When the teacher sent home a note saying Cheryl Burns' daughter was playing with her hair instead of learning, Burns sat down, spelling book in her lap, and set to work. After a few weeks of drilling the bright but bored little girl, she stopped short. "I didn't know how to help her connect those words to anything that would make sense to her," she recalls. "I could've drilled her till I was dead. There had to be a better way."
In that frustrated moment, Burns realized that she wanted to become a teacher. Her husband promised that as soon as his Navy duty ended and they returned to St. Louis, she could earn her education degree. She took a few courses in California, biding her time, and finally they came home -- and he left her.
She was 40, a single mom with three children and a burning desire to teach. "I told the kids, 'We can be really, really poor for three years, while I finish this degree, or I can go take a job at Kmart and we'll be less poor for longer. I need to know how much you guys can handle' -- and they said, 'Go for it,'" she says, smiling widely at the memory. "I went through school on food stamps, and they did the laundry while I studied."
In 1998 she walked across the University of Missouri-St. Louis commencement stage, cap tassel swinging, the world in the palm of her hand. She applied to her first choice, the challenged St. Louis Public Schools, and, glory of glories, was hired to teach English at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, a magnet school.
Burns showed up that first humid August day in dressy slacks and a light wool jacket. The other teachers were still in shorts, because the kids weren't back yet. "I'd gotten all gussied up for nothing," she chuckles, "but I didn't even care. I had this very serious dream of incorporating myself with the black kids and the white kids alike. When the kids came back, they called me 'white bread,' all the usual stuff, and I told them I was rather unsure of my ancestry, so they might refer to me as 'wheat.'" She also gave them her home phone number -- the only teacher in the building brave enough -- and set some expectations. "They knew I loved them a lot," she says, "but I also told them, 'I will flunk you with a smile on my face and love in my heart, because I will not set you out into the world stupid.'"
At the end of her first year, she had top marks on her teaching evaluations and the frank adoration of her students, who voted her best teacher in the school in an unofficial poll. The next August, she showed up eager to start the new year -- but couldn't find her name on the sign-in sheet. "We thought you weren't coming back," she was told. Disconcerted, she waited while administrators investigated what turned out to be a bureaucratic mixup.
A bald, middle-aged man was sitting in the main office, doling out keys, and he saw tears in her eyes. Burns took the man's solicitousness as pure kindness and thanked him warmly when he offered her a little white "worry ball" to squeeze when she felt stressed. But later that day, when he asked whether she still had the ball and she thanked him again, she says he told her not to worry: It would give him pleasure to think of her squeezing one of his balls.
She looked up sharply, shocked to her West Virginia roots. Who was this guy?
Gary Stevenson, media coordinator. A mechanical genius, brilliant with sound equipment, musical instruments, cars and computer databases, he did lots of favors for people, changing their tires or fixing their equipment, yet had a reputation for lording it over students and teachers alike. He'd been at the school for more than a decade and hadn't taught in years, but he'd alienated a succession of teachers in his department, reportedly yelling at them in front of students and subverting their projects. He now spent a lot of time monitoring the halls and often referred to "my hall" or "my cafeteria," stressing that he was "not there to be a friend to students."
Stevenson took to greeting Burns early each morning when she arrived, calling down the empty hall from his hall-supervisor's desk. Burns remembers him calling things like, "Why don't you come down here and talk to me?"; "You're always busy!"; "You still squeezin' that ball?"; and, plaintively, "You got something against me?" She smiled and waved but never approached. The last time he called to her, he caught her in the stairwell and asked why she was so snobby and always busy. "I am busy," she replied. "I'm here to do a job, and that is what I'm going to do."
He stopped speaking to her. She had to ask him, repeatedly, for classroom keys (he controlled all building keys). The second time she asked, she says he snarled, "I can't do much unless I know your room numbers." When she returned with a list, he watched her approach, "waited until I was approximately 10 feet away, then slammed the door." When she tried the handle, it was locked.
Another day, she came upon a student shaking a can of orange soda vigorously while the other kids laughed. She told them to get along to lunch, but the student with the soda said, "Fuck you, bitch," and flipped the top, spraying sticky orange soda all over the hall. Then he ran into the cafeteria and, when she followed, cursed her again. She asked Stevenson to radio security or come with her to get the student, and he held his hand up like a cop to halt her request, reminding her that his job was only to "monitor the hall."
Around the same time, she says, Stevenson began coming upstairs during her second-floor hall duty and staring at her. OK, she was sensitive -- maybe she was imagining the attitude? But when Smitty, the guard at the back entrance, glanced up and said "Hey, baby girl," every morning, it didn't bother her one whit. This felt different. And it gave her the willies.
