The statue of Lady Justice wears a blindfold to show that justice will be dispensed objectively, without fear or favor. Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to accomplish that goal.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than White students, while Black and Latino students account for 70 percent of police referrals; LGBT students are 1.4 times more likely to face suspension than their straight peers.
The bias starts early. Black children represent 18 percent of pre-school students, but account for 48 percent of pre-school suspensions. Pre-school!
In fact, according to research, Black students do not “act out” in class more frequently than their White peers. But Black students are more likely to be sent to the principal’s office for subjective offenses, like “disrupting class,” and they’re more likely to be sent there by White teachers.
– Excerpted and condensed from the National Education Association’s NEAToday article of January, 2015 subtitled: Suspensions and expulsions are doing more harm than good. Schools are getting better results by rejecting zero tolerance.
The meeting was held in the office of the Superintendent of Schools. It was an impressive room with mahogany-paneled walls, a thick carpet, leather-upholstered armchairs set in front of a massive desk that was cleared of everything except a phone with numerous buttons on it and a laptop computer.
There was a large table on one side of the room that was currently occupied by the man whose office this was, a man as impressive as his office, one who wasn’t a bit diminished by its grandeur. He was in his early fifties and had a distinguished face, the beginning of gray at his temples, and sharp eyes. His bearing told everyone he was not a man to be easily dismissed.
He was accompanied at the table by several others. One was the principal of Bordington High School, John Phillips; John had come with his vice-principal, Ruth Hayes. Also in attendance were Phyllis Satterly, an English teacher at the school, and Barb Thallinger, the school-district-superintendent’s secretary. She was taking notes.
The superintendent, Mark Rawlings, was speaking. He was upset, and his voice made that clear.
“Thank you all for coming quickly on no notice at all. You know why we’re here today, I’m sure. We had a situation at the school this morning with a teacher being attacked and now have a missing child. We have to be prepared to answer questions. Before we do that, I have to know exactly what happened. In that regard, this is an official investigation. Other than students, the people in this room—you—were the ones involved, and you can fill me in. Folks, I need absolute honesty here. If someone lies, and I repeat those lies to the press, the repercussions, the backlash, will be more than any of us want.”
“Does that mean I need an attorney present?” John asked, trying to inject a little humor and soften the tone of the meeting.
Mark Rawlings shook his head, not even smiling. “Not if you tell the truth, John. No one does if they tell the truth.”
“I don’t need one then!” John responded, completely sober.
Mr. Rawlings nodded and then continued with his remarks. “But of course, there’s another consideration that cannot be overlooked. We’ve recently implemented California’s PBIS program, and each of you has completed the training. The program has been implemented at Bordington High School. The purpose of that, as you also know, is to keep kids in school, in the classroom, and to avoid suspensions and expulsions if at all possible. If this incident today results in either of those being necessary, it’ll be the first time since the program’s inception that we’ve had to resort to discipline of that kind. It will in effect be a failure—a failure for all of us, but even worse, a failure for the child involved. This is an important program, and I would be very disappointed if it fails right out of the box.
“So with those thoughts before us, let’s get started.”
Superintendent Rawlings’ gaze shifted around the table and settled on Phyllis Satterly. “Miss Satterly, Phyllis, you may go first. What happened that caused you to remove DeMarcus Cullman from your class?”
Miss Satterly was a middle-aged, single woman, thin and rigid in posture and disposition. Her hair was wound close to her head, and she wore a dress that fell well below her knees and was tight to her neck. It was a gray dress, rather shapeless, and was covered with small blue flowers. Mark Rawlings couldn’t help thinking of 1910-vintage schoolmarms when he looked at her, even though she wasn’t all that old.
She didn’t sit up straighter when called to speak. She was already as erect and stiff as it was possible for her to be.
“Yes, sir. I was teaching about gerunds. The importance of using them and the surrounding words correctly. There was a commotion at the back of the classroom. I don’t tolerate that. I stopped my lecture and walked away from my desk and a few steps down the aisle toward where the disruption was being generated.”
She stopped to frown. When she resumed, her voice was exactly the same as before, controlled and dry. Superintendent Rawlings wondered if Miss Satterly ever showed emotion.
“Three boys were paying attention to each other and not to the lesson. They were Thomas Madison, Darren Cassidy and DeMarcus Cullman. I spoke to them to draw their attention to me and told them that they were now under a warning, and any further disturbance would result in their presence in Ms. Hayes’ office and an F grade for that day’s attendance in my class.”
Miss Satterly took a quick glance around the table, expecting to see nods of approval from others. She saw blank faces instead. Undeterred, she soldiered on.
“It wasn’t two minutes later, when I was back instructing my class, that more disruption occurred from the same three students. I again moved from my desk into the aisle where they were sitting, moving closer to them so my presence would quiet them. I spoke to them, telling them they’d been warned and had failed to comply, and that now they must leave the class, accept the failing grade for the day, and go directly to see Ms. Hayes.”
She nodded her head, sharply, twice. She was remembering the situation, and how well she’d handled it. When the pause had lasted more than a few seconds, Mr. Rawlings cleared his throat. Miss Satterly looked at him.
“Well, Miss Satterly, from what you’re saying, you totally missed the objective of the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports training. That objective was to find ways to keep kids in class, not remove them. But anyway, that’s something for another discussion. Please continue with what happened today.”
If Miss Satterly was disturbed by Superintendent Rawlings’ censure, she didn’t show it. She merely continued with her dry recital of that morning’s event.
