School for Scandal

Principal Mike Stiles was turning Dallas' troubled Sunset High around - until a critical misjudgement threw him into a political snakepit

A Dallas Morning News editorial, for example, blasted the district for not firing them both. "This was no senior class prank; this was academic fraud," the editorial roared.

But Collins considered the school's accomplishments under Stiles and Ortiz in meting out his penalty. "They had done a great deal for that school. They were extremely admired people."

In Collins' mind, the only question remaining about the PAL scandal is who leaked the student transcripts to the press. "I am deeply troubled about it," he says. "It is a violation of state and federal privacy statutes, and it is the only unanswered element of the investigation. No one has ever taken responsibility for it."

In his report, Collins emphasizes that Parker and the teachers in Project Excel were the only Sunset faculty with authorized access to transcripts. Parker denies she gave out the records. But she says Collins accused her by name to Sunset faculty members and by innuendo in his report.

Mary Ann Climer and Leticia Mata also say they do not know the source of the leak. But "in my mind," says Mata, "that person is a hero."

Skeptical that the upheaval has truly changed Sunset, Mata pulled her 16-year-old daughter, Olivia, out this year. The girl is now attending North Dallas' private Greenhill School. Says Mata: "I had to do the right thing for my child."

Rose Parker quit her job shortly after the PAL investigation. "I couldn't work in that atmosphere and pursue legal action," she says.

She spends much of her time these days refining her federal civil rights complaint and pursuing a libel lawsuit that she filed on July 20 against DISD Superintendent Chad Woolery, Collins, Roberts, Stiles, and teacher Clarence Johnson. She claims that Collins, in his investigative role, defamed her reputation among the Sunset faculty and jeopardized her career potential by accusing her of illegally leaking the student transcripts to Channel 8. Parker and co-plaintiffs Dean Webb and David DeCocq--who taught briefly with her in the Excel program--are seeking $1 million in actual damages and $25 million in exemplary damages.

While denying that she leaked transcripts, Parker did appear on-camera during Williams' report--and clearly had contact with the reporter during the gestation of the Channel 8 inquiry. DISD trustee Jose Plata, who represents Sunset High in District 7, says he attended a February community meeting on truancy at Sunset, held in Rose Parker's Project Excel building. Parker and Mata were there. So was Channel 8's Williams, taking notes. "She said she was doing a story on truancy," recalls Mata. "And then she did her wonderful story on PALs."

Asked if her history suggests she has a problem with accepting authority, Rose Parker gasps.

"Do you mean do I have trouble accepting fraud? When you put down bogus grades for students, that is fraud. I don't know what world you're living in. I mean, what reality are you living in? What happened at this school I've never heard of happening anywhere."

Oscar Rodriguez, a veteran principal from North Dallas High School, was transferred to Sunset this fall. Painfully aware of the PAL scandal, and the political clashes that fostered it, he has been polishing his role as clean-up guy. It keeps him very busy.

He won't speak of Stiles. Or of PAL. Or of Parker and Marquez. "I can only tell you about 1995-96. That's my focus," he says. "And shit, I've got more than enough work to do." Adds DISD assistant superintendent Roberts, in handing out ground rules about who could be interviewed at the school: "We are really trying to downplay publicity about Sunset this year."

English department chairman Walker, who has spent his 10-year teaching career at Sunset, was an eloquent ally of Stiles during the district's investigation. The faculty, he says, has picked up and moved on. But he still stings from the accusations by Parker and her allies that Sunset's teachers are an uncaring, racist lot. "I reject the notion of a few zealots that what we do here is below standard, even damaging to the students...The complaints are completely meaningless. I believe that from the bottom of my heart."

Last week, Michael Stiles was clearing off his desk at the Estes Center, packing up the photos of his wife and three kids and a few other possessions for the move to DISD's food services warehouse.

This time around, there will be no children spilling from the building at 3:15 p.m. each weekday, gathering on the lawn and laughing. No girls and boys flirting with each other as they wait for their bus. No after-school traffic jams on Jefferson Avenue, with the deafening beat of stereo bass thumping out of open car windows. In better days, Stiles could view all of this as he mingled with the students and think that, yes, on most days, this school is working.

"I was blown away by what happened last year, but I'm going to be fine," he says. "I'm in touch with Zulema Ortiz and several teachers at the school. I've gone to several football games this year. The kids still come up and hug me. And we talk and catch up on what's going on. When I see the kids, it doesn't seem like much has changed.

"That's a great feeling. And it makes me realize that I was real lucky to have been there--even for two years.

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