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Teacher Fired for Defending Female Student
Posted 05-13-06
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DENVER - A series of events that occurred recently at Cole College Prep (CCP) Charter School have raised a controversy at the former Denver Public Schools (DPS) facility which last fall was taken over by the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) which boasts more than 40 schools across the nation in its network. The conversion to the charter school format took place based on three consecutive years of substandard scores on student assessment tests.

Sketchy details of the incident, which caused an uproar from students, were outlined in a printed media statement from Principal Richard Harrison who explained that he called police to the school after being allegedly threatened by a parent during a [phone] conference. Denver police officer Mark Hart arrived shortly thereafter and began to investigate, but determining what transpired from that point is a matter of deciding between conflicting reports from officers, KIPP administrators and teacher Polica Houston, who lost his job as another consequence of the day's happenings. In an interview days later, the teacher shared his version of events.

Police intimidate young student?

On Apr. 26, around 5:00 p.m. - the end of the school day - Houston heard a girl sobbing and a man yelling at her. It turned out that the teen was the 14-year-old daughter of the man who allegedly made the threat to Harrison, and the shouting male was Hart who, Houston said was pointing in the distressed girl's face and yelling, "Where is he?" in reference to her father.

Moved by what he found to be a disturbing scene, he recalled telling the student that she did not have to answer any questions until her parents arrived and escorting her to his classroom for safety. He then returned to the officer and requested his card, badge number and identification but never was given the information. Instead, he said Hart made statements about his employment status asking him if he wanted to lose his job over the matter. Houston maintains that he was respectful throughout the encounter, calling the officer "sir," and never raising his voice, not even when Hart called Sergeant Tim Blair, his superior, to the scene. "[Blair] threatened my job, started getting loud and stood toe to toe with me," he said, declaring that he did not back away but also did not respond in a stereotypical fashion which he believes he was being pushed to do. In contrast, Harrison's statement described Houston's actions as "interfering with a police investigation."

The two officers, also portray the teacher's actions as belligerent, disrespectful and hostile in separate letters sent to the principal and made available by a KIPP spokesperson. In his letter, Hart stated that the officers did not arrest Houston that day because they did not want to escalate the situation further. What did occur, however, was still found to be cause for termination which Harrison informed his employee of via a recorded voice message the same evening. In replaying the recording, the principal is heard clearly stating he had been told (by an unidentified source) that it was best that Houston not return to the school.

Falling from grace

Houston began teaching English at the school of seventh and eighth graders last November and being fluent in Spanish and English, seemed a perfect fit for the student population which is primarily Black and Mexican/Spanish. He chose the school because he wanted to make a difference in the Northeast Denver community he is fond of. In a short time, the 28-year-old was able to build positive relationships with many of the students regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. His impact is attested to in a recommendation letter written by Harrison nearly a month ago. "Mr. Houston's students have a very positive attitude toward him. They know that he respects them; in turn, he is regarded as one of the toughest, yet sincere teachers in our school," the letter read. "I would recommend Mr. Houston for any teaching or administrative assignment." Houston said he was seeking other options because his position, in a sense, was being phased out since he had been informed that next year Harrison would be serving in the dual role of English teacher and principal.

Only weeks after speaking such high praise of Houston, the principal, and KIPP spokesperson Steve Mancini who is based in California, were clearly of a different opinion after the police encounter. Calls to Harrison were referred to the regional office in San Francisco where Mancini declared that KIPP stood fully behind the firing and that no internal investigation would take place.

"We hired the principal, he is in charge, and in terms of the facts ... [Houston] interfered with the investigation. Those are facts from the police and as a result we are acting on [them] and backing the principal," the spokesman said in a phone interview. He also suggested that there were questionable items in the backgrounds of Houston and also the parent accused of making threats that should be taken into consideration. Houston acknowledged that he did have traffic violations and warrants against him which he has now cleared up, but he added that the minor offenses were on his record when he was hired for the job, therefore, he cannot understand why they would cause concern now.

Girl's police encounter caught on tape

Houston bore witness to viewing a video tape of the incident which is on file at the DPS administration building. It captured the officer grabbing the girl, forcing her against wall lockers and eventually marching her down the hall with her hands behind her back as though under arrest. The teacher recalls that she was referred to as "Ms ____" (last name omitted) instead of by her first name during the confrontation which worsened when she initially ran from the principal's office and from the officer who then began questioning her on her father's whereabouts. Houston said it was insensitive to think that a child in school for a near 10-hour day would know where her father was at that particular moment. He also noted that in the video, the principal was sitting on the side watching the interaction between the officer and the student which is one of the reasons he has concluded that Harrison does not have the best interest of the students at heart.

Police and DPS response

Police spokesperson John White confirmed that DPD has obtained a copy of the video and an internal investigation is underway. He also acknowledged that the student's mother has been in communication with police in relation to the female student's treatment and reports that her wrist was sprained as a result of the officer's rough handling. Attempts to reach the parent were unsuccessful.

DPS spokesperson Mark Stevens acknowledged that a video of the school incident is in the district's possession but said it is not available for media review due to the ongoing investigation. He clarified that DPS is not looking into the incident but is only monitoring how KIPP is handling the situation.

- Adeeba Folami -
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