The Pride of Napoleon Lewis
For months, Lincoln High School's librarian, Helen "Bobbie" Welsh, had struggled to operate a four-person library with the help of a single assistant. The stress had begun to take its toll:She was suffering from debilitating back and neck spasms and bouts of anxiety.
But on February 19, 1996, things got much worse. Welsh was sitting at her desk in the library when Principal Napoleon Lewis' voice came booming over the intercom.
Lewis demanded to know why the school's library was closed. Welsh sat in horrified silence--in the open library. Infamous for his frequent, colorful discourses over the school's public-address system, Lewis threatened to carry his desk from the principal's office and man the library himself.
"I bet ya'll didn't know Dr. Lewis could run a library," Welsh and others say he announced. The black students had important reports to research, he continued--and no one would stop them.
Then, in a cracking baritone voice, he began singing "We Shall Overcome," the spiritual hymn made famous by the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.
To Welsh, the impromptu singing was a racist attack against her.
"The library was not closed," she says today, her voice trembling as she recalls her public humiliation. "How would you feel to be publicly denounced and accused as a white person of keeping African-American students from being able to use the library?"
Welsh, who has since taken a medical leave of absence from her job at Lincoln, claims she was mistreated by Lewis because she is white. "A white principal would be fired, news sources would be reporting, and groups would be marching in protest for what he said to me over the intercom if I was black and he was white," she wrote in a letter to Dallas Independent School District psychologist Robert H. Bourdene dated May 28, 1996. (Bourdene would not comment on the case.)
Welsh is one of several current and former educators at Lincoln who complain that they have been treated in an abusive manner by Principal Lewis, who is immensely popular among students and parents and is virtually a legend in South Dallas.
These educators paint a picture of a man whose ideals are noble and worthy, but whose school is in crisis--in part because of the principal's high-handed treatment of teachers and staff.
Yet the problems extend even further. At Lincoln, they say, teachers are subjugated to the whims of underachieving students--and the school has become a place where grades have to look good, whether the students have earned them or not.
While many outstanding Lincoln students have gone on to success, some teachers say the school has degenerated into a mill where students can walk the stage in May even though they hardly ever attended class. The district, they say, is afraid to taint Lewis' or Lincoln's image in any way by addressing faculty members' concerns.
In the course of four weeks, the Dallas Observer interviewed more than 20 current and former faculty and staff members of Lincoln, both black and white. And while Lewis is still highly respected by most of them, several described a deeply demoralized teaching staff.
"There are a number of problems," says Imani Pamoja, a former Lincoln journalism teacher who is black. "There are a lot of teachers who are leaving because of the problems, but it's all kept pretty quiet."
"I see it as a building imploding," says a white teacher who's still at the school and asked not to be identified. "It's chaotic--the kind of chaos that results from inconsistency at the top. And the people that are getting short-changed are the students."
Amid the acrimony, Lewis, 75 and undergoing treatment for cancer, resigned his post in mid-April. But just a week later, the principal withdrew his resignation, saying that the South Dallas community--particularly his beloved students--needed him.
His supporters say that more than 1,000 people signed a petition begging him to serve another year at Lincoln. It was an offer Lewis couldn't refuse; he committed to one more year as principal.
Still, many of his own teachers and administrators think Lewis has outlasted his usefulness to Lincoln. Even some of his biggest supporters have turned against him. His former second-in-command, Dean Juanita Wallace, defected to another DISD school in 1995, complaining about Lewis' behavior, and her replacement, Dean Florence Cox, speaks of suing the principal.
District officials are generally closemouthed about the educators' criticisms of Lewis and are diplomatic about conditions at the inner-city school. "He's a district icon," DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander says of Lewis. "I don't necessarily agree with everything he does over there, but he definitely has his own persona."
Lewis, for his part, abruptly dismisses the complaints. "All that stuff those people are complaining about, that's their problem," he told the Observer in a brief interview. "As long as my kids are doing well, I couldn't care less what they say."
There is, perhaps, no Dallas educator with an image as appealing as that of Dr. Napoleon Lewis: the imposing black disciplinarian who strides into the inner-city blackboard jungle and tames it with an iron will. A towering, gruff Texas farm boy, Lewis had already retired from Washington, D.C.'s school system when he joined DISD in the late 1970s.
He stepped into the job of principal at Lincoln High in 1980 and went straight to work. He abolished all remedial classes, pressured teachers to take a more active role in their students' education, and created an Afrocentric environment that would envelop the students in a cocoon of support. "All children can learn" was his motto, and he never deviated from it, not once.
