By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Holly Keiser was sitting on the living-room sofa, watching the evening news, when the story broke: a Dallas public-school teacher had been suspended from her job, supposedly for telling her black fifth-graders to "Go back to Africa."
At first blush, Keiser couldn't imagine the story was true. What schoolteacher in her right mind would say such a thing to children?
Which is the point, actually.
"When they said the teacher was Deen Williamson, I nearly fell off the couch," Keiser says. "Because I knew that this incident was just the tip of the iceberg--that people had no idea who they were dealing with here."
Keiser, you understand, has seen the bottom of Deen Williamson's iceberg.
"From 1989 to 1992, I colored her hair," says Keiser, a hair stylist at Salon Preston Center in North Dallas. "She had told my boss and me that she was a diagnosed manic-depressive who was in the throes of a divorce, and she was concerned that her ex-husband was trying to kill her. She was very, very thin, almost emaciated, and real high-strung--just a non-stop talker who never took a breath. She was always telling us about this lawsuit she had pending with the Abilene Independent School District.
"She was on quite a bit of medication," Keiser continues. "One Saturday she told us, 'I'm concerned that my doctor is trying to kill me because I've read about the medication--the concentration and the dose--and it's lethal.'" So she would quit taking the medication until two or three days before her checkups and blood tests, and then she'd double or triple up on everything.
"At one point, she told us the medication was drying her body from the inside out," Keiser recalls, "and she'd come into the salon oiled from head to toe."
"She coated her skin with this oil--she said it was to keep the moisture inside her body," Keiser says. "It was pretty thick--thicker than baby oil, more like Vaseline. She'd smear it all over herself, and I had to wash it out of her hair. It was pretty disgusting."
Hairdressers know everything. This is a given. Still, what Holly Keiser told me over coffee two weeks ago seemed as incredible as what Deen Williamson had told her students two weeks before that.
But, incredibly, what Deen Williamson's hairdresser told me is true. This longtime Dallas school teacher is a sad, troubled soul--who has no business being in a classroom. And DISD knew it years ago.
The proof of Williamson's problems--save, well, the Vaseline anecdote--sits in courthouse archives in Abilene and Houston. It's all there: the manic depression, the medications, the psychiatrists, the paranoia, the pain.
"I am not a rebel," Williamson scrawled across the top of a psychiatric examination of herself that she filed in 1990 in U.S. District Court in Abilene. "Rather I am simply a victim of opression [sic] (which I can prove), who is being denied redress, but the redress is 'in the works.'"
Forget for a moment that this 51-year-old career teacher can't spell or craft a proper sentence. That's the least of this woman's problems--despite what you've been reading in the Dallas Morning News.
For the past month, the News has run a series of lazy stories that Williamson and her three lawyers have fed the paper in an attempt to clear her name. The most recent, which appeared last Monday on the front of the Metropolitan section, was the strangest--not surprising since Williamson was quoted, rather than her lawyers.
"Ms. Williamson denied making the remarks to her students and said some of the pupils have been used by others who want to harm her," News staffer Larry Bleiberg reported. Williamson was quoted telling the paper: "The people that are fronting these children are putting the children up to this."
Comments such as these might have seemed a red flag--cause to delve a bit more deeply. Instead, the News has offered little mention of DISD's case against Williamson--one of the best-documented termination cases DISD has ever brought. It's also a case that--for different reasons altogether--could well have been brought against Williamson seven years ago, when she was first hired. But we'll get to that later.
The truth is there are 19 kids in three classes at Umphrey Lee Elementary--not to mention six teachers--who are prepared to testify against Williamson in a termination hearing later this month. (Williamson is currently suspended with pay.) In fact, school officials were initially going to go with statements from only 11 children, but Williamson gave them the names of nine more she claimed would back up her version of events. Eight of them didn't; the ninth couldn't help either side.
Interviews with school district employees, parents, and students--plus a review of Dallas Police Department incident reports--present a picture of a woman in a rage about race. Their story is that on October 17, Williamson came to the largely black Oak Cliff school where she has been employed for six years and spent the day discussing--and criticizing--the Million Man March.
In class, her students will testify, she made disparaging remarks about march leader Louis Farrakhan--things like "That guy is crazy, you know. He speaks out of both sides of his mouth."