“Thomas and Darren looked smug when they stood up. DeMarcus looked angry. He was in front as they began up the aisle toward me. I was watching his face because of his anger. You have to be cautious with angry…teenagers. His face is black, of course, so it was a little more difficult for me to see exactly what he was thinking, but I felt…” She stopped, trying to find the right word, the right word for this group in the superintendent’s office, for this man who was staring at her so intently. “Concerned,” she finally said, in her same steely voice.
She paused again, remembering, and Mr. Rawlings didn’t let the pause linger.
“And then he attacked me. As ‘concerned’ as I was, I wasn’t prepared for that!” For the first time, Miss Satterly was showing some emotion. Not much, but enough to show she was human. “He charged into me, his arms up, and knocked me to the floor, landing on top of me. Only the grace of God prevented my head from hitting the edge of a desk on the way down. I easily could have been killed.”
The faces at the table showed varied emotions. For some, the drama of her recital was stirring and their eyes showed that. Others remained stoic. They’d digested the story already, having heard it a couple of times already; it bore no emotional impact any longer. Miss Satterly was alive and well and mostly unmoved by the incident.
“And what happened after that?” Mr. Rawlings’ voice conveyed nothing but professional curiosity, although he also had heard the story before and knew what came next.
“I bumped my head rather hard on the floor. Details of the next minute are vague. Somehow DeMarcus was no longer on top of me. People were asking me if I was all right, if I wanted them to help me up. I felt spacey and just lay there. Someone went for the school nurse. By the time she arrived, my head had cleared, and with her assistance, I stood. Other than a slight headache, I was all right.
“Everyone in the room was standing, looking at me. That included DeMarcus Cullman. I immediately told the nurse, Mrs. Hodges, to escort DeMarcus Cullman to Ms. Hayes’ office and to tell her that he had attacked me.”
She was about to go on when Mark Rawlings interrupted. “And the other two boys? Did you send them as well?”
“No.” A slight scowl crossed Miss Satterly’s face momentarily. “They’d caused some slight noise. DeMarcus had attacked me. I thought their indiscretion minor compared to his. I didn’t see the need to involve them any further in light of what had happened.”
Mr. Rawlings nodded. “I see. All right, I’ll hear from you now, Ms. Hayes.”
Ruth Hayes was a large woman in her mid-thirties. Her hair was cut short and combed in a masculine style. She wore dark slacks and a no-nonsense white blouse. No jewelry or makeup softened her appearance. Her voice, when she spoke, was louder than necessary in the room, even one as large as the one they were in.
“All right, although I’ve already been over this.”
Mr. Rawlings said, impatiently, “And now you’re being asked to tell it again. Please do so.”
Ms. Hayes frowned at him and looked like she was going to say something but then changed her mind. She took a deep breath, let it out more noisily than necessary, and began.
“Mrs. Hodges brought DeMarcus into my office. She told me Phyllis Satterly had accused DeMarcus of attacking her and had asked her to escort the boy to me, which she’d now done. She was going to continue, but I know how to deal with situations like this. I thanked and dismissed her and faced DeMarcus. The boy was defiant. He wouldn’t look at me, even when answering the questions he deigned to respond to, and he wouldn’t speak up; I could hardly hear him. He was barely responsive. I’ve had students like that before. If they don’t want to help themselves, that’s OK with me; I can still deal with them. Makes it easier, really. He didn’t even make any excuses for what he’d done. I told him he was in deep shit—excuse my language, I didn’t use that word when I was with him—for what he’d done, and probably the police would get involved, and he’d get sent to juvie. I told him that attacking teachers was about the worst thing that a student could do, and because he’d done that, he could expect the worst to come from it.
“Then I asked him for his mom’s or dad’s cellphone number so I could call his parents and get them down to the school. That got him! It usually does. The parents of these black kids don’t mess around. I imagined he’d get a pretty good beating when he got home. Deserved it, too, attacking Miss Satterly that way! Anyway, he said they didn’t have a phone. Yeah, likely story! I asked him again, but he didn’t answer. Altogether, he just wasn’t talking to me and wasn’t going to talk to me. I checked him in the computer and there wasn’t a phone number listed there, either, so I was stuck.”
She stopped and looked both finished and satisfied.
“What’s the rest of it?” Mr. Rawlings asked, his impatience again showing.
“That was it. I told him he’d be expelled, maybe jailed, for physically attacking a teacher, and I was turning him over to Mr. Phillips; he’s the one who actually expels students. I do the in-school stuff like detentions. He does the suspensions and expulsions. So I walked DeMarcus to Mr. Phillips’s office and left him sitting on a chair in the outer office there.”
“I see. All right, Ms. Hayes. We’ll hear from Mr. Phillips next.”
John Phillips was a man in his late forties. He was balding, a little paunchy, and wore a friendly air like a mantle. As much as the students detested and feared Ms. Hayes, they liked their principal. Mr. Rawlings turned to him and said, his voice marginally softer, “John, why don’t you fill us in on your involvement in this?”
“Sure, Mark. Ruth Hayes came to my office and told me DeMarcus Cullman had attacked Phyllis Satterly in her classroom in front of all the students. That Phyllis was OK. She said she’d had DeMarcus in her office after the attack. She told me he hadn’t denied it and was defiant with her. That he was sitting outside the office now. She’d told him he’d be expelled, and she was turning him over to me, but she’d handle it if I wished. That he had to be expelled—we had to set an example that no kid could attack a teacher—that we had no choice in the matter. She said if I’d give her the word, she’d tell him he was out. And that we should call the police as well since this was a criminal matter.”
John moved in his chair, turning slightly so he could see both Rawlings and Hayes. “Well, I didn’t think it was that easy. I thought about our PBIS training, about trying not to over-discipline kids, especially minority kids, and about how we were all trying to keep them in school. But attacking teachers is obviously a very serious matter. However, I needed to talk to DeMarcus. It didn’t sound to me like his side of the story had been heard, and there’s always another side to a story in situations like this one. So, I needed to hear what DeMarcus had to say or, at the very least, give him the opportunity to talk if he was willing.”
