Bully power

Learning that rabble rules at Dallas school board meetings

Mari-Lena Ochoa had it all figured out.
"I want to be a teacher," the 19-year-old explained earnestly, leaning over the empty seat between us to talk. "I really want to make a difference. White, Hispanic, Oriental, black--I want to help."

Nice sentiments. Wrong venue.
What better place to squash one's hopes for humanity than a Dallas Independent School District board meeting--where bullies, blabbermouths, and bigots converged last Thursday for four and a half hours of public insanity.

Ochoa had come to DISD headquarters on Ross Avenue at four in the afternoon to attend her very first board meeting. As a young, idealistic college student with dreams of a meaningful career in education, she'd arrived here--dressed primly in a starched white blouse and navy skirt--ready to learn, hungry for role models, eager to absorb the wisdom of her elder educators.

Instead, a lady in a wheelchair began screaming "I want my damn tax dollar!" and addressing board members as "asshole." Instead, a black guy in a baseball cap got in the face of a Hispanic DISD employee and called her a "lying bitch." Instead, the so-called "lying bitch" got assaulted by a New Black Panther with bushy hair and bloodshot eyes as she tried to enter the boardroom--while a posse of DISD security guards looked on and did absolutely nothing.

A couple of hours into the mayhem, her head filled with all these distasteful scenarios, Ochoa leaned across the empty seat again and spoke through the din: "Do you have any openings at your newspaper? Maybe I don't want to be a teacher after all."

I felt bad for Mari-Lena, an upright, hard-working North Lake College student and 1996 graduate of North Dallas High School. Like her, I'd come to see the inner workings of our Dallas school board. For the past few years, like everybody else in town, I'd watched the DISD fireworks via the nightly news--the pushing and shoving, the screaming matches, the arrests.

Surely, I'd thought--knowing full well how the media relish a good racial fight--there's more to these board meetings than this. Surely, there are quiet moments, constructive activity, informed debate.

But now, sitting next to Ochoa, I saw that I was wrong. There was no moral to this mayhem, no insight worth gleaning. I couldn't even have explained how these proceedings were remotely related to education.

Forget John Wiley Price and Lee Alcorn for a moment. Yes, they took their usual high-profile places amid the chaos, but they weren't the ones actually shutting down the meeting. That came about courtesy of two no-name hecklers, who hurled vulgarities at various human targets until the meeting dissolved into utter confusion, with trustees unable to hear each other's voices.

I watched the board members give up twice and file meekly out a side door. I saw the two hecklers and their half-dozen or so less vocal buddies trade smirks and grins, smitten with their own bully power.

Yes, I thought to myself, it's as bad as anything I've seen on TV--actually, it's a lot worse.

I hadn't attended a DISD board meeting since 1991. At the time, I was struck by the contrasts--the cavalcade of wide-eyed kids who collected awards and plaques at the beginning of the meetings, only to be followed by hours of sniping and nattering among the adults on the board.

But nothing--not the bits of scuffles captured on the evening news, and certainly not the sanitized accounts of board meetings in the Dallas Morning News--prepares you for today's disorder.

On paper, last Thursday's agenda looked like a real yawner. The Committee of the Whole was set to open at 2:30 p.m. with a workshop on parliamentary procedure. Fortunately for those of us with a low boredom threshold, the audience--and trustee Kathlyn Gilliam--immediately threw out the script.

I'd staked out a spot in the 50-seat board room, determined to stick through the committee proceedings--as well as the board meeting scheduled afterward. I ended up being the only reporter present all the way through both meetings. I was joined by a succession of TV, print, and radio reporters who ambled in and out of the room throughout the afternoon.

Right from the start, the hecklers were poised for action. A lady in a wheelchair, whom I later identified as one Earnestine Taylor, and a guy in a baseball cap--this was plainclothes New Black Panther Gregory L. Beasley--sat a few feet apart, with Taylor parked in the middle of the narrow center aisle.

When Bill Keever called the meeting to order, trustee Gilliam launched into an impromptu report on Lincoln High School's cable TV program, which a DISD official had abruptly cut off because students had aired an interview with a transvestite. Gilliam's languid voice eventually worked its way to the point: a call to reinstate Lincoln's TV program immediately.

Trustee Hollis Brashear chimed in, wanting more information. This ticked off Keever--which, unfortunately for the white board president, means he becomes instantly patronizing. "We're not supposed to talk about this today, folks," he whined. "This is not on the agenda...we can't do that."

That was exactly three minutes into the committee meeting--and with nothing accomplished, the first squeal of protest rang out.

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