What Really Happened to the Class of ’99
Along the Texas-Louisiana border, the winding two-lane highways that cut among the Sabine Forest’s beanpole pines seem to rival Manhattan in number of hair salons: jobs are scarce in rural East Texas, and you can’t drive far at all without seeing some entrepreneur’s hand-lettered sign for a Cut ‘n’ Curl hung outside a trailer. It was at one of these little salons, on Highway 7 near the tiny town of Joaquin, Texas, that Anise Tolson first took note of Joaquin High School’s newly-hired principal, Ronald Barlow, nearly three years ago. While sitting in the beauty shop, Tolson, who lived in Joaquin and sent her fourteen-year-old son Troy to the high school, happened to read the lead article from that week’s edition of The Light and Champion, the county paper.
The headline pretty much summed it up: “Paddles still giving licks in county schools.” But while three of the four local school administrators quoted said they had mixed feelings about paddling (which took place in all five of the county’s school districts), or emphasized its use as a “last resort,” the fourth, Principal Barlow, told the reporter, “I’m a firm believer in corporal punishment … paddling worked for me, and I believe it still works.” He also noted that the school’s practice of scheduling detention (the alternative to paddling) early in the morning “cut the list of parents favoring detention.” Finally, Barlow reminisced about a coach who had used a specially carved paddle that left the word “OUCH” imprinted on offenders’ butts.
Tolson was not impressed. “I remember thinking, ‘This guy’s an idiot,'” she recalls. She soon forgot about the article, though, and by the time it came back to her, she would have become much more familiar with Barlow’s disciplinary methods. She would, in time, develop a different opinion of him altogether.
One day months later, as the 1997 school year was drawing to a close, Tolson stopped by the high school to get a copy of Troy’s school attendance records (required for driver’s ed). “All these kids, they’re all standing around, there were kids all the way down the hall, just lined up,” she says. “And I said, ‘What are you all doing?’ And they said, ‘We’re waiting to get our tardy licks.'” They explained to Tolson that any time a student was not at his desk with notebook and pencil ready as the bell rang, a teacher could assign him a tardy, punishable by three licks from Barlow. Barlow in turn let these “tardies” accumulate over each six-week grading period, and then administered all the licks during the final week. “So if you had fifteen tardies, you had forty-five licks,” says Tolson.
Although Barlow has claimed he doesn’t give any student more than five licks in one day, he and Woody Chamberlain, the ex-Marine he brought in to serve as his assistant principal, were well exceeding that limit, according to Tolson. “I could hear licks one through ten, very loud through a shut door” — to Tolson, the licks sounded “hard enough to knock ’em to their knees … Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!” she says. “I just came unglued.” It wasn’t just that kids were being beaten for minor infractions: “A good portion of the students were getting these licks, but certain [students] weren’t getting any. One was my child. He hadn’t received any,” even though there were tardies marked on his attendance record, says Tolson. Having served as a P.T.O. member and a volunteer in the Joaquin schools in the past, she was able to identify who had been caught in Barlow’s “tardy sweep”: “Most of them were the poorer children, a lot of the black children, the children that were in special ed or the 504 program.” (The 504 program is for non-special education students with disabilities, such as attention deficit disorder.)
What Tolson glimpsed that day was the sign of a much greater ailment at Joaquin High. The cumulative effect of Barlow’s selective swatting — along with other measures taken by Barlow and certain faculty members — has been to drive students who are poor or black or disabled out of the school. According to Ricky Gibson, who dropped out of Joaquin High School and has earned his G.E.D., “If you’re not from a two-parent, biological parent, textbook normal family — you can’t be fat, or anything other than middle American white class, you’re not in the graces of Mr. Barlow.” (Gibson, a white student who lives with his two younger sisters and their divorced father Luke Gibson, quit Joaquin after taking repeated swats from Principal Barlow, who Ricky says refused to desist even after he told Barlow he was in too much pain to continue. Gibson later learned he had two herniated disks in his back.) Says Charlene Price, who transferred from Joaquin to Shelbyville High School, “People at Shelbyville are so much nicer. The faculty try to help you instead of hurt you. A person wearing rags is treated the same as a person coming to school wearing a formal dress.” At Joaquin, on the other hand, she had been continually cited for dress code violations and discouraged from taking college preparatory classes.
“Black people got worse punishment, and were watched more closely” than white students at Joaquin, says Price, who is white. Sonya Jackson, a black graduate of Joaquin High School, says that her younger brother Willie, a junior, has taken up to fifteen swats a day and talks of quitting school, while her younger sister Falesha, a sophomore, received numerous disciplinary notices which the school never forwarded to her parents. According to various students and their families, black students are frequently cited for “disrespect.”