John turned to face Ruth across the table. “Actually, I was disappointed when you, Ruth, told DeMarcus he’d be expelled. He’d been told that before I ever had a chance to talk to him, been told that by you when you knew you don’t have that authority, told that when you know we’re trying hard not to kick minority kids out of school. And you did all this without hearing his explanation and without even talking to the other boys he was involved with!”
He was staring at Ruth Hayes. She was staring back, not an ounce of regret or deference showing on her face. If it bothered her that she hadn’t followed school policy in this case, it didn’t show. In fact, when Mr. Phillips opened his mouth to move on, she spoke first. “He attacked a teacher! It’s cut and dried if he does that. He’s gone. No meeting is necessary. The other boys, Tom and Darren? They didn’t hit a teacher. Knock her down. That was all DeMarcus. All him.”
John was shaking his head. “That isn’t for you to decide, Ruth. You have a tendency to take things into your own hands that aren’t within your province. We’ve discussed this before. We’ll certainly discuss it again.”
Then John turned back to the superintendent. “Ruth told me she’d handle the expulsion of the boy, but all I knew about it was what she’d told me. Perhaps in other schools boys are expelled that cavalierly, but not in my school. So I told her to send the boy in.”
His eyes were focused on those of his boss. “She went out to do that; DeMarcus was gone.”
“He was gone.” Mark stood up and turned away from the group, staring out the window for a moment. He’d known that DeMarcus had disappeared from school. Mark had called these people to come and discuss this with him as soon as John had phoned him and told him about what had happened and that the boy who was responsible had run. When Mark turned back, his eyes were hard. “Do you all realize how badly this has been handled? Anyone? No? And this after you’ve just completed your PBIS training. I’m disappointed in you, Miss Satterly, for showing covert racism. You had three possible troublemakers, one black, two white, and you only disciplined the black student. You had no idea the source of the problem in that classroom, but you picked out the black student for discipline. Yes, yes, I know, what he did was indefensible, but three boys were involved. What about the other two? You didn’t know exactly what had occurred, but you picked out the black student for punishment and let the two white students walk. You need to think about that.” He kept his eyes on Miss Satterly for a moment longer; her head was down, her eyes as well. Then he looked away, shifting his eyes as he did. “The one I’m most disappointed in is you, Ruth. Your behavior was worse than just inappropriate.”
“It was not!” Ruth Hayes shot back. She was always ready for a fight, and she felt any time she was criticized, not only was it undeserved, it was probably due to the unfortunate fact that she was a woman.
“Yes, Ruth, it was. You didn’t get an explanation for why DeMarcus did what he did. You didn’t question the boys who were involved in the disturbance in the classroom, so you don’t even know what that was about. You—”
Ms. Hayes interrupted him. “I didn’t need to. It was Darren Cassidy and Thomas Madison. I know them. Well, I don’t know them, really, I’ve never even spoken to them, but I do know who they are, and I know their parents. They’re deacons at the church they attend, good people. They’re good parents, too, and neither boy has ever been in serious trouble; they’re both good kids. If anyone was making trouble in there, they were probably trying to stop it. I didn’t need to talk to them. Besides, I asked DeMarcus what he was thinking, and he wouldn’t speak to me. He was guilty, and he knew it. His demeanor and body language showed that clearly. And, if you’re innocent, you say so! But not DeMarcus. You know how—” She stopped. Mr. Rawlings was glaring at her. “Anyway, those boys wouldn't have had anything to do with him attacking Miss Satterly, and that’s what this is about.”
Mark Rawlings was shaking his head. “I’ll deal with you and John after this situation has played itself out. For now, I want to continue. What did you do, John, when you found DeMarcus had left?”
John was looking far from happy. “I called the police. I was worried about him.”
“You wanted him arrested?” Superintendent Rawlings asked.
“No, sir. I wanted him found. I was worried about him. He had to have overheard Ruth telling me he needed to be expelled and that she’d be happy to do it. And that I should call the police. She wasn’t speaking softly, and he was right outside the door. I don’t know what his state of mind was, but I didn’t want any tragedies on my hands. I called Chief Fourly and asked if his department could locate the boy and see if he was willing to come talk to me at the school.”
Mark was looking at him sharply, and as the principal spoke, his gaze softened. “Finally,” he said. “Finally, someone shows he cares about the young man.”
The swing felt strange to him. He’d spent a lot of time there, growing up—happy time. He’d spent a lot of time physically sitting in this swing, mentally being in his own head, imagining all sorts of things, daydreaming, being a superhero, saving people and being looked up to. He’d dreamed of being the most popular kid in school, in having every kid in his class as a friend—in having a dad again. Of his dad being rich, and so he and his mother were, too.
It had been a few years since he’d been to this park. Somehow, when you were older, you didn’t have the time to sit and dream in a park that you’d had when you were younger.
The swing hadn’t seemed so close to the ground then. Or felt as narrow. He didn’t fit in it now. But then, he didn’t seem to fit anywhere now.
He was a good-looking kid, a 15-year-old who looked like he was 13, baby-faced and cute, and he carried himself well. He had medium-dark skin, his hair was cut short to his head, he wore what all the kids did—mostly tee shirts and jeans—and his clothes fit him well and were always clean.
His life as a teenager wasn’t what it had been in his dreams. He’d found he liked being under the radar at school, and that’s what he’d been till only recently. He had been most comfortable staying in the background. Some kids loved the spotlight, loved the life-of-the-party role. A lot of them wanted to be in the popular-kids’ group and would do most anything to achieve that. He, on the other hand, liked being the other sort, one of the masses, one of the group that made up the rest of the school population.
