The Pride of Napoleon Lewis

A veteran principal brought hope and self-respect to South Dallas' Lincoln High. But even some of his loyal followers say it's time for him to step down.

Rudd failed the student.
But on graduation day, Rudd says, she was shocked to see the student walk across the stage and take her diploma anyway.

Susan Rudd is one of several white teachers who has quit or requested a transfer from Lincoln during the past few years. At least five of the approximately 15 white teachers who worked for the school last year will not be returning, according to teachers still employed there.

Several of those who've left say Lewis cultivated a climate of hostility toward whites--a charge Lewis emphatically denies.

"I really believe the white teachers had a much harder time," Rudd says.
DISD administrator Robbie Collins says that the faculty turnover at Lincoln has less to do with Lewis' inconsistencies than with whites' discomfort in dealing with black teens.

"Lincoln is a tough school to teach in," Collins says. "We are a tough urban school; we are not some lily-white little North Dallas or Richardson or Plano middle-class school. We've got tough kids and tough situations, and some people just can't work there. We have to have teachers out there who understand the culture, who understand the mouthing and the jiving. Some just get scared as hell and leave."

Collins says the district's alternative certification program is designed, in part, to train teachers to understand the culture of inner-city minority children. "The real issue is fear," he says. "There are some people who are scared of black kids, and it's as transparent as cellophane paper."

Lewis, Collins says, looks for signs that suggest discomfort around black teen-agers. "If he senses fear in you--apprehensiveness, racism, or uncertainty--he wants you out of there. Some people can't work for a principal like that."

Lewis, district officials say--choosing their words delicately--does have unorthodox methods for running a school. He has a habit of overusing the intercom. If he has a problem with a teacher, the whole school hears about it on the intercom because he calls the offending teacher by name. Sometimes he has berated teachers for tardiness, calling them freeloaders; sometimes he would grouse about teachers who failed a relatively high proportion of their students.

The principal has jumped on the intercom as many as 10 times in a single day, Lincoln teachers say--and his ramblings can stretch on for more than 20 minutes. "He's like a preacher," says former teacher Jennifer Martin. "He's preaching to the children, and they are snickering. You think you are working in a funny farm. If they could have a hidden camera, the parents would be so shocked. But they are so pathetically blinded."

Sometimes Lewis has gotten on the public-address system and talked about the abuses whites have historically inflicted upon blacks, which offended some whites. The habit made white teachers feel uncomfortable, because Lewis sometimes failed to make a distinction between racist whites and the teachers standing before their all-black classes.

"It's hard, when he's up there saying things about white people, to get the kids to understand that you are on their side," Rudd says.

Welsh, Lincoln's former librarian, alleges that Lewis refused to sign her worker's compensation papers out of sheer meanness and a dislike for her. "I needed medical help and couldn't get it because of him," she says. Records show that the district eventually processed Welsh's application without the principal's endorsement.

Welsh is now receiving treatment for severe back pain and muscle spasms, as well as anxiety and depression. She can hardly speak about Lincoln without bursting into tears. "The worse shock was the total uncaring for me as a human being," she says. "I tried to act professional when he was telling me to shut up in front of everybody. But I was so hurt, I would go home in tears. He took my livelihood away from me."

DISD officials wouldn't comment on Welsh's case except to say that the district had difficulties finding someone to work with her in the Lincoln library.

Robbie Collins pooh-poohs white teachers' complaints that Lewis singles them out for abuse. "I can assure you that kind of behavior is not limited to whites," he says. "It's not a white-racist thing. He just spouts off very quickly if he thinks someone is not carrying the load. And that is why the students are doing well. It is obvious that Napoleon has a style of his own out there."

But increasingly in the previous year, teachers say, Lewis has been absent or ill. There are gaps in leadership and the administration of school policies that make it harder for teachers to teach.

Truancy problems, once controlled, began flaring anew during the past two years. Like all schools, Lincoln has its share of discipline problems. But teachers say the school's administration doesn't always take their concerns about discipline and safety seriously.

Take one morning in 1991. A group of truant, middle school-age students slipped into the back door of Lincoln, catching the eye of some male teachers standing nearby. The teachers stopped the boys and asked them what they were doing. When it became clear that none of the young men was a Lincoln student, one of the teachers went to get security. Harvey Fails, an 18-year Lincoln veteran, stayed to watch the boys. One of the youths, a 14-year-old Pearl C. Anderson student already on juvenile parole, started to make a move for the door. When Fails tried to detain him until security officers arrived, the boy reached in his pocket and pulled out a .38-caliber handgun.

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