Since Barlow came, “there’s tons of kids who’ve left,” says Ricky Gibson. “I can look at an old yearbook and just start crossing people out.”
Barlow and other school administrators say that there are no unusual problems at Joaquin I.S.D., and they have few kind words for the parents who’ve complained to the superintendent, the school board, Child Protective Services, the Texas Education Agency, the State Board of Educator Certification, and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights — to little avail. The leaders of Joaquin I.S.D. have accused “a small group of outsiders” of “trying to destroy the school” with baseless criticism. After those parents brought in the Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project and filed two lawsuits against the school district, the administration sponsored a “Save Our School” rally, featuring Republican state Representative Wayne Christian as guest speaker, to denounce the interlopers. “Corporal punishment is administered without regard to race or socioeconomic status, and kids whose parents have asked for them not to receive corporal punishment do not receive corporal punishment,” says Barlow. Yet enrollment figures for the past four years bear out Gibson’s assertion that students are leaving the school in droves. His ninth grade class, for example, had fifty-five students when Barlow became principal in the fall of 1995; two years later, that class (class of ’99) had dropped to thirty-six; this year it has thirty-four students.
“If you’ve been around here a couple days, you’ve seen the school pretty much is the town,” Barlow told the Observer in December. In Joaquin, where unemployment is close to 30 percent and median household income is $15,000, the school system is the major employer, the alma mater of a great many residents, the focal point. “That school is the biggest income in the whole community, so of course it has a lot of support,” says Suzanne Baggett, one of the parents who complained to the T.E.A. and joined the Civil Rights Project lawsuit. “Everybody’s brother or cousin works there, so they have a false picture. The community’s always been real supportive of the school; everybody knew everybody. They think, ‘This can’t be true because this can’t happen here.'”
“The School is the Town”
Texas doesn’t get much farther east than Joaquin, the last stop on Highway 59 before you reach the slow, muddy Sabine River and the tiny town of Logansport, Louisiana, on the other side. Nacogdoches is the nearest sizable city, about an hour to the southwest. There aren’t enough people or enough money in Joaquin to support many businesses. Shoppers have to drive fifteen miles to Center for fast food or a trip to the Wal-Mart. The main strip has a bank, a general store, and a solitary café. Most of the work is in Center, at the lumber mills and the Tyson chicken plant. Joaquin I.S.D. is the town’s biggest employer, with a total staff of about ninety.
As in many rural Texas towns, community life revolves around the school. Visiting a neighbor in Joaquin can mean a lengthy trip deep into the woods over winding muddy roads without names. But all of Joaquin’s roughly 650 students come together at the same campus, a pair of brick buildings carved out of the woods between Highway 7 and the railroad tracks. Joaquin’s only cop, Mark McKenzie, spends much of his time at the school: keeping order at sporting events, policing the parking lot, or assisting Barlow with his many “investigations.” The principal’s office is a clearinghouse for news, information, and gossip in Joaquin, and the principal is one of the most visible and influential people in town.
Behind the school, just over the tracks and down a short hill, sits the town’s black neighborhood: a mish-mash of modular houses and shotgun shacks, arrayed at odd angles along a muddy road that’s in the process of being regraded. Joaquin is about 20 percent African-American, though only about 10 percent of the kids actually enrolled in Joaquin I.S.D. are black. There are no black teachers at Joaquin, and only a few black staff members. Barlow maintains that in his tenure as principal he has not seen “a single certified, qualified minority applicant” with a clean enough criminal record to be hired by the school. (Ironically, one of Barlow’s most recent hires, a white physical education teacher, was under indictment for a sex offense at the time he was hired, and later had to be let go after he was convicted.) Nor do you find any minorities working in the stores, the bank, or any of the white collar jobs in town. According to Stephanie Williams, whose children attend Joaquin elementary school, getting hired in Joaquin is a matter of coming from the right family. For everyone else, “the first thing they tell you is ‘you’re not qualified,'” Williams says. She feels her kids are already being marginalized at school; her son “likes animals and things, and I would like to get him involved in F.F.A. [Future Farmers of America] and things like that, but they don’t tell you how,” she says. “They get left out.” The older generation, at least, seems starkly segregated. (“Those blacks over there have never given us any trouble,” one well-intentioned white person told us.) And Principal Barlow seems to prefer it that way at school: one white former student whose friends were black reports that Barlow once told him to take more care in picking his friends. Barlow does not recall making such a statement.
