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.
Thomas Glover is president of the Texas Peace Officers Association's Dallas Chapter, which is investigating complaints among some two dozen security department employees. He recently told school board members that change should be preceded by a thorough examination of motivations and racial issues. Security department employees who were sitting in a room across the hall from the boardroom during the meeting, most of them African-American, erupted in applause.
"An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," he says. "Let's listen to those people sitting across the hall, let's talk to them, let's hear their concerns."
Adelfa Callejo, a politically active Dallas lawyer and "lifelong member" of the League of United Latin American Citizens, has become familiar with the unrest in Vasquez's department and decided to speak up for him. Callejo says she deems complaints by Graham and other blacks in the department as a problem that has erupted from the transformation of the department and nothing more. In short, she says, those such as Graham just don't want to train for jobs in the new department.
"They shouldn't make false allegations just to protect their personal agendas," she says. "They just didn't want the police force, and they didn't want to be subjected to the training."
"It was a hard neighborhood. It wasn't very easy to grow up there. There were a lot of fights," she says.
Graham, now a sergeant in the department, finished high school and attended college but had to leave before graduating to help care for siblings. She was interested in teaching and majored in education, but she was also interested in being a cop; after leaving college, she went to the police academy, where she learned she had no stomach for shooting a gun at people.
She quit the academy and started substitute teaching at her old school district.
"They were saying they were having some gang problems, and I said, well, it's just them not knowing how to deal with inner-city youth. Someone said, 'Since you're so smart, why don't you join the [gang] task force and you can come back and help?' So I did."
She felt natural talking to kids and calming them down, and she loved helping them see their errant ways without throwing them in jail. Her behavior sometimes was considered unorthodox, but it worked, she says. For instance, she made friends with a security guard at a local grocery store where district students frequently shopped and shoplifted. When they were caught, the guard would call her instead of police. She wasn't easy on the kids, but punishment didn't automatically involve jail or a police record.
"You are dealing with children. You are not dealing with suspects on the street. We can talk it out. With children, you have to allow them an opportunity to correct their behavior. That's what we're supposed to be there for," she says. "The name of the game is you keep the kid out of jail."
She says she knew the neighborhoods, the drug houses, spots where students skipped and where they hung out. Nothing had really changed in the few years since she graduated. Although in a practical sense, she was doing stellar work in the field and was being officially recognized for it, she says, decisions by district administrators at times perplexed her.
When Vasquez arrived at the district in 2000, Graham believed that things would change. She initially liked Vasquez, and she thought he liked her. At first, Vasquez treated her well and told her she was a rising star. During a luncheon of local business owners at a black-owned restaurant, Vasquez praised Graham in front of the crowd, she says.
"He introduced me as being one of the youngest black female detectives he had in his department," she says. "I thought that was the greatest award I could have gotten."
Other blacks in the department were not so fond of Vasquez, and as a result, about two dozen of them joined the Texas Peace Officers Association, a mostly black organization that represents some Dallas police officers. A spokesman says the group of DISD security employees had complaints of disparate treatment by Vasquez. Graham found herself defending her boss. She maintained that she liked Vasquez and believed that he had the department's best interests in mind, she says.
"For a year and a half, I was a 'go-fer' between him and the other African-American officers, because they pretty much listened to me," she says. "I'm telling them, 'This guy's OK. This guy's not a racist. He's OK.'"
Graham's relationship with Vasquez didn't stay friendly. The dynamic started changing last year, when Graham investigated an incident at Justin F. Kimball High School. Reports said teachers changed grades to boost the third-place member of the graduating class of 2002 to first place.
"My Spanish teacher, he told me that something was going on. I asked around. Come to find out, teachers were changing grades," says Kevin Williams, who was supposed to be salutatorian. "A detective from DISD was supposed to do some work on it. They found out, true, they had changed grades."
That detective was Graham. She reported the grade changing to Vasquez and was astounded at the result. Administrators didn't fix the problem or take disciplinary action. Vasquez first did nothing and then pulled her off of the case, Graham says.
"I wasn't going to stop saying that the principal and those teachers were supposed to be disciplined, because they screwed these kids out of what was rightfully theirs," she says.
Although Williams and the real valedictorian were identified correctly in subsequent official paperwork, Graham's refusal to change the report to protect the lie rubbed Vasquez the wrong way, she claims. No matter how she felt about Vasquez, a lie is a lie and she would not go along, she says.
"Changing for grammar in a report, checking for spelling and grammar areas, that's fine, but when you want to change my findings, then you are talking about the content of my character--that I lied or didn't go out and do my job."