He had a few friends, but it was hard for him as it seemed to be for the about-20 in number other black kids in the school. His small, Northern California town was mostly white with only a few black and Latino families. Combining that with his having only one parent and not much money made it easy for him to not quite fit in with most of the others. He didn’t even have a cellphone, the standard tool that everyone else seemed to have—the monthly cost made it out of the question—and that was what allowed the other kids to be online, texting together in one large, social mass. He lived outside that world.
His best friend was a white kid, also poor, and also smart. He didn’t live close enough for them hang out much. Most of the time they spent together was at school. But their personalities and outlooks matched well, and there had been a chemistry between them right from the time they’d met. That had been after the white boy, Lyndon Hatch, had had the courage to approach DeMarcus in the cafeteria and ask if he could sit down. DeMarcus had usually sat alone. From that day forward, he never had again.
DeMarcus had never had a friend like Lyndon in his life before. Their friendship had grown as they’d spent time together. As their friendship had prospered, it had deepened, and one of those dreams he’d had, sitting on that swing long ago, had come true.
DeMarcus sat on that swing that morning after leaving school, barely moving back and forth, his head filled with images, most of them dark. None of his thoughts were clear. Back and forth, back and forth he went, not much more than a few inches each way, the toe of one shoe touching the ground, propelling him but remaining stationary to do it.
He was just existing, just letting time spill off the clock. Maybe if time passed…didn’t they say time healed all wounds? Well, how would it heal this one? Nothing would heal this.
He couldn’t understand how it had all fallen apart so suddenly. Everything had been going so well, better than well recently. He’d been so happy. Then today came along, and everything in his world had turned upside down. He couldn’t even get his head around it. It was too awful. Nothing would work now. His life had gone down the toilet. All his plans, everything he’d been working toward…gone. How could it all come to an end so abruptly?
“There you are!”
DeMarcus looked up. Lyndon was in front of him. DeMarcus hadn’t heard him approaching.
Lyndon walked up and sat down on the swing next to DeMarcus. “Thought I might find you here.”
DeMarcus kept moving back and forth. He didn’t speak.
Lyndon watched him. He could see how troubled the boy was. Everything about him looked depressed. He appeared to have actually shrunk.
Lyndon abruptly pushed off, swinging to get up some motion. The swing was too low for him, too, and it was hard not to drag his feet. But in a few moments, he had gained some momentum and was moving fairly well. Soon, he was soaring high on each swing.
“Whee!” Lyndon pealed.
DeMarcus finally took a glance at him swinging. Lyndon kept trying to go higher, and eventually DeMarcus got a small grin on his face. “You’re a fool,” he said softly.
“Yeah, but it got you to talk,” Lyndon said, and stopped pumping. The arc of his swing slowly became shorter and shorter until he had completely stopped. “We need to go back,” he said.
DeMarcus shook his head. “Why? So they can kick me out? So they can arrest me? Then what? What’ll my mom say? It might kill her.”
“So you can tell them what happened.”
DeMarcus finally stopped moving. He turned to stare at Lyndon. “You don’t know what happened. Why do you think telling them would help?”
“Because I heard you attacked Miss Satterly. It’s all over school. You attacked her and then ran off. I even heard the police are looking for you.”
“So why would going back help?”
Lyndon shook his head. “Because that isn’t what happened. That’s what everyone’s saying, but it isn’t what happened. I know it isn’t. You’d never attack anyone, no matter what. Your biggest hero is Martin Luther King, Jr., and he preached nonviolence. And because I know you. You might, I guess, fight back if someone started it, but an old lady? No way, man. No way. It’s not possible.”
DeMarcus didn’t respond. He just kept looking at Lyndon, who was looking back. Finally, DeMarcus said, “Won’t do any good. Ms. Hayes said I might go to jail.”
“That’s why you need to go back. If you do, you don’t look so guilty. Hiding, you do.”
“Ain’t necessarily hidin’, white boy,” DeMarcus said, gesturing to the park around them, how open it all was, and putting on a fake black accent, perhaps trying to lighten his own mood.
DeMarcus expected Lyndon to grin, but he neither smiled nor responded to the quip. “Come on,” Lyndon said, managing to get up off the swing with some effort. He held out his hand to DeMarcus. DeMarcus looked at it, then back at Lyndon, and then grabbed the offered hand. “Might as well,” he said as he was being pulled to his feet. “I’m not accomplishing anything sitting here feeling sorry for myself. But don’t see how it’ll help any. It’ll just make the end come quicker.”
When they were walking back toward the school, DeMarcus asked, “How’d you find me, and how’d you get out of school?”
“I heard you’d run off. No way I was going to let you get away with that. I just took off and came looking for you. You’d always said you loved this park. I wasn’t about to go looking at the highway overpass or the bridge over the river or out by the quarry. You wouldn’t have done that, even if you’d felt like it.” Lyndon glanced over at him. “You know why?”
“’Cause of your mom, that’s why.”
“Guess you got me pegged.”
“Damn right I do.”
They walked in silence for a bit, and eventually, as unconcernedly as he could make it sound, Lyndon said, “So, tell me what happened in Miss Satterly’s room.”
The two boys met Principal Phillips in his office. Only the three of them were there. Lyndon had called the school before they reached it and asked to speak to him. It hadn’t appeared that would happen, what with the secretaries and assistants screening his calls and not feeling there was any need for a principal to take a phone call from a student. But Lyndon had been persistent and insisted he speak to Principal Phillips, saying that the call had to do with DeMarcus’ disappearance.