An Excellent Ag Teacher
In person, Ronald Barlow looks like an enormous boy, tall and chubby with a soft, pink face and a buzz cut. His lids hang heavily over his eyes, as if even he were being put to sleep by his slow, almost slurred country drawl. (That voice, say his detractors, is a put-on, part of a good-old-boy act that has the town snookered. “He has two voices,” says Tolson, “one’s that slow country-bumpkin voice…. [The other] sounds more educated, not quite as ruh-ruh-ruhr, a little higher.” Several parents said that when questioned or challenged, Barlow’s eyes flutter and change, and he drops the hick pretense.) Barlow grew up sixty miles south of Joaquin, in another tiny town called Pineland. Having attended Texas A&M, he surrounds himself with Aggie paraphernalia; but for college, a short stint working northeast of Houston, and a summer spent teaching agriculture at a Russian university, he’s lived in deep East Texas all his life. In Joaquin, he serves as a deacon at his Baptist church and is the announcer for home football games. He also plays the tuba.
He first came to Joaquin in 1983, as an agriculture teacher, but left at the end of the school year, and married one of the graduating seniors. After that he taught agriculture at other small schools in the region. Former colleagues from those districts praise him as “an excellent ag teacher” (in the words of Latexo High School principal James Applewhite, a former agriculture teacher himself.) In 1995 Barlow returned to Joaquin — which had been through five principals in as many years — and took over as head of the high school. Right away, according to former students, there were changes: “All these new rules,” says Ricky Gibson, and paddling to go with them. You could get swats for chewing gum, for rolling your eyes the wrong way, for slamming a door, for forgetting a pencil; and soon enough it became clear that some students would get a lot of swats while others (the football team, the “preps”) were spared. (Barlow denies this, and some colleagues, like special education teacher Betty Herkey, contend that these complaints come from a “little clique” that “just gave us hell.” Herkey, who retired last May, calls Barlow “a fine Christian man” and “a person of the highest integrity.”) Parents have also accused Barlow of misusing Alternative Education Placement, a relatively new statewide disciplinary option that allows very disruptive kids to be removed to a special off-campus location. Joaquin uses the Shelby County A.E.P. facility in Center, which looks less like a classroom than a warehouse, with plywood cubicles for students.
The question of his bias aside, there can be no doubt of Barlow’s devotion to the job of disciplinarian. In late November, when the Observer visited his office, Barlow held out one paddle — a twenty-two inch specimen of varnished wood — like an art object; hanging by the window of his office, meanwhile, was a broken piece of fiberglass with an A&M logo and an N.R.A. sticker on it, which Gibson says Barlow used to deploy as a paddle until he broke it on a student. (Barlow says he did use it as a paddle, but that it was broken by two students who were playing with it.)
A couple days after we were in his office, we caught a brief glimpse of Barlow in action, inside Joaquin’s rather gloomy gymnasium. Barlow was not so much watching as monitoring a basketball tournament — standing by the door with his arms folded across his chest, the city marshall and the constable by his side. At one point between games, as the Waskom High School varsity boys walked out of the locker room and the Joaquin team, who’d lost by a hair to Waskom the night before, waited to enter, a scuffle broke out which lasted for perhaps a minute, before coaches separated the boys. It was clear, in the few minutes that followed, that Barlow enjoys playing policeman. He strode over to confer with the coaches, and when a parent arrived, anxiously trying to find out whether her son had been involved and whether he would be punished, Barlow told her only that the matter was “under investigation.”
Other Barlow “investigations” would be comical were it not for their consequences. In one 1997 missive, Barlow explained why student Victor Bledsoe was to be banned from all athletic events for the remainder of the school year: because Bledsoe had “fled from Joaquin City Marshall Mark McKenzie, Precinct 3 Constable Junior Alford and myself during an investigation involving the questioning and search of students whom we had reasonable cause to suspect had drugs in their possession at this school-sponsored activity [a football game].” Bledsoe is black, and the previous year, after taking numerous swats, he’d skipped school for twelve weeks straight. (School officials had never contacted Bledsoe’s mother about his absences, and when Anise Tolson asked Barlow why they hadn’t, Barlow told her, “I didn’t think she’d care.” Barlow declined to comment on this incident because of pending litigation.)
Barlow’s suspicion was roused when a parent reported to him that she’d heard Bledsoe tell another student, “I’ve got two” and, later in the conversation, utter the word “rocks.” Barlow summoned Alford and McKenzie, and the latter chased Bledsoe, handcuffed him, and took him to jail. He was later released, no charges were ever filed, and no drugs were ever discovered.
Another Barlow-McKenzie drug sting occurred the following spring, when the two of them took to the roof of the high school building to watch for possible offenses, and ended up pursuing student Chase Davis around the campus. (Barlow also declined to comment about this episode, while McKenzie did not return phone calls.) According to Davis’ grandmother, Velta Bordner, Barlow and McKenzie spotted Davis sneaking off for a cigarette, and went after him. Davis, who takes medication for both attention deficit disorder and depression, fled. The three of them ran about the school grounds until Davis rounded a corner and met McKenzie, who came charging out of a set of doors toward him and pulled his gun. Davis was charged with possession of marijuana, but the charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence. (Bordner says she later found the family guns underneath her grandson’s bed; when she asked him what he was doing with them he answered, “They’re coming to get me.” Davis is now home-schooled.)