Once the investigation was over and Graham had taken her stand, she found herself as one of the outsiders at the department. She started learning why some co-workers were complaining about Vasquez.
"Now, I'm being weeded out," she says. "I'm getting constantly called into the office...My cases started dwindling down."
She was pulled off of investigations. She was moved out of her office without being given a reason and told to sit with the dispatchers, and she was given no work.
"I'm getting paid basically to do nothing," she says. "I just sit there."
Those who were in Vasquez's good graces started looking for fault in Graham. Last fall, when Graham was talking to fellow employees in a parking lot, she was accused of "having a meeting," something akin to union organizing. As is typical in the way the department has handled questions of conduct, Graham says, no one bothered to try to learn the truth before leveling formal charges. In that instance, she was vindicated, she says.
"Again, I apologize for bringing an allegation to your attention," Graham's supervisor, C.W. Burress, wrote to Graham, "without first verifying the facts of the allegation."
Graham started filing grievances against Vasquez and then the far more serious complaints of racism with the EEOC. The in-house complaints have mostly been a waste of time, she says.
Roberts says that all complaints are handled in a structured way that provides fair and objective consideration. And, she says, if an employee is dissatisfied with a complaint, then he or she can appeal it all the way to the school board.
The federal complaints, which allege Graham was stripped of her job because she is a black woman, could take years to process while she tries to stay out of trouble. "I get harassed constantly. They watch where I go," Graham says. "If I go to the left, someone's watching me. If I go across the street, someone is watching me."
In the meantime, Vasquez has plowed ahead with plans for his new department, which appear to be a move toward hard-nosed tactics that Graham and others try to avoid.
"I only became a police officer so I can better show my neighborhood this is how the police are supposed to conduct themselves," Graham says. "It was only to educate and elevate the minds of African-American kids in West Dallas."
Armed police are needed, the literature says, because "a significant number of incidents are occurring off-campus after dismissal or adjacent to the campus after athletic events." School security gets to confrontations first most of the time, and security officers are in danger. (Security officers don't have authority to arrest, restrain or transport offenders.) Typically, once a school has its own police department, the school's own officers patrol halls, parking lots and the cafeteria--something critics complain makes a school resemble a prison.
During the first five years of the plan, Vasquez will eliminate some existing jobs while building a commissioned staff of police and patrol officers, detectives and campus police with authority similar to city police. Vasquez told the school board that his proposal is in line with what other districts around the state and country are doing, and that it would help protect students.
"Dallas ISD must join an ever-increasing list of statewide school districts successfully taking this step to improve the safety of students," the literature says.
As part of Vasquez's plan, the school district will end a $1 million contract that put about 30 Dallas police officers in schools or on school-related assignments. The Vasquez plan calls for replacing those officers with the district's own armed, commissioned and uniformed officers at a cost to the district of about $1.5 million more per year.
The Dallas school board last month approved the plan to create a school police department in a 7-2 vote. The two dissenting voters, Hollis Brashear and Lew Blackburn, did not respond to requests for interviews.
Vasquez did not stress what a spokesman for a national association of school police forces says is the biggest advantage to a school police department--information. E.O. "Red" McAllister, executive director of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers, which represents about 250 school departments among 16,000 U.S. school districts, says that once a school police department becomes part of the police "fraternity" they can get much better cooperation from regular city police for all sorts of things related to crimes and investigations on and off campus.
"You are able to get a lot more information from the local police departments if you are a member of that fraternity of being a police officer," he says. "There's not a hesitation on the part of local agencies to share information with the school district within the scope of the law...that's probably one of the greatest pluses for it."
Tom Nichols, chief of the Lubbock Independent School District police department and immediate past president of the Texas Association of School District Police, says he doesn't see a negative side to school police.
"A couple people said, 'Gosh, we're going to have cops walking down halls killing kids.' I said, 'Well, I certainly wouldn't imagine so, but if there is a kid killing kids, would you want your officer to not have a gun so he could lead the charge running down the hallway screaming, "Everybody out! Everybody out!"?' I've never heard of cops being hired to go out and kill kids."
Although the number of school police departments in other states is not increasing as rapidly as in Texas (there were just 14 school police departments in Texas in 1990), the number of crimes reported at the nation's schools is actually declining, according to a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics. It says that "students were more than twice as likely to be victims of serious violent crime away from school than at school."
Advocates also say that school police seem to reduce the number of incidents at schools after an initial increase. Typically, after about three years, the number of incidents declines, probably because policing becomes a recognized deterrent among students, association representatives say.