That had done the trick. Lyndon had told Principal Phillips that he was with DeMarcus and that DeMarcus wanted to speak to him, but only to him. Lyndon had told him that DeMarcus was easily intimidated by adults, and if there were several there when they spoke, DeMarcus would probably clam up. He said that if Principal Phillips wanted to hear what DeMarcus had to say, it should be just the three of them—that he himself would be with DeMarcus for moral support.
John Phillips didn’t hesitate for a moment. He was relieved DeMarcus was all right. What the boy had done was serious, and there would have to be serious discipline as a result, perhaps even expulsion, but DeMarcus was still a 15-year-old boy, and that had to be taken into account. As principal, he needed to know why the had behaved as he had. John had taken the time to check and found that DeMarcus had never had any kind of disciplinary problems in all his years in school, right from kindergarten till the present. He really needed to talk to the young man as a necessary first step for whatever came next.
The meeting in the School Superintendent’s office was different this time. More people were involved. Mark Rawlings announced, for the record, that those present besides himself were John Phillips; Ruth Hayes; Phyllis Satterly; Peter Chow, the school district’s attorney; Mrs. Hodges, the school nurse; Barb Thallinger; Thomas Madison, Darren Cassidy and DeMarcus Cullman, students of the high school and in Miss Satterly’s English class; and Lyndon Hatch, another Bordington High student.
Rather than sit around the conference table, the group was assembled in chairs in front of Mark Rawlings’ desk. The chairs were set in a wide semicircle.
Superintendent Rawlings began when everyone was seated. He turned to DeMarcus, who was sitting next to Lyndon in the center of the group, directly opposite Mr. Rawlings. “DeMarcus, it’s my understanding that your principal offered to have your mother here for this meeting, and that you said no, that she couldn’t be pulled away from her job. Is that still your preference?”
DeMarcus didn’t speak. He met Mr. Rawlings’ eyes, and he nodded.
“All right. It’s noted in the minutes of this meeting that the offer was made and rejected. Now, let’s begin.”
He surveyed the room, taking his time. Then he spoke. “We had a very serious event happen today. A teacher was knocked to the floor in her classroom when she was in the process of stopping a disturbance. The alleged person responsible was taken by the school nurse to the vice-principal, who questioned him and took him to the principal’s office. She left him unattended outside that office while she was inside, speaking to the principal, insisting the boy should be expelled and the police called—and, incidentally, doing so in a loud enough voice that the boy couldn’t help but overhear. DeMarcus was that boy. He did overhear, and he got up and left.”
“DeMarcus, would you like to explain why you did that?”
Mr. Rawlings’ voice was calm, and he spoke even softer as he spoke to DeMarcus. The boy met his eyes and shook his head.
Mr. Rawlings nodded. “I understand that DeMarcus is reluctant to speak in front of a roomful of adults. I do understand. I was like that as a teenager, too. DeMarcus has it even worse than I did; he finds it difficult to face an adult when they’re angry with him or even talking in a stern voice. He finds it almost impossible to speak up when a group of adults is watching him.”
Mr. Rawlings stopped to look around the room again, and his eyes stopped on Ruth Hayes. “Ms. Hayes, would you label the tone of your discussion with DeMarcus in your office as stern? Or perhaps even angry?”
Ms. Hayes sat up straighter and opened her mouth, but Mr. Rawlings stopped her with a short, “All I want is a yes or no, please, Ruth. I don’t need a lecture.”
Ms. Hayes scowled, but, seeing Mr. Rawlings’ less-than-friendly expression, cut her intended answer to a brief, “Yes.”
“Thank you, Ms. Hayes.” Mr. Rawlings returned to addressing the rest of the group. “That is why DeMarcus didn’t speak during his meeting in her office with Ms. Hayes. He wasn’t being defiant. He was merely being himself, reticent with an angry adult, and perhaps a little scared. Maybe intimidated is the right word. After all, she did tell him that it was quite possible he’d end up going to jail.”
Ms. Hayes didn’t show any signs of remorse. Her posture was rigid in her chair.
“Anyway, moving on. That doesn’t fully explain why DeMarcus left the administration office after overhearing Ms. Hayes saying what she said, and that she’d be happy to expel him herself. Both John and I wanted to know why he left. John found out why in a meeting we had earlier this afternoon with DeMarcus and Lyndon Hatch. DeMarcus has told John and has told me as well that he didn’t want to speak here. He said he wasn’t just shy, but that in front of a group like this one he gets tongue-tied and can’t find the right words. He feels it makes him look foolish. It’s also why he almost never speaks in class, even when asked to. He asked me if it was all right for Lyndon to speak for him. I thought that was an excellent idea; it allowed us to learn the truth without embarrassing DeMarcus or putting him on the spot; it allows DeMarcus’ explanation to be heard here as well. Lyndon, will you tell us why DeMarcus left school today?”
DeMarcus was intimidated by adults and groups. Lyndon was intimidated by neither. He wasn’t a large boy, but a rather normal 15-year-old. He was slender, about 5’ 8” in height, and not a bit muscular. But the size of a boy can be better measured by his heart and character. Lyndon had a quiet self-assurance and determination. Speaking the truth in front of this group, these people, was no problem for him at all, especially when he was defending DeMarcus.
“DeMarcus lives alone with his mother. They’re as tight together as anyone I’ve ever known. She works very hard to keep them going. She has a part-time job as a cashier at McDonald’s, another as a stock clerk at Walmart, and often at night is away babysitting. She has no benefits with any of her jobs. She has little ability to adjust to any interruptions in her schedule that will cut her hours. In the past, when she missed a day of work when she was in bed with the flu, she got fired. She tries not to miss any work any longer.”