Lewis was a taskmaster who never gave the teachers a break. You either believed his children could learn, or you didn't. If you didn't, you needed to leave.
He ran the school with that philosophy for more than 15 years, and people took notice. The walls of Lincoln High are covered with commendations awarded to Lewis by numerous organizations and agencies, recognizing him as a front-runner in the education of inner-city black children. (Lincoln's 1,300-member student body is overwhelmingly black; only three whites, seven Hispanics, and three Asian-Americans were enrolled during the 1995-'96 school year.)
Lewis, it turned out, was just the man to tackle a school like Lincoln. And he acquired his reputation for toughness and effectiveness through sheer force of personality.
"He went out and became an instant hero," says Robbie Collins, special assistant to DISD Superintendent Chad Woolery. "Those kids don't mess with him. He'll catch the thugs out on the schoolyard, and that old man will go out there and tear into them. He's just crazy enough as he needs to be to keep order in that school."
But, as the years passed, district officials learned that Lewis' presence would not be a panacea for all the problems at the inner-city school, Collins says. "It's a complex school. It has all the dynamics of an urban school: potential violence, guns, drugs, gangs--Crips, Bloods--racial conflicts, teachers who think that a hard-nosed black principal is a reversed racist, and a principal and staff out there that think if you show fear of the kids you're a racist, and that they can't depend on you."
DISD officials strongly supported Lewis' decision to return to Lincoln for another year, and last April gladly tore up his resignation letter.
"He is known as Papa Bear to students and parents for his firm yet understanding way of working with people," said district spokesman Dahlander in a prepared statement. "And while it is unfortunate some individuals will come forward to discredit an administrator of his stature, this district stands 100 percent behind Dr. Lewis."
Even so, district insiders say DISD has no choice but to put on a happy face--as any move to oust the senior principal might constitute age discrimination.
In other words, Lewis goes when he wants to.
Napoleon Lewis had been assigned to Lincoln for about a week when he called his first fire drill.
The year was 1980, and the procedure was simple: Teachers and students filed out of classrooms in an orderly fashion and knelt in the hallways, pressing their faces to the point where the wall met the floor. Then the 6-foot, 5-inch principal came striding up to inspect.
"The students were in the right position, but the teachers were [standing] up looking around," recalls teacher Jerry Chambers. "Dr. Lewis came around the corner and yelled, 'What the hell are ya'll doing? Get down!' We all dropped to our knees so fast. Here I was with my head to the floor, and I remember telling the lady next to me, 'I think this may be the strong leader we were looking for.'"
Chambers, a cherubic man with a gentle demeanor, has been teaching at Lincoln High since 1969. He was there when DISD wouldn't provide the simplest tools for the black student body, when most every course was remedial, and when black history didn't even exist as part of the district's curriculum. "We had very, very low self-esteem in those early days," Chambers says. "Low morale, problem after problem. Before Dr. Lewis came, we were on the bottom. Now, we're right up there at the top."
Chambers says Lincoln has a lot to thank Lewis for--the man seemed born to fit the job. Even today, Lewis, a former college basketball and football player, is surprisingly robust despite having been diagnosed with cancer several years ago. He actually appears 20 years younger than his 75 years, and although his voice does not hold the same forceful bass timbre that it used to, his is still a commanding presence.
Lewis earned his stripes as an educator in Washington, D.C., where he moved up the ranks in the public school system after having earned a doctoral degree in education from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. In 1977, he retired as regional superintendent in Washington and moved to Dallas. After three years as a DISD administrator, he garnered the challenging Lincoln High post.
At the time, Lincoln was undergoing a failed integration attempt. In 1980, the district replaced the old school building with a modern structure, and Lincoln became the site for the district's humanities and communications magnet program. But the magnet failed to draw whites; the few whites who did attend stopped coming after a few days.
During Lewis' first year at Lincoln, 25 teachers asked to be transferred from the school, an unusually high number even for one of DISD's toughest inner-city schools. Their departure, Lewis has said, proved their lack of commitment to teaching black children.
Indeed, Lewis wasn't fazed by the loss of faculty members. He called down a blizzard of changes and made numerous demands. He set up after-school study programs that involved both teachers and parents, and he leaned on the district to provide more resources for the school. He harangued the students about their education, often challenging them to excel to disprove white prejudices about black children.