In January 2000, Central's new principal arrived: It was John Niemeyer, who'd worked there years before and knew Stevenson well. At the first faculty meeting, Niemeyer announced that Stevenson would now be head of all art departments -- a position that, on the school flowchart, put him even with the assistant principal. According to the faculty, his responsibilities still centered around supervising the hall, ordering supplies, overseeing budgets and controlling the building keys -- except that now he also busied himself reminding everyone of his close friendship with the principal. Some say he even carried around a piece of paper listing teachers he said were on Niemeyer's "hit list."
He also resumed calling out to Burns in the morning. She avoided him as best she could; she was a probationary teacher, contracted to Central, and she didn't want to get on anybody's bad side. But when she went to her graduate course at UM-St. Louis, there he was, enrolled in a class right down the hall. She says he came up to her in the snack lounge and told her he was the principal's best friend and that she should stick with him, then leered at her and said he'd asked her professor about her. One day at school, she says he put his arm around her and said, "Baby, I'm sorry I won't be able to meet you at the lounge tonight." She shook his arm off and glared at him. Another time he implied that he'd checked with her professor about her "quitting" class (she'd missed a few classes because of illness).
In late May, she remembers, he came into her classroom, looking her up and down and saying, "I need you," eyebrow arched. The kids craned their necks to see what would happen next. He explained that he needed to see her keys. She says when she lifted them from around her neck, he grinned and said he could have "checked them out" in place. Sighing, she placed her keys on the desk, but before she could retract her hand, she says, he grabbed it and squeezed it. Two days later, she says, he came in to do a key check, saw Burns and said, "Oh, hi. I did already do you, didn't I?" Then he burst out laughing, saying, "You did know I was talking about keys, didn't you?"
Burns was tough in many ways, but she was emotional, too; trusted readily; wore her heart on her sleeve and couldn't help reacting to everything that happened to her. She went further to avoid Stevenson, even ducking into the stairwell so she didn't have to pass him. By March, her monthly periods had stopped cold. She thought it was simply her age -- she was 45 -- but her doctor suggested stress. When, in the camaraderie of their furtive smoking breaks, she tentatively confided in a few other teachers, they urged her to "file a charge -- this guy's done this to all kinds of people" and counted off five female teachers who'd left the school at least in part because of Stevenson.
Burns didn't want to complain, not as a probationary teacher and not about something so vague. But then she learned Stevenson would be acting as assistant principal for the summer and she'd be teaching summer school.
On Monday, June 5, she and Margaret Campbell -- head of the social-studies department and building steward for the AFL-CIO Local 420 -- sat down with Niemeyer and told him the whole story. They say he listened to every word, professed to be shocked, insisted he and Stevenson weren't close friends; he'd just done the guy's taxes and built his back steps, nothing that would stand in the way of justice. They say he promised to suspend Stevenson and investigate.
That Wednesday, Burns' phone rang around 9 a.m. It was Niemeyer, announcing that they'd be meeting again at 10 that morning; he'd tried to reach Campbell but she wasn't home; Burns would have to meet with him alone. (Campbell says she returned home from a haircut to find a panicky, "I guess I'll go anyway" message from Burns and nothing more. "I have Caller ID and an answering machine," she says, "and there was no record of a call from Mr. Niemeyer.")
Burns, meanwhile, had the presence of mind to call the union's field rep, Demo DuBose, who met her at Central. Niemeyer told them he hadn't actually talked with Stevenson yet but still intended to investigate. Burns left wondering why they'd met.
Then she waited.
Stevenson was at school every day. None of the people whose names Burns had given Niemeyer -- Margaret Campbell; Jo-Ann Ganschaw, the English-department head; Kevin Cook and Donna Shrader, photography teachers on Stevenson's floor -- was ever questioned. In late June, DuBose wrote Cleveland Hammonds Jr., superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, and noted that Stevenson hadn't been suspended and the union had never received a report of any investigation. DuBose had before him a fat file of prior complaints about Stevenson; he says problems have continued through four principals yet nothing's ever been done. "The other complaints were not sexual harassment," he says, "but about how he talked to people, and some of the crazy things he would do, walking in and out of classrooms, upbraiding the teachers."
Stevenson could not be reached for comment, and the school district will not discuss personnel matters. But quite a few teachers speak angrily of Stevenson's attitude. "He insulted the kids, too," says Margaret Strong, who used to teach Spanish at Central. "He'd pick the kids he knew wouldn't fight back. He told one little girl her art was grotesque." Students put their ears to the wall to hear him yelling, says a teacher who still works at Central; another reportedly hurled a book at him and told him to get out of her classroom; a third seriously considered flipping burgers instead of returning the next fall to endure his comments. Several tell stories of their supply orders' vanishing mysteriously. "He's bullied and mistreated and done very mean-spirited things to numerous people," says a fourth teacher. "He clearly doesn't see himself the way others see him." A fifth, asked whether all the petty slights add up to any real damage, says simply, "He shatters your confidence. It's his way or no way."