From the Hallway to County Jail
For newcomer Sherry Riley and her foster son Henry, who goes by the name Junior, life under Barlow became a nightmare. Riley and her husband Wayne, a career Air Force officer, came to Joaquin eighteen months ago from Shreveport, looking to fulfill what Riley called her “rural dream.” On a heavily wooded lot bordered by the Sabine, they found a house big enough for their large family: the Rileys have four biological children, an adopted bi-racial son, and three foster children. Junior, who is black, arrived from Dallas just before Thanksgiving of 1997. At seventeen years of age, it was his eighth foster home assignment. A tall, attractive boy with a muscular build, Junior could pass for older than he is, but a brain injury sustained as a child greatly reduced his reasoning ability. His emotional maturity has suffered as well, according to Riley. “He does a lot of rapping and snapping his fingers. After a few days I learned that was one of the ways he expresses his feelings — in his songs,” she says. “And he had the foulest mouth when he first got here.” Junior’s last stop before Joaquin High was Skyline, an inner-city high school in Dallas.
Riley sensed there would be trouble with Barlow when she took Junior to be enrolled in school, but she had no idea how bad things would eventually get. “The very first thing he said to Junior was ‘Boy, what kind of trouble you been in?'” Riley says. (Barlow told the Observer that he asks all incoming students about past discipline problems.)
Although Junior began to settle in and make friends, Riley received repeated calls about Junior’s behavior over the first few months. “It was ridiculous — they were calling me every week for the stupidest little things,” Riley says. Barlow made it his habit to have Mark McKenzie, the city police officer, in the office when Junior was being disciplined, supposedly because of his size and formidable disposition. “Very few people in a sane mind would want to go up against Henry in a physical fight,” Barlow told the Observer. But Junior doesn’t appear much larger than his basketball teammates. (Barlow, on the other hand, is easily two inches taller and seventy-five pounds heavier than Junior.)
In March, following a lengthy “investigation” by Barlow, Junior was arrested at school for his role in a hallway fight between two female students. Barlow determined that Junior had kicked a girl in the head, although some witnesses said he was merely trying to break up the fight. Junior was removed from Joaquin High and assigned to the Shelby County Co-op, an alternative school for special ed students in Center.
Six weeks later came the incident that pushed Riley over the edge. Although forbidden to set foot inside the school, Junior still caught his bus to Center from the Joaquin campus every morning. On the morning of April 27, Larry Beets, a computer science teacher at Joaquin, spotted Junior roughhousing with a friend and ordered him to let her go. Junior protested that the two were only playing, and that he was not hurting her. A confrontation ensued, in which Beets ordered Junior into the school to be disciplined, and Junior attempted to get past Beets and into his arriving bus. There are differing versions of what happened next. According to Beets, after he got Junior inside the school he became violent, and either poked or shoved the teacher. Junior maintains it was Beets who poked him over and over in the forehead, in an attempt to goad Junior into hitting him. He says he did nothing more than slap a computer disk out of the teacher’s hands. According to Riley, at least one teacher present during the confrontation has corroborated Junior’s version of events.
Following the incident, Beets, who has a heart condition, was so distressed that he had to be driven to the hospital by Barlow to have an EKG performed. Barlow then drove Beets to the police station, where Beets filed charges against Junior for “assault with bodily injury,” on the basis of his elevated blood pressure and heart rate. A warrant was issued for Junior’s arrest that afternoon. On the following day Sherry drove Junior to the Shelby County Jail in Center to turn himself in. Although the charge was only a Class A misdemeanor, Junior’s bond was set at $15,000. He spent the next twenty days in jail.
The case raised several red flags for John R. Smith, the criminal defense attorney in Center who eventually handled Junior’s case. A former Shelby County district attorney and an admirer of Governor Bush, Smith is no soft-hearted liberal. (An engraved plaque in his well-appointed office reads: “Next to injustice, I hate losing!” — John R. Smith.) Yet in twenty-five years of criminal law practice, Smith had never seen a bond set higher than a few thousand dollars for a Class A misdemeanor. Such suspects are often released on their own recognizance, with no cash bond required. Although Junior had been in jail over two weeks by the time Smith found out about the case, he had yet to be arraigned, much less assigned an attorney. “Here you have a student, only seventeen years old, doing twenty days during the school year,” Smith told the Observer. “He’s in there with murder suspects and multiple gang factions.” Though the County Judge, “Dock” Watson, normally moves cases through the system as quickly as possible, in this case Smith was told by personnel in the county attorney’s office that Junior’s bond wouldn’t be reduced under any circumstances, and that Henry would go to jail, “because the county judge said so.” (In rural Texas the county judge, who may or may not have studied law, conducts some trials and presides over the commissioners’ court.)