In many cases his approach worked, and Lincoln produced some high-achieving students. During the 1995-'96 school year, in fact, Lincoln students won more than $1 million in college scholarships; graduating senior Tandy Carraway received full scholarship offers from five universities totaling more than $150,000. Fellow senior Tameka Henry won a comparable amount, including full scholarship offers from Florida A&M, Clark Atlanta University, and Illinois Institute of Technology.
Former Dean of Instruction Juanita Wallace recalls being bowled over when she first walked into Lincoln in 1993.
"I thought it was the most wonderful place I had ever been," she says. "Next to heaven. The staff was warm and giving, and the student body was absolutely marvelous. You can talk to a 6-foot young man and he respects you."
The children were enormously talented in a number of disciplines, Wallace found, and Lewis seemed uncommonly adept at encouraging creativity among the students.
Wallace was also impressed with Lewis' dedication to the children and the efforts he was making to improve their scholastic achievements--and especially their self-esteem. Lewis required the teachers and administrators to seek out material on black history and black contributions to American society, which had long been excluded from mainstream textbooks. He denounced Eurocentric views of world history and filled the libraries with books written by, for, and about African-Americans. If the children were to believe they could achieve, they had to see themselves achieving, he said.
Wallace could not have agreed more. "The white books, for the most part, ignored African-American contributions," she says. "And that was part of the problem. Oftentimes, thanks to the European histories, our children only got to see us as slaves. At Lincoln, they learned we were kings and queens, and that we have achieved great and enduring things despite our struggles. So the kids at Lincoln had healthy egos, and sometimes they were a little arrogant. But better that they be arrogant than depressed and feeling lowly about themselves."
Lincoln, by Lewis' design, was also the only school to require that seniors take the SAT and ACT tests twice. Lewis insisted that Lincoln become a testing site for the two college entrance exams, believing that if the tests were administered closer to home, the students would understand their importance.
Still, Lewis presided over his share of problems at Lincoln. Racial tensions were always a part of the atmosphere at the school. Black administrators, hardened by years of inequities, were sometimes unsympathetic to white teachers' complaints. (During the 1995-'96 school year, according to district officials, Lincoln had 42 black teachers and one Hispanic teacher, with the remaining 19 classified as "other"--but officials declined to say how many were white.)
Wallace tried to reconcile differences between the black administration and white teachers, but her personal philosophy rejected any claims that white teachers could be victims of racism at the black high school.
"They often felt that we were prejudiced," she says. "But prejudice is the way you feel; discrimination is what you do. Our skin color does not give us the power to discriminate, so really there is no basis for their statements."
Wallace also shared her black peers' views on the relationship between white teachers and black students. "It is difficult for white teachers to relate to the black students," she says. "If you are not a part of the culture, it takes more effort to understand where the kids are coming from. It is not impossible, but it takes effort, and if people are not willing to make the effort, then yes, there will be problems."
Lincoln faculty members also battled the problems seemingly endemic to inner-city public schools.
In the early 1990s, in fact, Lincoln's truancy rate was the highest in the district, and school administrators had no idea where most of those students were. When Wallace and Jerry Chambers started delving into the truancy lists, however, they found that several students listed as truant had actually died, many in gang violence. Some were sitting in jail. (If a student was in jail, the school would not count them as truant.)
Wallace and Chambers recall walking door to door among the area's housing projects, hunting down errant students and literally transporting them back to class. Often they would see students standing idle on street corners. They'd order them into their car and many times would walk them into the principal's office to apply for GED training. The initiative was a great success, and by 1994, Wallace says, Lincoln had one of the better attendance rates in the district. Other schools, like South Dallas' Madison High School, would copy the initiative.
Even today, Principal Lewis takes the time to drive through the tattered neighborhood projects, looking for truants. "He said, 'What are we going to do about these black boys?'" Chambers says. "He said, 'We can't just give them up.'"
Occasionally, neighbors would call the school to say that Lincoln kids were hanging around selling drugs on their corner. Lewis often would jump in his car and accost the dealers--if they were indeed Lincoln kids.
"He was a very good disciplinarian," Wallace says. "And I knew he believed in African-Americans and the students being successful."
The school has also suffered a few embarrassments under Lewis' leadership. Two years ago, Lincoln endured a major testing scandal--as detailed in a March 24, 1994, Dallas Observer cover story, "Tough times at Lincoln High"--when someone gained access to SAT testing booklets five days before the test. When the results came back, 25 Lincoln students had gained high enough scores to be selected as semifinalists in the National Achievement Scholarship program--more than those selected from all of the schools in some states. But none of the semifinalists who took the test at Lincoln was able to duplicate his or her score.