Lyndon took a deep breath and continued. “If DeMarcus was suspended or expelled, she’d be called in to discuss it. DeMarcus didn’t want her to be called at work. He didn’t want her to lose time or get in trouble with her boss. He thought it better to just leave so that wouldn’t happen. He knew she couldn’t be called if he didn’t tell them where she was working today. She doesn’t have a cellphone. Neither does he. They don’t have a landline at home, either. Anything that costs money and isn’t necessary, they don’t have.
“They do have a plan. It’s simple enough: she’ll continue working like she is until DeMarcus graduates from high school. He’s trying to do that with a good enough record, both in academics and comportment, to get a full scholarship somewhere, one that’ll pay for everything. When he finishes college and gets a great job, for the first time things will become easier for both of them. That’s their plan. And they don’t let anything disrupt it.
Lyndon stopped and looked around the room. His gaze stopped with Ruth Hayes. “If you check DeMarcus’ record, he’s had four B’s and the rest A’s in all the time he’s been in this school system. If he’s expelled, all that will mean nothing. Their plan will fall apart.”
Lyndon stopped for a moment, then turned back to look at Mark Rawlings. “DeMarcus would never do anything like he’s being accused of. It’s not in his nature, and it would mean his mother would never get to have an easier life. He would not attack a teacher, and he didn’t today.”
After saying that, Lyndon reached over and took DeMarcus’ hand in his.
“Very well said,” Mr. Rawlings commented. He didn’t seem to notice that the two boys’ hands were clasped together. He looked around the room and finally stopped when he came to Miss Satterly. “Miss Satterly, I guess it’s your turn. Please tell us what happened in your classroom today that has bearing on why we’re all here. You may be brief.”
Miss Satterly cleared her throat. “As I’ve said before, there was noise in the back of my classroom involving DeMarcus, Thomas and Darren. I stopped it once, and when it happened again, I moved toward them to stop it again and have them leave my classroom. DeMarcus got up and approached me, looking angry, then came right at me with his arms up and knocked me to the floor. I was a little disoriented. Mrs. Hodges came in and helped me up. I had her take DeMarcus to Ruth Hayes.”
“Thank you, Miss Satterly. Again, it’s clear you didn’t see the need to discipline Thomas or Darren. No more than Ms. Hayes did.” He turned from her to the two boys sitting next to each other. They both appeared nervous. “You two seem to have come out of this scot free, hmm? But you’re not as innocent as these ladies seem to want to portray you. Are you?” His voice hardened. “Are you?” he repeated.
He was staring at both of them. As neither was addressed personally, neither of them saw a need to answer, and so neither did.
Mr. Rawlings stared a moment longer, then nodded. “We’ll come back to you two in a minute. Right now, we need to hear from someone we haven’t heard from before. Mrs. Hodges.” He turned to meet her eyes. “Could you tell us about your involvement in this? I’m only interested in the part where you were alone with DeMarcus.”
Mrs. Hodges was a petite young woman with a degree in nursing. She hadn’t been working in the school system long but loved what she was doing. She loved working with kids—big kids, certainly, as everyone in high school was hardly a child any longer, but to her, they were all kids. She had no problem telling her part of the story.
“DeMarcus walked out of the room with me. As you probably know, even though he’s not a large teenager, he’s still larger than I am. Taller and heavier. And he’d just knocked Miss Satterly down. So I suppose it would have been normal for me to be a little scared.”
She seemed to be talking to the group rather than exclusively Mr. Rawlings, as she was glancing around to the others as she spoke. Now she looked at him. “But I wasn’t. You see, I know DeMarcus. The first day of school, I was restocking my office and had an armful of supplies, walking in the corridor, and someone bumped me. Everything went flying. I stood for a moment looking at everything scattered on the floor and at the students walking past, most trying to avoid stepping on anything, but some enjoying kicking what was in front of them down the hall farther.
“But then someone asked me in a very soft voice if he could help. It was DeMarcus. He introduced himself, and then started wading into the stream of students, picking up my things. I joined in, and pretty soon we had everything. He carried what he had to my room and helped me put everything away. That was DeMarcus then, and it’s how he’s been with me ever since. He’s the most polite and self-effacing boy in the school, in my opinion.”
She said the last as though she expected someone to challenge her, but no one did. She looked at Mr. Rawlings, saw the beginnings of impatience, and hurried on.
“Today, when we left Miss Satterly’s room, he only took a few steps before stopping and almost collapsing onto the floor. I got down and maneuvered him so he was sitting with his back against the lockers that line the hall. He was crying.
“I tried to comfort him the best I could. We’re not supposed to touch the students. It’s an awful rule. If anyone needed touching right then, it was DeMarcus. All I could do, though, was speak to him, tell him things would get better, no matter what they looked like now—useless words like that.
“He eventually shuddered a couple of times, then wiped his eyes. He was going to get up, but I told him to stay there, and I sat down next to him. I couldn’t touch him, but I could show him some support. I sat down and asked him what had happened.
“He told me. It took a little time because he kept breaking down while doing it, but he told me. The condensed version is this.
“DeMarcus is gay. I’ve known that for some time. He came out to me early on when it was causing him some problems. He didn’t know how to tell his mother—he desperately didn’t want to disappoint her—and he needed an adult to talk to about it. We talked about it, quite a bit, actually. Then, one day, not long ago, he came to me with a huge smile on his face. He told me he had a boyfriend. Lyndon Hatch. He told me they were going to come out in school, that he was ready and Lyndon had always been ready. And last week, they did. They told the kids they eat lunch with and told them it was OK to tell others. That’s all it takes to come out at school. That sort of news spreads quickly.