Watson claims that Riley and Child Protective Services are to blame for Junior’s lengthy stay in jail, because they failed to cooperate with the court. “Cooperating,” in this case, meant moving Junior out of public school and out of the county altogether. “Public school is not a place for someone with his temperament,” Watson told the Observer. Smith believes the judge, a former school superintendent himself, never reviewed the psychological evaluation in Junior’s file, or even talked to Junior, before forming a judgment about the case.
What Smith found when he visited Junior at the jail was a scared and lonely kid. “He kept asking me, repeatedly, if he could go home and eat supper with his family that night,” Smith recalls. “He has absolutely zero antagonism of any kind…. The school system and the county judge want Henry [Junior] to go to jail for a year, but nobody out there, at least at that time, really understood this young man,” Smith says. “What really offended me was the predetermination by the county judge that they were gonna prosecute this kid to the fullest extent they could for what was really a minor infraction. I’ve seen plenty of cases where a guy just beat the living tar out of somebody and got off with six months probation. If anyone read [Junior’s file], it should have raised a flag that this is something we have to work with a little bit differently.” Instead, Smith said, “Junior went straight from the hallway to the county jail.”
Smith got Junior released on a personal recognizance bond after filing motions for a psychiatric examination of his client (which the county would have to pay for), a motion for hearing on competency to stand trial, and a motion to recuse the judge. Watson apparently felt it wasn’t worth the trouble to hold Junior any longer. To Smith’s surprise, however, the case has not been dropped, and Junior will likely stand trial in district court. It remains unclear why Junior was in jail for so long. “I don’t have any control of what law enforcement does after a complaint is filed,” says Barlow, who adds that he didn’t realize how long Junior was locked up until a later meeting with Riley. Yet some parents suspect that because the county roads commissioner is Barlow’s father-in-law, Barlow wields influence with county officials. Smith, meanwhile, feels that Riley’s status as a newcomer — combined with her “assertiveness” and her willingness to house foster children — put her in a suspect category in Joaquin. He says he has had too many complaints about the Joaquin I.S.D. brought to his office to dismiss the district’s problems as simply the rantings of a few disruptive outsiders. Junior’s case was the first one he agreed to take on. “If you’re not part of Mr. Barlow’s in-crowd, if you have the unmitigated gall to question him, then you’re automatically a radical outsider,” Smith says.
“From an Aggie’s Desk”
One such recently-anointed radical outsider is Anise Tolson, who grew up just across the state line in Logansport; she moved to Joaquin ten years ago because of the school’s good academic reputation. She rented a trailer home by the river and paid the property tax on top of the rent, to contribute her share to the school. At various times she worked as a school volunteer and ran a video store in Logansport; she served as vice-president of the P.T.O. and later as a member of the Athletic Boosters. It’s not hard to believe the rumor she heard after she began challenging Barlow — that he had exclaimed, “I knew what type Ms. Baggett was, but I had Ms. Tolson pegged wrong” — for at first glance, no one would “peg” Tolson as likely to take on authority. On the day she met with the Observer, Tolson’s soft blonde hair was neatly blow-dried, she wore a long dress, and she rummaged apologetically through stacks of paper. Yet she doesn’t mince words (which she acknowledges every so often with an “Excuse my French,”), and doubtless it didn’t take long for Barlow to reassess her.
After she witnessed the tardy sweep that day in May of 1997, she spent the remaining week of the school year at the school: “From eight to three every day I’d walk the halls,” observing as Barlow summoned students over the public address system. They would line up outside the office “like cattle,” she says. “They thought they had no choice whatsoever; it was take these or fail.” (Commenting on the inevitability of taking licks, one student told the Observer with a shrug that, after Barlow became principal, he just took to wearing pairs of shorts under his pants all the time.)
That summer, Tolson started talking to a couple friends about what she’d seen at the high school. One person she talked to was Baggett, a divorced mother of two who’d moved to Joaquin after inheriting property there in 1991; another was Laquita Posey, who had a son at the high school and owned Frank’s Place, a café frequented by both teachers and students. Baggett had challenged a teacher’s decision to fail her daughter for missing a test. “He [Barlow] just does stuff, and if you try to talk to him he just gets mad,” says Baggett. “Then bad things start happening to your kids; then they become a target. From that point on, it was just downhill, the worst few years of my life.” Posey, meanwhile, had heard stories from the students who hung out at Frank’s Place — kids who’d taken a dozen or more licks at one time — and from her son Jesse. (“They pick what kids they feel should be educated, and what kids should be pushed through the cracks,” says Posey.)
