Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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It would be fair to say Malcolm X wouldn’t be encouraged by what went down at his namesake school this week. Teachers at Malcolm X Elementary School had reason to feel uncomfortable after their school appeared last week in a City Paper report on departing D.C. public schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s record of investing in struggling schools, including theirs.

But they might not have expected the reaction by their principal, Zara Berry-Young, who reportedly threatened to cut out the “cancer” and flush out the “snake” who provided observations about disparity in funding, neglect, and other issues for the story.

According to a staff member present at a weekly all-staff meeting on Monday, Berry-Young recounted an unannounced visit to the school by City Paper on Sept. 28, and accused someone of sneaking off to talk to a reporter about substandard conditions at the school. Berry-Young was angry, characterizing the information shared as hurtful to the Malcolm X “family” and a “betrayal.”

Most startling, the staffer says, was when Berry-Young told her staff that she intended to identify the “snake” and show them to the door, and would do so with support from her boss Tracy Ocasio, instructional superintendent for Malcolm X. “What are you going to do about it?” Ocasio asked Berry-Young about the so-called “cancer,” according to the staffer.

Communications with the media, particularly anonymous ones, are a fact of life where city employees are concerned, says Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers Union. “If a principal is making threats against teachers, then we need to know about it,” says Davis, emphasizing that anonymity also goes hand-in-hand with communications between teachers and union representatives. “They are on the front lines, and we cannot allow principals to silence teachers who speak out or report conditions or inequities that could be harmful to children.”

In 2012, Henderson pledged to improve student proficiency on standardized test scores by 40 percentage points in the 40 lowest performing DCPS schools, including Malcolm X, by the end of this school year. School performance and funding data shows that not only did Henderson never get close to that goal, she failed to thoroughly or equitably commit the resources necessary to meet it. Current and former teachers at Malcolm X, where 88 percent of students are at risk of academic failure, describe inadequate instructional facilities, leaky ceilings, second-rate furniture and computer equipment, and a lack of behavioral and emotional support for its students.

Such conditions, they say, are manifested in just 5 percent of students being able to meet or exceed expectations in English/language arts, and just 1 percent in math, on a recent standardized test. “They are trapped in a school system not adequately prepared to deal with these conditions,” a teacher was quoted in the story as saying of the special needs of low-income students who attend Malcolm X. (Neither Berry-Young nor DCPS officials have disputed facts or denied the veracity of observations reported in the story.)

Former Wilson High School teacher and school reform activist Erich Martel says he’s not surprised that Berry-Young threatened to identify and punish staff who spoke anonymously. He has had similar experiences. “The more scams a system hides, the greater the abusive relationship between supervisors and staff,” he says, noting the first rule of a bureaucracy: Keep all problems at the lowest possible level. “When the media reports a problem, then it goes right to the top. Then the [chancellor] jumps on the [instructional superintendent], who jumps on the principal.” 

DCPS spokeswoman Michelle Lerner says officials understand that employees talk to the media, even though DCPS asks them to refer press contacts to her office. She denies that there are consequences for employees who choose not to go that route. In an email late Tuesday, she writes: “D.C. Public Schools does not prohibit staff from talking to members of the press. D.C. Public Schools has a communications office to support schools and staff in working with reporters.”

Aona Jefferson, president of the Council of School Officers, the principals’ union, says that employees are supposed to go through the chancellor’s office before speaking with the press. “Even though there is free speech, there are some things that need to be approved,” she says, referring to school policies or information related to students. “If a person speaks and they do so out of turn, then there may be progressive discipline.”

Should the person who speaks “out of turn” and gets punished be a principal, Jefferson says, then CSO’s role is to support its member. Threats by her members to their staff are a labor relations issue, she says, noting that there is nothing in the principals’ bargaining agreement that governs the matter. “There are guidelines and protocols in all schools.”

Events at Malcolm X this week are bound to make teachers and principals alike uneasy. Peter Scheer, a lawyer, journalist, and executive director of the San Francisco-based First Amendment Coalition, says government agencies are not barred under the First Amendment from conducting internal investigations to discover the source of leaks, but he cautions that non-First Amendment protections may apply if they try to fire an employee who speaks without prior approval. In California, Scheer says, labor unions are a powerful force to be reckoned with. 

“If all the employee is doing is making factual observations or reasonably founded assertions, then it becomes less problematic, and harder for the government agency to justify getting exercised about it,” Scheer says. “They don’t want to send a message to employees that they can’t comment factually on non-sensitive information to a reporter without placing their job in jeopardy.”

Says a former Malcolm X teacher, “I don’t see anything wrong. I see facts. People get upset at the problem, at avoiding the problem.”