“Anyway, that was last week. Today, in class, those two boys,” she stopped to point at Thomas and Darren, “started harassing him in class. He tried to ignore it. He told me he’d never been spoken to for disturbing a class. Never. But they were bothering him, saying really ugly things to him about doing things with other boys, being very graphic about the ‘things’, and finally he told them to shut up, to stop it. He said he was a little louder than he meant to be, but he was angry. That was what Miss Satterly heard, the first time she told them to stop.
“After that, the two boys got even worse. Thomas was sitting behind DeMarcus and began poking him in the ribs. Darren started rubbing his own crotch and making moaning sighs, then reached for DeMarcus’ crotch. DeMarcus pushed him away, but grunted loudly when Thomas poked him really hard.
“That’s when Miss Satterly approached them. DeMarcus got up from his seat to walk toward her. He told me he didn’t know what he was going to say, he was that upset, but that he was going to apologize and ask for a different seat. He didn’t want to tell on the other two boys. Boys don’t do that. But it ended up he never got the chance to say anything at all.”
She stopped and turned to look directly at Thomas and Darren. She spoke to them. “While he was walking toward Miss Satterly, one of you boys tripped him, and the other pushed him in the back. DeMarcus didn’t attack her. He fell into her because of what you two boys did. If anyone needs expulsion here, it is not DeMarcus!”
There was a general rising of voices at that, everyone speaking, Ruth Hayes’ voice dominating, but over the top of it, Mark Rawlings could be heard. He’d stood and was now pointing at the two boys. “You two, stay where you are. You’re in it now. You were going to let an innocent boy take the rap for you. You may have been just playing around, or it might have been more serious than that. I don’t know, but we’ll find out. You’d better believe we’ll find out!
“We won’t decide what to do with you right here, right now, not without your parents here listening to what you did. We’ll bring them in after this meeting, however, and question you separately so you don’t have a chance to hear what the other is saying. The one who tells the truth first will have his wrist slapped. The other might well be charged with a crime. Recklessness endangerment, conspiracy, causing a teacher to be knocked down—I’m sure the DA will come up with some more; he’s very good at that. He likes to try kids as adults, have them suffer adult penalties as an object lesson to other kids. You can stop looking at Ms. Hayes. She’s not going to help you. She’ll be on the other side. She’ll testify against you guys. You guys can both kiss the next few years goodbye, and if you get a criminal record, the rest of your life will be tainted as well.”
He was getting louder and louder, his face redder and redder. John Phillips watched and marveled at how his boss could put on such an effective act.
They’d talked after John’s meeting with DeMarcus and Lyndon. They knew Thomas and Darren had been the cause of DeMarcus falling into Phyllis Satterly. But they also knew if those two stoutly denied tripping and pushing DeMarcus as the boy claimed they’d done and couldn’t be made to budge, there’d be little that could be done. The word of two boys against one who needed his story to be believed to avoid expulsion would be hard to support. Ruth Hayes would make a real fuss if DeMarcus wasn’t expelled unless there was a solid reason not to. The two men couldn’t see any way around that and felt the only way out of this mess was getting the other two boys to admit what they’d done.
John had convinced Mark that the two boys would break if verbally attacked hard enough, and if there was a room full of adults seen as being against them, it would be all the harder on them. The trick would be to accuse them of more than just a prank, which it probably had been, and show them consequences that were worse than could actually be supported. John knew the two boys, had had them before him several times before and knew they lacked much fiber. If the two boys were to be made to confess, the way to achieve that would be for Mark to intimidate them into it.
Neither man much liked the idea, and there was no guarantee it would work, but if DeMarcus’ future depended on it, then so be it. The boys had caused the problem, and they were the ones to face the consequences.
When they’d hashed that out and Mark had been alone in his office, he’d thought long and hard about everything that he’d heard that day, not much liking the program ahead. Something had seemed off to him, something he’d heard earlier in the day, but he wasn’t sure what. He’d closed his eyes and gone over everything that had happened. Over and over again, he’d run through what he’d heard. When it finally had come to him, what had been bothering him, he’d picked up his phone and called John.
When John called him back, he finally had a clear picture of what had happened and had the lever he’d been looking for.
Mark continued to rail at the two boys. “You keep looking at Ms. Hayes, but she’s a school official. She’ll be on our side, and because you caused a teacher to be injured, when this goes to the criminal courts she’ll be testifying on our side. We’ll find someone in that class who’ll testify to seeing one of you push DeMarcus, maybe even someone who saw the trip. The jury will decide who was more culpable, the one who pushed DeMarcus or the one who tripped him. You’ll both probably do time in juvie, but I’d guess the one who pushed him will serve more time.”
He took a step out from behind his desk, closer to the boys. “No, Ms. Hayes won’t be helping you. She told us she doesn’t even know you boys, hasn’t in fact ever spoken to either one of you. If you’re counting on her to help, count again.” He paused and turned to his secretary. “Barb, will you read Ms. Hayes’ official comments at our meeting this morning?”
Barb Thallinger quickly found the right page in her steno pad; she’d been told to have it ready. She read from it:
“Ms. Hayes: ‘It was Darren Cassidy and Thomas Madison. I know them. Well, I don’t know them, really, I’ve never even spoken to them, but I do know who they are, and I know their parents.’”
Mr. Rawlings resumed his rant at the boys. “She doesn’t know you, hasn’t spoken to you, and only knows your parents. To keep her job here, she’ll throw you under the bus.” Mr. Rawlings turned his hard stare from the boys and onto Ruth Hayes. “Won’t you, Ms. Hayes?”