"Our first year we confiscated 15 rifles and handguns. We have not confiscated one this year, and we did not confiscate one last year. That's with very aggressive metal detectors, drug dogs, bomb dogs," Nichols says. "Kids will let us know somebody's talking about a gun...and we'll get on that and head it off."
They claim Vasquez and his operating methods are frequently at the expense of African-Americans. Vasquez, they say, has kept problems from a school board that has no clue how deep the discontent runs or how badly the department needs to be cleaned up before instituting major changes that increase the department's scope and authority.
"I don't want to be a police officer [in a department] built on a foundation of first of all racism, nepotism and favoritism," says Graham, who acts as spokeswoman for the group of employees.
Grievances filed against Vasquez include irrational administrative orders, arbitrary job changes, disciplinary actions that favor whites and Hispanics and flat-out denial of promotions in job responsibilities for blacks.
One employee, Greg Burnough, a project liaison officer, complains that he, like Graham, lost his workstation after he filed a grievance against Vasquez and asked for a pay increase. Burnough, whose job it is to evaluate security at the district's 218 schools, says Vasquez continuously changed reporting formats so that his work could never be accomplished. As a result, his school security reports have not been returned to school principals in more than a year.
Another, Mike McKinney, an 11-year district security employee, says he alone has filed more than 40 grievances. McKinney says he gets written up for all sorts of minutiae because Vasquez is trying to create a paper trail that will eventually allow him to be fired. The grievances are another new aspect of the department since Vasquez arrived, the group agrees.
"Before Manny got there, I filed one [grievance], one back in 1995," McKinney says.
McKinney was accused of taking a district vehicle home, of wearing a gun when he wasn't supposed to and of doing other things that witnesses subsequently swore were untrue. McKinney claims Vasquez has hired eight "officers off of the street" at a higher salary than his. He, like Graham, has filed complaints with the federal government charging that he has been discriminated against because of his race.
Roberts says the district has handled grievances in accordance with policy. The district has also hired an attorney to specifically address the more serious questions of discrimination.
While those such as Graham say they don't necessarily disagree with the concept of creating a full-fledged police force, they distrust Vasquez's motives. They say they aren't convinced there will be a place for some longtime employees who are unable to be certified after police training or for those employees who don't have a city police department background.
One member of the group says he believes Vasquez is trying to prove a point to Bolton that he can "run a police department." Equally important, they say, the issues related to Vasquez's treatment of African-American employees are far from settled. Glover, of the police association, says his group is in the middle of an investigation that it hopes will determine if Vasquez is in fact treating African-Americans differently from the department's other employees.
"What I mean by investigation is we are going to sit down with employees who are members of our organization, and when they relate things to us that are illegal or a violation of their rights, we are going to compile them and determine what our next step is," he says.
"I talked to some of those women who are security...I said, 'Why do you think it's unfair? I'm sure you will be given an opportunity to take the training and to apply for the position, and I'm sure that they will give you preference because you've been there,'" she says. "The feeling that I got was exactly that, that it was retaliation [against Vasquez]. They were all black. None of them were white."
She says Vasquez would not be out of line if he just fired the black detractors who refuse to do what it takes to change and become part of the new department.
"If you are going to improve the system, I don't believe people have to be fired...however, when it requires more training and the employee refuses to do that training, then I think they should go."
The group of African-American employees has plenty to say about the plan, and it has little to do with proposed training. For one thing, they say, Vasquez has made little room at the top for blacks, something the district denies, and they don't see a full-fledged police department as being much different from the current one.
What's more, they say, the new Vasquez proposals are similar to what he's done since he arrived at the school district, which is to make the department more like a city police force that he tightly controls down to the lowest level. Since taking over the department, Vasquez has hired the kinds of applicants who come from municipal police forces--people who are often too heavy-handed with children and ill-suited to replace school security officers, members of the group say.
"The people that he's hired are police officers that came from municipalities that have been fired that don't know how to communicate with children," Graham says. "We don't need hotheads to work for DISD. We need people that know how to deal with children."
Members of the group say they've had good experiences handling students, and they've done it without guns. If they need the kind of help that requires guns and batons, the Dallas Police Department is not, and never has been, far away.
"I'm working from a preventative standpoint," says Burnough, the security assessment officer. "He [Vasquez] wants a reaction. If something happens, he wants to send these guys out with guns."
Graham says she's not optimistic about the proposed police force, about Vasquez in his dealings with her personally or with where he is taking a department plagued by race-based issues. But, she says, she is going to hang on and fight for her job.
"I only became a police officer so I can better show my neighborhood this is how police are supposed to conduct themselves," Graham says. "I'm a product of DISD. This is my school district. I've worked here too long to leave. I have to stay and fight and make it right. "
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city