Ex-principal offers a rare look inside troubled Southwest Early College Campus

05/30/2014 8:54 PM

06/03/2014 2:23 PM

The first bell hadn’t even rung.

It was day one in Ed Richardson’s first year as principal of Southwest Early College Campus, fall 2011, and there he was, summoned to the nurse’s office.

Looking at a teenage boy with a split lip, bloodied in a fight, in need of stitches.

All around, students by the hundreds were swarming off buses and passing through metal detectors.

The worst days would come later — in the just-ended school year — when twice the teenagers harmed under his watch were girls who were raped.

That would cost him his job — unjustly, he believes.

But it took no time his first day to begin to realize the breadth of the challenge in taking on what was then Kansas City Public Schools’ most troubled school.

In an interview, Richardson, 46, gave The Star a rare look inside a school whose struggles riddle the narrative of a district fighting to regain the city’s trust. Emails between Richardson and central office staff detail a difficult past year.

Richardson recalled the school filling with vibrant teens — most of them to flourish, many as emerging student leaders. But some would be tempted by the opportunities in its labyrinthine halls and secluded nooks and stairs behind too many weak or broken locks.

He recounted how he had raised concerns about security with central office administrators and how he had pushed back against the persistent transfer into Southwest of turbulent youths who had been dangerous in other schools.

The district on Friday issued a statement that said doors were functioning at Southwest, 6512 Wornall Road, and the school had enough security officers. The district blamed school personnel for failing to monitor hallways where one of the girls was attacked.

The statement said: “No other high school has been the scene of two rapes in one year.”

Richardson came to Kansas City from Arizona, where he was known as Yuma School District One’s “Fix-It Guy.”

He was the first of his family to earn a college degree. He walked into high-poverty schools in England and then in Arizona, knowing the hardships of a transient life, having attended 13 schools by his ninth-grade year.

One of those stops, when he was 6, shaped everything he has tried to do in education, Richardson said.

He was led into a first-grade classroom in the middle of the school year in Billings, Mont. — the latest stop for a nomadic family who followed his father’s wanderings, job to job.

He had set down his lunchbox and winter coat, watched by a room full of strangers’ faces, when the teacher without greeting marched him out and into the next classroom.

“You take this one,” the teacher told her colleague. “I took the last two.”

He went home after school cold and hungry because he had been too frightened to ask anyone to get his lunch and coat, left behind in the other classroom.

“I wanted a school where you feel welcome,” Richardson said. “Where you feel safe.”

In Yuma, he led elementary schools that had been performing poorly. Then the district called on him to fix a middle school in turmoil — its principal and vice principal fired.

But none of those tasks would compare to what awaited in Kansas City.

Richardson and his wife, Kim, had a new daughter and were looking to move closer to their families in Minnesota and Michigan.

Southwest, which had gone through three principals in a turbulent 2010-2011 school year, needed someone.

Long ago one of Kansas City’s proudest schools, Southwest had become the crucible where the mistakes in then-superintendent John Covington’s massive districtwide school closings plan came to a boil.

The district was unprepared for the nearly tripled enrollment that swarmed the school, and Southwest’s pain played out publicly with unyielding news of fights, fires and other disruptions. Richardson read all about it before he met with Covington.

“This was my next step up,” Richardson said. “I believed it could be conquered.”

His own background, he said, helped him understand the power in the students’ survival instinct.

“I wanted to understand their angst and their dreams and help them find how you move on.”

Most of the students at the school detested the disruptions as he did. Some complained to Richardson, when another day of trouble broadcast on police scanners brought out television cameras, that the media came only when there was trouble.

He asked them: “What are you going to do about this?”

Student leaders began organizing mentoring programs to help counsel the younger students, seventh- and eighth-graders, who were caught up in so much of the disruption.

This was the part of turning the school around that Richardson had imagined. Identifying student leaders. Making good teacher hires. Uniting with community groups and area churches to build an army of volunteer supporters.

Southwest’s Junior Army ROTC program was a model of community service. The school had more students than any other school on the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s student board of directors.

The school was — and is — full of good students, he said.

Together, Richardson thought, they had what they needed “to get it back to what we know it could be.”

Last August, two weeks into the school year, a vice principal from a charter high school called Richardson, he said.

The school had expelled two students, the woman said, “who should not be in any public school.”

They lived in Southwest’s attendance area and she warned that they might be headed Richardson’s way.

And so they came. One, however, left with his mother the moment she saw the other student was there. Richardson tried unsuccessfully, emails show, to get the district to take the other student into an alternative program.

“What’s the situation with (the student)?” Richardson asked on Aug. 29. “He showed up in school, again today, and got into a fight before school started.”

In its statement, the district said that students who live within a school’s attendance area will attend that school unless they are accepted at one of the district’s “signature” high schools, Lincoln College Preparatory Academy and Paseo Academy.

