After nearly a year of legal wrangling in federal court, the Normandy School District has agreed to pay $70,000 to a former instructor at Normandy Senior High School who claimed he lost his job because the school's principal believed he wrote an anonymous letter accusing the principal of improper behavior with female students.
Still, Horace Humphries, a retired career military man who oversaw Normandy High's Air Force ROTC program for seven years until his contract was not renewed in 2000, says he's less than happy with the outcome. Humphries had hoped his lawsuit might prompt the school district to rethink Principal Alvin Smith's employment. That hasn't happened. "They are insistent on protecting him at all costs," Humphries says. "Nobody has really cared about what is happening to those little girls, and that is my biggest concern. Nobody cares about what is happening to the kids."
The controversy began in the fall of 1999, when someone mailed a four-page missive to then-Missouri Education Commissioner Robert Bartman. The letter claimed that Smith had impregnated a high-school student early in his teaching career, had been "released" from an assistant-principal job at another school district after struggling with a cocaine problem, and had, more recently, been accused by two female students of improper contact or comments.
Bartman concluded that his office had no legal authority to investigate, but he forwarded the letter to Normandy Superintendent Raymond Armstrong, who hired a law firm to look into the letter's claims. During a two-week period, a paralegal made some inquiries but says she was unable to substantiate any of the most recent claims involving teenage students after her phone calls to the girls' homes went unreturned. She did not investigate the earlier accusations involving the pregnant student and the drug abuse. Smith himself, however, admitted to the Riverfront Times last year that he had impregnated a high-school senior in 1979 while he was a gym teacher at a St. Louis high school and that he had undergone a yearlong treatment program for a substance-abuse problem in the early 1990s. But those disclosures apparently did not trouble his employers. The district considered the matter closed, and the superintendent praised Smith's work as principal, calling him an "outstanding leader" [Higgins, "The Scarlet Letter," RFT, June 28, 2000].
Humphries says that although the district's inquiry into the matter ended in November 1999, his problems were just beginning. A retired U.S. Air Force colonel who built Normandy's ROTC program from scratch, he says other teachers began telling him that Smith suspected him of writing the letter, though Humphries flatly denies doing so. A month later, Humphries received his first unsatisfactory performance review from Smith. And in January 2000, he began getting letters from the principal, criticizing him for a variety of things such as talking on the phone after the school bell rang, even when he was speaking with a parent. Humphries, whose $52,000-a-year job was funded partly by the school district and partly by the Air Force, hired a lawyer because he knew the school had sole authority to terminate his employment. Last April, he was notified that his contract would not be renewed for the 2000-01 school year.
He responded by filing a lawsuit in federal court. The suit accused the district of conducting a "sham" investigation intended to whitewash the wrongdoing of Alvin Smith. It accused the district of negligence for hiring a "sex offender." It claims that the district, in its investigation, was more concerned with ferreting out the letter's author than determining the truthfulness of the allegations. It sought lost wages by Humphries, plus unspecified damages for emotional distress, humiliation and embarrassment.
The two sides agreed to a settlement in April. Humphries, however, says things didn't turn out as he had hoped, because Smith is still principal at Normandy High. "This man is an admitted drug abuser who had a child with a former student," Humphries says, "and nobody seems to care."
The school district referred all questions to its lawyer, who downplayed the significance of the settlement.
In addition to the $70,000 payment, the school district agreed to write a letter, signed by the superintendent, detailing the accolades and high ratings the Normandy High ROTC program received under Humphries' leadership. It also agreed to write a letter to ROTC supervisors at Maxwell Air Force Base, near Montgomery, Ala., requesting that the Air Force return some letters that had been sent by the district with some of Humphries' reviews -- letters that Humphries believes were critical of his work.
"We want them back," says Kenneth Gibert, Humphries' attorney. "The school wrote a letter saying Col. Humphries hadn't done a good job, and the net effect of that was to start a process that could have resulted in decertifying Col. Humphries from his ability to run an ROTC program."
Gibert says he is relatively satisfied with the outcome. "It shows you can stand up to somebody like the school district and make them pay. It is an amount that indicates some serious concern on the part of the school. In my opinion, it's an amount of money that recognizes the school faces serious trouble if it goes to trial."
Unfortunately, Gibert says, "We wanted Alvin Smith to have to face some accountability, but you can't in a lawsuit force them to fire him ... I think almost all of the allegations in the letter were true. We had people who substantiated almost everything in that letter." Smith himself wasn't deposed as part of the lawsuit, but Gibert is also representing another former Normandy High employee, a secretary, who was questioned as part of the Smith investigation and has since been reassigned to another school.
"That lawsuit has many of the same allegations, and we will continue to explore and expose Alvin Smith where we can, and the school district," Gibert says. "I've become more and more convinced the school district is deeply complicit in all of this."
Superintendent Armstrong referred calls to Melanie Keeney, a lawyer with the firm Mickes, Tueth, Keeney, Cooper, Mohan & Jackstadt, which represented the Normandy School District in the lawsuit. She notes that the settlement included an agreement by Humphries never to apply for work there again. And she stresses that the $70,000 is not coming out of the school district's coffers. "The district is not going to be out any funds, since the insurance company agreed to pick up the cost," she says.
"The district has absolutely no concerns about Mr. Smith continuing as principal," Keeney says. "Given where we were in the litigation and the costs associated with proceeding, the district felt it would be prudent to settle the case, especially given the insurance company's position on this matter ... The district continues to deny wrongdoing, but sometimes you have to take into account the entire cost picture, especially given what they're supposed to be doing, which is educating children."