"Stevenson's somebody you're warned about when you first arrive," says a sixth teacher. "I've never experienced a human being like him. He picks on people who really don't have the power to do anything, like new teachers, and his whole thing is catching you alone. He'll corner you and yell at you, insult you, humiliate you, whatever he can get away with. I've run into kids who graduated, and they say, 'Does that bald-headed motherfucker still work there?' This guy has nothing to do with teaching children. It's all about himself."
When summer school started, Burns began finding her classroom windows left open, the air conditioning turned off. She went to get a box of poems she'd paid to have Xeroxed and found it missing. Students couldn't be blamed; she kept her classroom door locked. But Stevenson had a key to every room in the building.
She mentioned her suspicions to the other teachers, who told her she wasn't the first to wonder. "It happens," says one teacher, "but it's not anything you can prove. Something just shows up missing -- and sometimes it'll be returned later." One of the teachers who left was convinced Stevenson had come in and erased her computer files; another once deliberately placed the objects on the desk a certain way, as a test and, sure enough, found them disarranged. Yet when Burns told Niemeyer what was happening to her, he seemed more inclined to blame one of the custodians.
Exasperated, Burns met with the executive director of human resources for the district, David Flieg, on July 13. He promised to conduct his own investigation, but four days later, called Burns to say Niemeyer had investigated and had already forwarded the report to Hammonds.
On July 28, Burns received a terse letter from Hammonds saying that after reviewing Niemeyer's report and instructions to Stevenson, he, too, had "made it clear to Mr. Stevenson, in writing, that he is to cease and desist all inappropriate behavior. You are directed to report to the principal if you experience any difficulty with Mr. Stevenson."
Burns felt her stomach sink. Report back to Niemeyer?
The new school year started. Caught by the fresh chalk, empty bulletin boards and waiting faces, Burns tried to forget Stevenson altogether. But when a teacher complained of neck pain, she suggested a gadget her kids had bought her for Christmas -- a rope with two handles and rollers to massage your neck -- and says Stevenson interjected, "That sounds too good; I'm afraid I'd have to have a cigarette after that" -- then laughed and hiked up his pants.
By now she'd begun receiving hangup calls at home: collect calls from pay phones in Maplewood, Richmond Heights and South City. "I'd pick up the phone, and it'd say, 'This is AT&T with a collect call from -- We're sorry. The calling party has hung up. You will not be billed for this call.'" Other odd things were happening, too -- garbage stolen, a rock placed in front of her screen door, loud banging on the door at 3 a.m. but nobody there when she opened the door. She asked her neighborhood police about it, and they promised to keep an eye out. They also told her the collect pay-phone calls were an old trick to make a call untraceable.
Her students had her phone number, she mused. But so did Stevenson. In fact, he'd insisted on taking it, she recalled, for a student who needed to miss Burns' class, even though both Burns and the student told him she already had the number.
In November, she found that the decorative trash cans bequeathed to her by a previous teacher were missing, along with a thermal coffee mug and a TV cable, and the files on her desk had been rummaged through and scattered. She says she dutifully reported each incident in writing to Niemeyer, copying the memos to Campbell or the EEOC. "I am very tired, Mr. Niemeyer," she ended her Nov. 16 letter. "The pettiness of these incidents is making me frustrated, distracted and physically ill. I am tired of coming to work and wondering what sort of irritation I will encounter at the hands of an idiot. I would sincerely appreciate it if you would look into this matter."
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, she says, she walked into her classroom and found everything on her desk cleared away, leaving a big empty spot in the middle. Her son's photograph had been removed from its frame and placed in the center of that empty spot. Other teachers tried to console her, telling her it was a typical "mind game," but she lost it. "What if he's a nut?" she asked Campbell. "Nobody's ever made him this mad before. What if he hurts my son?" By that evening, she was at St. John's Mercy Medical Center, vomiting and crying. "You're one step from a nervous breakdown," announced her physician, Dr. Cindy Barter, who put her on medical leave through June.
On Nov. 28, Burns wrote Niemeyer explaining how the lack of resolution and continued stress had affected her. He replied with a cold letter: "First, you have not brought any harassment issues to my attention this school year. I have no knowledge of what assistance you expect to receive." Burns wanted to scream. She'd copied other people with those memos, but how could she prove she'd slid one into his mailbox and left a second on his desk?
(Another teacher had left Central in a similar state the year before; colleagues say she was having emotional problems already, but they built to a crescendo when Stevenson started coming into her classroom and yelling at her in front of her students or walking into the adjoining bathroom and yelling, "Who pissed on the toilet seat?" while she was trying to hold class. "She was a very vulnerable human being," says former colleague Donna Shrader, "but somebody was pushing her buttons. One day she actually said to me, 'I know I could get well if it wasn't for Stevenson.'")