“As a neighborhood school, any child living in the SWECC attendance area is admitted,” the district wrote. “… There is no discretion to deny admission.”

Richardson hadn’t resolved the problem of the transfer students when the worst call yet, involving other students, came around noon that same day.

A 17-year-old girl was in the office, hysterical. She was a recent transfer, a district email shows. She had changed residences to escape a relative who was sexually abusing her.

“It was one of the most tragic things you’ll ever deal with,” Richardson said.

Two teens, 14 and 15, had called to the girl in the hallway after lunch. They broke through a set of auditorium doors, Richardson said, and dragged her inside. They carried her through the empty auditorium and up a staircase beside the stage to a small storage room.

The attack set off a series of actions reviewing the building’s security weaknesses. District officials walked through the building, emails show, noting faulty or missing locks, reaffirming procedures for securing doors and clearing halls, and outlining measures to make sure all cameras were functioning.

The size of the security force also was a concern. An email from Richardson in November to central office administrators said, “We are down a security (officer) again today and are told there is no support from (district) patrol. Being that we are already short an officer, we have a skeleton crew. … This building is too large (for) three security officers.”

The district said in its statement that at the time of the second assault, Southwest had five security officers and one supervisor, plus two school resource officers — the same as other district high schools except for Lincoln and Paseo, which have fewer officers.

That’s not how Richardson remembers it. Even when the security staff was at full strength, he said, Southwest had four security officers, not five. With one manning the front door, that left three to patrol the building, he said. The school resource officers were not patrolling hallways, he said.

Other emails showed recurring problems, including the school’s inability to remove a student who had threatened violence on one of the assistant principals and had been “aggressively chasing girls around the gym and hallway.” In the interview, Richardson said the student sang a rap song about putting a bullet in the assistant principal’s head “and had the means to do it.”

Lampposts, stolen during the previous spring break, had still not been replaced and winter darkness was setting in. Plans to replace the school’s unreliable phone system kept getting delayed.

At 7:43 a.m. April 2, Richardson emailed about another set of auditorium doors similar to the ones that he said had been breached during the first rape in August.

“We are still waiting on the auditorium doors,” the note said. “We thought that a sexual assault would have expedited a resolution. I need your help to get this done. We have doors that we are unable to secure.”

Within an hour, Richardson was called to the office and heard that a 14-year-old girl at Children’s Mercy Hospital earlier that morning had reported sexual assaults at Southwest.

A 14-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl had, as Superintendent Steve Green would describe it, “conspired to dodge” the school’s security measures.

The two students slipped away from lunch with the girl, ascended a stairway to an empty gym and gained access to an alcove at the end of a hall, where, authorities allege, the 14-year-old boy sexually assaulted the victim while the 13-year-old girl stood lookout.

“It was apparent that the doors that were to remain locked and monitored by staff were not monitored,” the district said. “Had the adults charged with the task of locking, unlocking and monitoring entrance to the area followed the protocols, the alarms would not be necessary. All doors implicated in either incident were functioning.”

Suggesting that weak or broken doors had anything to do with the assaults “is nothing short of a red herring,” the district said.

But Richardson said locks on doors to the gym were broken. He said the attack occurred while the next hour’s classes were in session, so teachers were in their classrooms, not monitoring the halls.

One day later, Richardson and two staff members were placed on administrative leave. Three more staff members were put on leave the next day.

Richardson hoped to come back, and he thinks his staff members should be allowed to return. A few dozen members of churches that have been supporting the school turned out at a board meeting Wednesday night to rally for Richardson.

But he said recent meetings with district counsel and human resources have made it clear that the district is not returning him to Southwest.

The district confirmed Friday that his contract was not renewed.

“I’m in shock,” Richardson said, recalling his reaction to the news that a second girl had been assaulted. “I can’t believe this has happened. You want to find out what happened. Is the girl all right? What do we need to do? We’ve got to protect our kids better than this.”

The building needed more security, he said. It needed doors secured. Those measures, he said, had to be executed from the central office.

“Those are not things those teachers (who were put on leave) can control,” he said. “Those are not things I can control.”

The district has added security protections since April 2, including attaching alarms to some doors.

The girl who was victimized, who was described as being autistic in police reports, needed to be better supervised in the passing time between lunch and class. The route that was taken and the doors that were breached, as best as Richardson knows, had not been identified among the school’s security problems.

The district administrators speaking with Richardson did not fault him for any specific failures, he said, but held him responsible as the building’s principal.

Accountability could be handled different ways, he said. “You can cause heads to roll, or you can make changes so this doesn’t happen again.”

The district has taken the first route, and he hopes it will succeed in the second.

“I want the best for the kids,” he said. “I want them to have a safe place where they can learn and be successful. Not only at Southwest, but all the schools.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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