“We didn’t know what to do,” says Tolson. “At first, we decided we were all going to move, but then we decided no, we can’t move, because of all the children that are left here.” So they kept asking questions until someone — they never learned who it was — left a brown paper grocery sack on Baggett’s porch. Inside it was a stack of high school newsletters: notes on school goings-on that Barlow had written and sent out to other administrators and teachers, other school districts, local law enforcement officials, friends, relatives, and local businesses. Although Barlow now refers to these newsletters as “interoffice memos,” that term fails to do justice to the extent of their distribution and to the strange variety of material presented in them — for Barlow entertained his readers with jokes, speculations, certain students’ grades, cornpone aphorisms, and more, under headings like “From the Aggie’s Desk,” “From the Top of My Soapbox,” and “Discipline Notes.”
In the latter section, Barlow mused on the multiple roles of the disciplinarian: “[Joaquin teachers] Mr. Woods, Mr. Gray, and myself sometimes feel like witness, investigator, prosecutor, defense attorney, judge, jury and executioner” — and alluded to the difficult work of bringing justice to the halls of Joaquin High School. “Each one of these cases takes a lot of time and documentation to make it stick,” he wrote. More elaborate were Barlow’s accusations and comments concerning particular students, some named, others left unnamed but nonetheless identifiable within the small school community. “Earlier this year we enrolled a student who moved into our district after spending a couple years in reform school,” he wrote in one case. “She had a very scary psychological profile and a record that was equally naughty. We tried for several weeks to provide her with an education, but she refused to accept it. She never completely attended a full day of school, she ran away from home (for the umpteenth time) and we haven’t seen her since.” Barlow further explained that the girl’s parents had asked Child Protective Services to take custody of their daughter, and that he had gone to the C.P.S. hearing to testify on the parents’ behalf. “We could have sold tickets to this one,” he wrote. C.P.S. refused to take the girl away from her parents, and the family moved to Timpson I.S.D, reported Barlow, who closed the reminiscence with his standard sign-off, “‘Nuff Said.”
Tolson, Baggett, and Posey had heard rumors about the newsletters but hadn’t seen copies before. Upon reading them, with their violations of student privacy and inappropriate tone, they felt they had what they needed to challenge the way Barlow was running things. They approached State Senator Drew Nixon’s office, and Nixon forwarded their concerns about the newsletter to the Texas Education Agency. After the T.E.A. informed Nixon that it was indeed questionable whether the newsletters complied with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, Nixon wrote to superintendent Johnny Rinehart asking that Barlow restrain his literary impulses. Barlow obeyed, apparently, but after that the parents who’d complained saw their children receive harsher treatment than before. Jesse Posey, Laquita’s son, was accused of cheating — and declared guilty before even being confronted with the accusation. While Ryan Baggett was standing in his yard one day, City Marshal Mark McKenzie, who is Barlow’s constant companion, gave him a ticket for squealing his tire. (McKenzie explained that he’d heard the squealing earlier, and it sounded like Baggett’s tires. McKenzie later cited Suzanne Baggett for a “hog in the road” violation after a pig escaped from her yard.)
In the meantime, though, parents and relatives of Joaquin kids started sharing their stories: Velta Bordner, who had questioned the manner in which her grandson Chase Davis had been disciplined; Sonya Jackson, who’d tried to get work as a substitute teacher at Joaquin but had only been called once, on very short notice (the elementary and high schools have no black teachers), and who’d heard about her younger siblings’ problems; Luke Gibson; Paula Sholar; Frieda and Mike Cummings; Sandy Norris, Lavarie Cloudy; Stephanie and Dion Williams; Lisa Price— the list of the “few disgruntled outsiders” grew longer and longer, until it included about sixty parents. They began preparing a more serious complaint for the T.E.A. — one which, they thought, the agency would have to investigate.
According to Eric Hartman of the Texas Federation of Teachers, even before the 1995 Legislature enacted “local control” school reform measures, “T.E.A. has never been accused of zealous enforcement out in the districts.” But equipped with a new set of “less-government” excuses (and, to be fair, lacking the resources to investigate all the cases worthy of investigation), the agency was all the more unlikely to intervene at Joaquin. Though parents and children wrote scores of letters detailing the school’s problems, which were submitted as part of a complaint to T.E.A. last January, the agency just “slapped their [the school’s] little hand,” as Tolson puts it. In February, the T.E.A. informed the parents that it was the superintendent’s responsibility to investigate their allegations of race and gender discrimination, and that the complaints had been forwarded to him. Given the parents’ previous attempts to approach Superintendent Rinehart, this didn’t bode well. Laquita Posey, for instance, had gone to Rinehart toward the end of the ’97 school year (well before she and other parents started organizing) to protest the school’s decision not to let her son Jesse make up a test he’d missed. During the conversation, according to Posey, Rinehart said “Well, you just go get your lawyer, then,” about five times. (Rinehart, who retired at the end of last year, declined to comment for this story.)