The district was not paying Burns during her unofficial medical leave -- they hadn't even sent her a form to request official leave yet -- but they did offer to let her keep her health insurance while they again "investigated." They took statements from Stevenson, two assistant principals and the third-floor custodian, who made a furious protestation of innocence. They also called the four people who'd seen Burns immediately after various incidents -- Campbell, Cook, Ganschaw and Elliot Simpson -- downtown to give statements.
Campbell gave her statement with the crispness of a woman who's spent 34 years bringing order out of high-school chaos. But when the district gave her a typed copy of her statement to sign, she looked at it in amazement. "I took a red pen and started to correct it, and I gave up," says Campbell. "I felt it was distorted."
Not one of the four felt they could sign their statement as they stood.
Meanwhile, Shrader, an award-winning journalism teacher who had her own run-ins with Stevenson before leaving Central last May, says she called the office three or four times asking to give a statement but that no one ever returned the calls.
Shrader's problems with Stevenson started when he wanted her to learn to use a mom-and-pop printing press and crank out the school newspaper and yearbook herself. "I know this is going to disappoint you, but I'm not a printer," she finally told him. She says he then refused to give her the printer's name or address, just told her to give him the proofs and he'd get them back to her. When yearbook time came, she says, Stevenson, furious at what he perceived as lavish expense, "stopped speaking to me and started harassing my kids. One young woman had written a story I was editing, and we got to talking and she was close to being late for her next class, so I walked her down the hall and used my elevator key so she didn't have to run up four flights. Stevenson was sitting in the hall -- he must have seen me -- but after I walked back to my classroom, he stopped that kid, accused her of stealing an elevator key, dragged her to the office and had her written up."
Then came the mystery of the missing yearbook photos. "I finally called the company, and they said they'd sent them 10 days earlier. So I asked the custodian, and he told me Stevenson, whose office is next to the back door where they make deliveries, had taken them, saying he'd get them to me." Shrader convinced the yearbook company to reproduce the pictures free of charge, watched the back door like a hawk and snagged them. One day she complained to Niemeyer about the loss of the first set. He slid open a drawer and said, "Oh, these? I knew they were misplaced, and I, uh, went on a search for them."
Meanwhile, the photos had been printed too dark, so the company agreed to print them yet again -- and yet again, they vanished. "I was livid," recalls Shrader. "I went in to Niemeyer, yelling, 'You and I both know what happened to those pictures!'" She says Niemeyer didn't respond, just nodded, and a few days later brought her the missing photos. The students finished the layout barely in time, Shrader paying out of her own pocket to FedEx them to the printer. "Anything Stevenson could do to undermine you, he did it," she says now. "And I've seen him put his arms around 14-, 15-year-old girls and say things like, 'Oh sweetie, if you were just a little bit older.' The kids don't even like the man."
On Dec. 18, Burns wrote Hammonds by registered mail, because she wasn't convinced he'd ever heard the full story. After recapping, she added that a student had informed her of rumors that Niemeyer and Stevenson had been in trouble with the district in the past and were never supposed to work together again.
The letter was indeed signed for, but with an indecipherable signature that looked nothing like "Cleveland Hammonds." Flieg, however, called immediately to suggest they settle matters. They met on Jan. 2, and he offered her a transfer to another high school (yes, he knew she was on medical leave and couldn't work, but they'd wait). Then he sent her a letter, enclosing the request-for-leave-of-absence form she'd been requesting for weeks. "Be assured," he closed, "I will continue to investigate your concerns."
In early March, the district sent the EEOC the information they'd requested the previous fall. Burns went eagerly to the investigator's office, curious to see the "investigation report," but it wasn't in the file. All she saw were documents that had been supplied by her. Apparently the district had forgotten to include the report. The investigator called again, eventually received it, and relayed the gist to Burns: Stevenson had denied all charges, and the one possible witness, an assistant principal who might have overheard the "ball-squeezing" comment, didn't remember.
According to Chester Edmonds, spokesman for the district, "The superintendent asked that that situation be investigated. The investigation did not result in a finding of blame. He personally wrote a letter to both people involved, ordering a cease-and-desist and asking that the complaining teacher let him know of any future concerns. And that did not happen."
In point of fact, the letter had directed Burns to report future concerns to Niemeyer, not Hammonds -- and she says she not only did that but wrote Hammonds by registered mail, then left several phone messages begging to talk to him before she went to the press. She says he never returned the calls.
On March 15, Burns went back to Central to clean out her classroom. Feeling like a soldier stripped of rank, she slowly pulled down all the motivational posters and boxed up the poems and novels. When her students ran up to ask her where she'd been and why she'd left them, she wasn't sure what to say.
The next day she received a letter confirming her unofficial unpaid leave of absence and instructing her to apply for reassignment elsewhere.
Stevenson remains at Central, still watching the halls.