By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Getting to school and back home to the West Dallas projects in the 1980s without being accosted or beat up wasnt easy for Sophia Graham. The streets could be rough, and she had to know how to act and what to avoid. But once at school, she felt safe, says Graham, a Dallas Independent School District alumna now in her 30s.
"Pinkston High School was a safe haven for me. If I made it to Pinkston, then I knew I'd be OK because there were teachers there, the principal," she says.
Graham wanted to keep her old school safe. That's partly why she returned there as a district security officer. When she did, she found that she had a big advantage. Wheeling her car to a stop near warehouses by Thomas Edison Middle School in West Dallas, she points toward railroad tracks and boxcars where school kids hang out. She jokes that she doesn't know how many badges she jogged loose and lost chasing errant kids up and down the tracks, but being a veteran of those neighborhoods gave her inside knowledge, she says.
"The kids thought I was really smart because I knew where all the skip spots were, and I would catch them in the back of the railroad tracks," she says. "They didn't realize that I knew that because my friends used to skip back there when I went to school."
For Graham, returning to West Dallas was a dream come true at first. It was a way to be a part of the system and to be a positive influence. She cultivated relationships with students. She bought prom dresses and Christmas presents for those in need. She came to believe that a little personal interest goes much further with a student than formal punishment or worse, jail.
"You'll be amazed at the turnaround you get from a kid if you just give them a little attention," she says. "You just say hey, what are you doing today? What have you been doing?"
Graham's approach during her work at various district schools brought with it a sense of déjà vu. One new student who was fearful of not finding her bus and of getting attacked at the bus stop found help in Officer Graham.
"Every day at 3 o'clock I would walk over to her school and walk her to the bus stop and show her how to catch the bus from South Dallas," she says. "Of course, that's not in my job description."
No, it wasn't in her job description when she was a uniformed DISD officer or when she was promoted to district investigator. It truly isn't in her job description now that Graham, like some other African-American employees in the school's security department, has been at odds with the department's chief for the past three years, former Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Manny Vasquez.
Graham was once a Vasquez favorite, but no longer. Through a series of events that she doesn't fully understand, she fell out of favor and lost her status as an investigator and at one point found herself in a warehouse, taping boxes.
Graham and other blacks in the department claim Vasquez brought a grudge with him from the Dallas Police Department, where he aspired to be police chief instead of Terrell Bolton, an African-American who won the job. Vasquez left his job with the city and took over the school security department and ever since has pushed for a "real" police department, rather than one filled with security officers. He's wanted--and recently the school board granted him--permission to create a full-fledged police force with authority to investigate, arrest, take suspects to jail and fire bullets if necessary.
Vasquez refused to talk about the department's new era, the accusations of racism being leveled against him by two dozen of the department's African-Americans or about departmental issues related to the move toward a formal police force that some detractors say is neither suitable for DISD nor necessary.
Mary Roberts, human resource and security services deputy superintendent for DISD, did talk about the police force proposal but kept any discussion of individuals in the department vague because that's what regulations require her to do, she says. Roberts says she knows that some security department employees are unhappy with Vasquez but says the issues are being handled internally.
"I would say that there are a few, and I would stress few, individuals that probably have some personnel concerns, management concerns, so yes, they have utilized the grievance process," she says.
Graham has filed two complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, like other African-Americans in the department, numerous in-house grievances.
The universal concern among those who spoke out against Vasquez is how a "big-city" brand of police force and regular city cops that Vasquez likes to hire will deal with children more in need of a talking-to than manhandling. And, they say, they wonder whether the dramatic move toward a full-fledged police department should be made while charges of discrimination, favoritism and disparate treatment abound.
One thing is certain: Vasquez is setting his department on a dramatically new course with a number of employees who question his motives and firmly believe he is determined to keep blacks in the lowest ranks of job responsibilities.