"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Dr. King's words are as important and poignant today as they were during the Civil Rights era. So let's not kid ourselves, what has happened to Cleveland Elementary School's principal, Dr. Francine Williams, is a case of injustice.
While I do not want to imply in any way that my perspective is more important than that of any other parent, I do have quite a unique perspective. I am a former student of the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD), a parent of children who have attended or are currently attending Cleveland, a teacher in the PUSD, and a teacher who taught at Cleveland Elementary just before the arrival of Dr. Williams.
When I taught at Cleveland in the late 1990's, the school was not nearly at the level that it is today. The cliché inner-city school was more of a reality. The physical setting itself was mostly barren, and truthfully, the campus was quite ugly. Overall, the behavior was completely unacceptable and the level of academics seriously lacking. The sentiment among staff was also ugly. The proverbial "teacher lounge" was prevalent. The feeling that "these" kids were incapable and that "these" parents were uncaring know-nothings was not uncommon.As Dr. Williams took control, change was quickly evident. Flowers and trees began to replace dirt patches. Dr. Williams involved the community in beautifying the campus, providing tutoring, and giving awards. The transformation that was taking place was worthy of its own movie. But, the changes were incomplete. Yet in her own quiet way, Dr. Williams continued on the movie script.
The idea that the children and their families are the problem persisted among many staff members at Cleveland Elementary. This sentiment, this feeling is prevalent in marginalized communities. The industrial prison complex thrives in an environment that sees people of color as the problem in society and in need of punishment. This mentality certainly extends to schools populated by poor Black and Brown children. Despite this pervasive belief, Dr. Williams never allowed discipline at Cleveland to center around extreme forms of punishment. She made every effort to keep children at school and make suspensions a last resort. Her first concern was the well being of each and every child and each and every family.
For her effort at compassion, Dr. Williams got a target on her back. Many staff members did not believe in her approach, and demanded suspensions. Their lust for castigation was unrelenting. Dr. Williams would not give in, and these other voices coalesced to bring an end to the tenure of Dr. Williams at Cleveland Elementary.These people took any and every opportunity to complain to the Board of Education. They attempted to paint Dr. Williams as ineffective, and as doing nothing to discipline children. Nevertheless, perhaps one of the most appalling aspects of this debacle is that they used the people of the community to achieve their wicked agenda. Some Black parents were led to believe that their children were treated unfairly. They were led to believe that the school would do nothing to help Black children, and that Brown children were favored. Amazingly, some Brown families were led to believe that nothing was being done to help Brown families while Black families were favored. Black and Brown families were being pitted against each other.
All this had the effect of wearing down Dr. Williams. For years, she had to put up with people undermining her authority and making a never-ending stream of baseless accusations and frivolous complaints. As Dr. Williams put it herself when she spoke in front of the Board, in America you are innocent until proven guilty. However, Dr. Williams was assumed guilty based on mere accusations.
Most parents did not know the extent of what was being done to Dr. Williams. Dr. Williams was much too humble to seek help from parents and much to classy to out the people that were behind this effort. However, when parents did find out, they demanded answers. They showed up at the last Board of Education meeting to express their disdain at the removal of Dr. Williams, and to express their appreciation for everything Dr. Williams has done. This group included both Brown and Black families.
This multicultural group of families spoke passionately about the kind of principal Dr. Williams has been and how the school has improved tremendously under her leadership. The parents spoke of how she has worked tirelessly to bring community resources. They spoke about how their children are recognized and rewarded for their accomplishments. They spoke about how the physical environment is much more appealing, and how Dr. Williams has always made them feel welcomed at school. One parent in particular spoke about how his son was not given an opportunity to succeed at another school. He told of how his son has now found success because of the discipline plan that Dr. Williams implements at Cleveland Elementary. Under the leadership of Dr. Williams, this work has been accomplished despite those that have been so willing to undermine her work and her leadership.
The group of parents that spoke at the Board of Education meeting dispelled the false notion that Dr. Williams is ineffective and that she does nothing. They spoke using facts, not innuendos or false claims. And, these facts continue. The fact remains that Cleveland has been improving academically, as judged by the results of state testing. The fact remains that Dr. Williams has the love, admiration, and support of those that count the most; the families of Cleveland Elementary.
Despite all the good work that Dr. Williams had done, it appears that the forces of injustice have won. Dr. Williams has "chosen" to leave Cleveland Elementary. Those that had an agenda succeeded in wearing down someone as noble and selfless as Dr. Williams. However, their campaign is not over. These same people have now begun to target supporters of Dr. Williams. I fully expect some type of retribution against me, but I cannot live quietly on my knees while injustice moves forward.
We must demand that the district leadership react. Together with the union leadership, those in power at the district must put safeguards in place so this situation does not happen again. This process can begin by investigating what truly happened at Cleveland Elementary. We cannot allow this situation to pass without learning from it. Dr. Williams deserves justice. Black and Brown children deserve justice.