Rinehart appointed none other than Barlow to investigate the discrimination complaints, and paid him $1,000 for the favor. Meanwhile, the T.E.A. informed the parents that their complaints regarding Barlow’s discipline practices had been forwarded to the Texas State Board of Educator Certification, where apparently they evaporated into the bureaucratic mist. Board spokesperson Anne Roussos told the Observer that although the 1998 referral could not be located — “I’m not sure that we don’t have the letter…. I suspect we have the letter, but we have some 1,600 active complaints” — and though an earlier referral was not investigated because it involved confidential student information that the Board did not have the authority to review, all is not yet lost. The case appears to involve “an ethics violation” and thus might be re-opened when new ethics rules, themselves the product of no small amount of procedural headache, go into effect this March.
In June came the hand-slap: after reviewing the “findings” that Barlow turned in, the T.E.A. recommended that Joaquin try to hire some minority teachers, revise its Student Code of Conduct Handbook to clarify the grievance procedure, establish a “multicultural/multiethnic committee composed of students, teachers, parents, community leaders, and administrators,” and consider sending teachers and administrators to some cultural sensitivity workshops. ‘Nuff Said.
Early progress of the multi-cultural/multi-ethnic committee has been modest, to say the least. None of the parents who complained of problems with Barlow sits on the committee, which was appointed by Barlow and Rinehart. After attending the group’s first official meeting in November, community representative Linda Martínez seemed hazy on both the composition and the mission of the group, which she characterized with perhaps unintentional candor as “to let people out there know that we don’t have any problems.” At the group’s second official event, held the Monday after Thanksgiving, about twenty people — at least half of them teachers and administrators — convened to hear a presentation by T.E.A. consultant Ester Hunt, who’d been dispatched from the regional office in Kilgore. Sherry Riley and Luke Gibson (accompanied by his son Ricky), who heard about the event only hours before, were the only members of the critical group in attendance.
A middle-aged black woman dressed in a navy suit and gold office jewelry, Hunt lectured with the practiced delivery of a down-market corporate consultant. She began with a handout — a single sheet with the word “ATTITUDE” printed down one side and each letter’s corresponding numerical position in the alphabet down the other. As the handout indicated, the alphabetical numbers totalled 100; it was the first of many cryptic revelations Hunt would offer over the next hour. “Somebody has come in here and ripped your community apart,” she began. Without elaboration, she moved on to the good news, which was that the healing could — indeed, must, for the sake of the children — start tonight. Large beads of sweat broke out on her forehead as she launched into a free-association on parental responsibility, the benefits of tough love, and the new approaches in pedagogy and discipline necessitated by the “smarter and more sophisticated” students of today. Hunt punctuated her presentation with anecdotes about her own son, Jaron, who had himself required more than a little punishing (he being prone to “copping a ‘tude” from time to time, she explained.)
As the presentation wore on, with only oblique references to the actual problems in Joaquin, it became evident that Hunt was less than familiar with the history of the local controversy, or the specific allegations levelled against Barlow and the school district. (Hunt later conceded that she had not read the Texas Civil Rights Project’s lengthy report; nor was she familiar with the complaints found in the lawsuits filed by parents.) At one point, to get the healing started, Hunt stopped and solicited a specific complaint that a parent in the audience had with the school district. With Barlow and Rinehart seated behind her, Sherry Riley struggled to distill her year-long struggle with the district into a sentence or two for the benefit of Hunt, who was undoubtedly the only person in the room unfamiliar with the details of Junior’s case. But Riley’s complaint that Junior had not been “treated equally and with dignity” did not make a workable example for Hunt. Luke Gibson didn’t fare any better with his complaint, as Hunt cut him off repeatedly for failing to give her something she could use (raising a finger at one point and admonishing Gibson, a retired firefighter, to “listen for my question”).
With Hunt clearly not on the same page as her audience, the discussion degenerated into poorly articulated accusations and defensive posturing from teachers. (At one point Gibson asked whether state employees would submit to a paddling from Governor Bush if directed to do so. He immediately found a taker in the back row, a perky brunette teacher who confirmed that she would, if such were the agreed-upon consequences.) Hunt regained control of the group for her big finish, a tearful plea for reconciliation that brought a round of applause. “If you really care about the children, you’ll stop this thing tonight,” she inveighed. Regaining her composure (perhaps a shade too quickly), she apologized for her emotional display, brought on, she said, by her love for children and her knowledge — though not, apparently, first-hand – that “these children are hurting.” Hunt was immediately surrounded by grateful teachers, who glad-handed her on the way out the door like parishioners thanking a pastor for Sunday services. Among them was Barlow, who left without speaking to Riley and Gibson.
