip. A seven-page dress code specifies in grueling detail the clothing students may wear. (No oversized shirts, no baggy pants, no minidresses or miniskirts.) Ten surveillance cameras have been placed in strategic locations throughout the school. From his office, Perez can monitor students from a television screen. "Big brother is watching," a smiling Perez told a reporter last year. "I am watching."

Does he regret what he tried to pull off at Horace Mann? "Would I advise others to do what I did? Absolutely not," he says. "I paid a big price. I lost my job, my house, and my marriage. There was too much stress because of all the media attention."

Perez says he also regrets that he can't go back to the Denver Public Schools. "They could use a person like me."

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 79

Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Tough Guy
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