Ruth’s face was bright red. She looked first to Mr. Rawlings, then at the boys, then back to Mr. Rawlings, and said, “Uh, well, uh…”
She was interrupted at that point by Thomas Madison. He jumped to his feet and said, “Aunt Ruth! Tell them! We just did what you told us to. I don’t want to go to juvie! You said it was all right because he was a queer!”
When everyone had finally settled down, they were all excused except Ms. Hayes, John Phillips and Peter Chow. Mr. Rawlings told Ms. Hayes she was being suspended immediately pending an enquiry. As her conduct with respect to DeMarcus Cullman had been egregious, and as she’d lied to the School Superintendent in his official capacity and during a fact-finding session, termination was expected. Mr. Chow, the school district’s attorney, then spoke up. He told her she was not to return to the school, that her personal things would be gathered and sent to her. If she was found on school grounds, she’d be arrested for trespassing. He told her she was now dismissed and to please leave the room.
Ms. Hayes’ anger having returned and her head held high, she left, muttering on the way out something about how queer kids shouldn’t be allowed to contaminate the other kids in school, that they were an affront to God and all other decent churchgoing people, and all she had done was to try to rid the school of a faggot. She didn’t say any of it loud enough for either man to hear, however.
After the meeting was over and no one was left in the room other than Mark and John, the two men sat down, both looking tired. It had been a long day, and an emotional one.
Before the meeting, John had called Mark back after looking into what Mark had questioned him about on the phone. “You were right,” he’d informed his boss. “She is Thomas Madison’s aunt. She listed her church in her resume. It’s one of those evangelical ones that rails against homosexuals, against homosexual marriage, all that stuff. I guess when she heard DeMarcus was gay, she decided to go after him, and she had her nephew set him up. But how’d you figure out there was a connection?”
“I didn’t, really,” he’d answered. “I just thought something was wrong. I eventually remembered Phyllis Satterly saying the boys looked smug after DeMarcus had knocked her down. Why would they be smug? And then, after Ruth told us she didn’t know the boys at all, she called Thomas Tom. Everyone else has consistently called him Thomas. Why would she use a nickname for a boy she didn’t know? So I called you and had you check her and Madison’s files, and you found Madison had listed her as his aunt. I had no idea they’d be related but did suspect some sort of connection. It was clear she’d lied to us.”
Now, with the emotions of the dismissal of Ruth Hayes still raw, feeling too edgy to sit still, Mark stood up and stretched. “Thank God we got Thomas to give it up. We still needed their confession. I felt it would be easier if I showed them that she wouldn’t stand up for them. And it worked.”
DeMarcus walked into Miss Satterly’s class the next day with his head bowed, his eyes on the floor. He didn’t know what to expect but knew Miss Satterly could make his life miserable if she wished. Just making him stand and recite would about ruin him, and if he refused, he’d be in even more trouble.
He made his way to his seat in the back, noting that the seat next to him and the one behind were empty. He put his backpack on the floor under his desk and was about to sit down when he heard his name.
“DeMarcus, could you come up here, please?”
He looked up and saw Miss Satterly staring at him.
He tried to keep his face impassive. He felt his usual nerves kick in, knowing he’d be dealing with an adult who’d probably be quite unhappy when speaking to him. He walked back up to the front of the room. The other kids who were already in the room were watching.
Miss Satterly waited till he stopped in front of her. Then she spoke softly to him so only he could hear. “DeMarcus, I want to apologize. I think Mr. Rawlings was right. Yesterday, he told me I was a racist. I bristled when he said it, but then thought about it all day. I realized I do have some problems. They weren’t conscious ones, but I do have them. It’s so easy to lump all black people together and believe some of the stereotypes, but it’s also so wrong to do that. Wrong and unfair. I’ve done that, and I did it with you. You were black, there was a problem in the room, and I thought you were the one causing it. I had no reason to think that. You’ve never been a problem. Yet I automatically thought that. When you were walking toward me, looking angry, I was scared. I probably wouldn’t have been if it had been a white student. But that too is so very wrong. I’m having a hard time forgiving myself.”
She shivered suddenly, but stopped almost immediately and then continued. “But that’s my problem to solve. Beside just thinking about this, I also went and looked at your school records. You’ve never had less than an A in any English class you’ve taken. No one else in this class has performed that well. So what I’ve decided is this: you’re here to learn; you want to learn and to do well in this class. Most of the kids here just want to get through the class with a passing grade.”
She scowled, thinking about that. But then she smiled, a rarity indeed. “DeMarcus, I think our best student should be sitting up front. Statistics show that the farther a student sits from the front of the room, the lower their grade tends to be. I want to make sure you continue your string of A’s. I’m going to do all I can to make that happen. So I want you up front. And just so you know, I won’t ask you to speak. I would like you to raise your hand and participate, but I’ll leave that up to you. Maybe while I’m working on not having prejudiced views, you can be working on your courage to speak in class!”
DeMarcus was stunned. As she’d been speaking, he’d been raising his eyes to meet hers. Now, he smiled, and said in his soft voice, “Thank you, Miss Satterly. Maybe I will. I know I need to.”
“I need to change, too, DeMarcus. We can try together. You can help me as much as I can help you, and you can help me just by being yourself.”
After class, DeMarcus found Lyndon waiting near the door to the building. “How’d it go?” Lyndon asked, worried about how Miss Satterly might have treated him. There were many ways a teacher could make a student’s life hell.
DeMarcus grinned at him. “Me ’n Miss S is tight, bro.” Then he laughed, real delight in the sound of it.
Lyndon laughed, too, and said, “You really need to work on that street talk, De. It’s sad, really sad.”
DeMarcus laughed again, then put his arm around Lyndon’s shoulder as they pushed through the school door and walked out into the sunlight. It was a glorious spring day, and they both were in a mood to enjoy it.
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