Y ou always hear, take the government out of the schools, get it off our backs — you’d better not, because if you do, look what can happen,” says Garvis Jones. Jones was Barlow’s secretary until the summer of 1997, when Barlow told her he wanted her to work the following year as a special education aide (though she had no qualifications in that area) rather than in his office, and she resigned. A staid grandmother who lives in Joaquin with her husband, Jones graduated from the high school herself; she sent her kids there; she’s baked countless trays of bake sale cookies and cheered on generations of sports teams. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she says of the changes that Barlow has wrought. When she was working in the principal’s office, Jones said, it didn’t take long for her to conclude that Barlow’s disciplinary methods had as much or more to do with “the ego that man has” as with the children’s behavior. “He’d call them in [for swats] and say ‘You owe me. You’re going to pay up,'” she says. “I didn’t like his discipline.” It was that sentiment which prompted Barlow to force her out of his office, she believes.
“As far as the school is concerned, it needs some new administrators,” says Jones. “I’m not trying to hurt the school, but things have gone on down there that aren’t right.” Among the parents who’ve tried to put a stop to Barlow, opinions are mixed over what must be done before the town can return to normal — and over whether there’s any hope of that happening. The two lawsuits filed by the Civil Rights Project involve only a small part of the “things that aren’t right” — one suit, filed under Title IX, charges the school with discrimination for having more boys’ than girls’ sports teams, while the other involves the privacy violations in Barlow’s newsletters.
The scope of the suits is narrow “partly because when you’re dealing with race discrimination these days, it’s incredibly difficult to prove,” says T.C.R.P. attorney Sylvia Cedillo. “Racists don’t leave a huge paper trail. …That’s why we did a report.” As for the issue of discipline, she says, “in Texas, the model of what is excessive, in people’s minds, is pretty broad. We have corporal punishment in Texas. Parents approve of physical discipline.” State law requires only that corporal punishment be “reasonable” given a student’s age and size; to prove excess would be “too difficult” in light of T.C.R.P.’s modest budget, says Cedillo. But parents hope that what comes out in the courtroom “will at least prove that what we’re saying is correct,” says Suzanne Baggett. “The sad thing is, even when we win the suits, he [Barlow] will come up with some other reason why we were wrong … ‘Well, they’re just trying to get money.'”
There’s also the matter of whatever it was about Joaquin that allowed Barlow to go as far as he has. “I can’t say one person changed them,” says Laquita Posey of the teachers who go along with Barlow’s policies, “I believe the seed was already there. I think they’re tired or something, and so they pick what kids they feel should be educated and what kids shouldn’t be.”
The families involved are exhausted. Chris Pagano, an Austin therapist, lawyer, and consultant, traveled to Joaquin with Cedillo last summer and met with about twenty children and parents. She says she was taken aback by the prevalence of depression among the children — “they didn’t want to do anything, they were sleeping all day until five, six, seven at night” — and the level of stress among everyone she met. Although word is that Barlow has moderated his use of the paddle this year, students whose families have been involved in the complaints and the lawsuits report being subtly ostracized — glared at, condescended to — by teachers. And funny things keep happening to their parents. Sherry Riley’s electricity was mysteriously shut off. An inspector showed up at Velta Bordner’s house and determined that her smoke alarm was not up to snuff; Bordner was also informed that several handicapped adults who live with her were ineligible to continue attending a community program they’ve attended in the past. A few parents fear that their phones have been (inexpertly) tapped because of strange clicking sounds and background noise that start in the middle of phone calls.
Last year, Joaquin I.S.D. determined that Anise Tolson’s son Troy, who’d been schooled there for ten years, could not continue at the high school because, the school maintains, Anise Tolson actually lives at her father’s house in Logansport, Louisiana. The school took her to court, where it was revealed that Joaquin had hired a private investigator to follow Tolson. The court ruled in favor of the school, and Tolson paid thousands of dollars of back tuition to Joaquin I.S.D. Then in November Tolson, who has a Texas driver’s license, voted in Joaquin and was arrested for illegal voting, a felony, on the grounds that she is still a Louisiana resident. A trial date — for what will apparently be the first interstate illegal voting case ever tried in Texas — has not yet been set. Tolson hopes the judge will throw the case out. After that, she says, she thinks she might run for school board in Joaquin.
This story was partially funded by the M3 Fund for investigative reporting in the Observer. Illustrations by Martin Beaber.