Lewis and the district ferociously denied any cheating had taken place.
This past school year, Lincoln generated controversy when Redbook magazine named it one of the best in the country. The award was based almost entirely on an application filled out by Lincoln administrators. The Dallas Morning News later reported that the administrators had inflated the state assessment test scores submitted to the magazine.
When Redbook commended Lincoln, former teacher Susan Rudd says she shook her head in disbelief: "I thought, what a joke that was."
Such kudos could only have come from someone who'd never walked the halls of Lincoln High, says Rudd, who is white. "They were just milling kids through there. There are some extremely bright, hard-working students there, but the truth is that half the kids at Lincoln are not getting any education at all."
Rudd, 33, joined Lincoln in 1989, fresh out of graduate school. She dived into the school, taking a personal interest in her students' lives and participating in several extra-curricular activities. She drove her students to football playoffs; she spent her own money on outings and projects for the kids. She liked Dr. Lewis, and, she says, he liked her.
But, Rudd says, problems were readily apparent in the school. Fights were constantly breaking out; children were dying in gang warfare; school officials seemed disorganized and out of touch. Lewis placed so much emphasis on the responsibilities of the teachers that the students acted as though nothing were required of them, Rudd says.
The conditions became very stressful for Rudd in 1993, she says, because there were "too many discipline problems. They were running us into the ground. I started feeling like we were having so many problems because we were not demanding enough from the children."
Then, in an attempt to spur students to work harder, Rudd says, she began grading strictly according to performance and attendance, instead of forgiving transgressions whenever she felt like it. If students didn't make up missed projects or absences, she would give them a failing grade. If they missed too many days, she would fail them according to district policy, which requires students not to miss more than six days in a six-week period without an acceptable excuse. In winter 1993, Rudd failed 50 of her 133 students--33 of those for not attending enough classes to be considered enrolled by state law.
"I started flunking those who really should have been flunked, and I still didn't flunk all the ones that needed to be flunked," she says.
Principal Lewis took notice. "He said my failure rate was too high," Rudd recalls.
Rudd says Lewis and Wallace began to put pressure on her, checking to see if she had called the parents of absent teens. When she provided the necessary documentation, Lewis insisted she spend more time trying to contact parents. When she told him she didn't have time to do that and teach class as well, Lewis ordered her to attend training sessions for classroom effectiveness.
Rudd was insulted. "My failure rate [was low] for the students who were there," she says today. "Those kids that I failed just weren't coming to class. If they would come to class, I could teach them."
(Lewis, who granted a short interview to the Observer, would not comment on any specific complaints of administrators and teachers such as Rudd.)
White teachers are not the only ones who say they are pressured into giving good grades. Once, two students in journalism teacher Imani Pamoja's class were making A's and B's, but did not complete a project. The failing grade for that project brought their grade-point averages down. Says Pamoja: "I got a note [from Lewis] saying, 'Give them another project so they can make an A.' They are not going to be spoon-fed at the university level--but we are getting too many students like that."
Administrators, Rudd says, often improperly disregarded absences. In 1993, one senior ended up in Rudd's biology class after failing another teacher's biology class the year before. The student, Rudd recalls, needed the class to graduate. "She hardly ever came to class," Rudd says. "On the rare days she did come to class, she slept through it."
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.
"He got tired of waiting," Fails recalls. "He pointed it at the two of us and fired off a round."
Fortunately, the shot missed. Fails later learned that police arrested the youth in the shooting death of a Pleasant Grove man that very day. A shaken Fails waited to hear from Lincoln's administration. Maybe there would be paperwork to fill out. At the very least, he thought, they would inquire about his well-being. But not a single Lincoln or DISD administrator ever discussed the shooting incident with him, he says.
Lewis' waffling on policies and decisions led one teacher to request a transfer after only one semester. Freshman history teacher Jennifer Martin, who is white, started at Lincoln in January 1996. "I started on a Monday, and by Wednesday I decided I was going to quit [eventually]," she says. "I never saw anything like what I saw at Lincoln. Never."
Martin, 29, had taught two years at an inner-city school in Houston before joining Lincoln. She grew up in inner-city Philadelphia.
Martin describes Lincoln students as completely out of control. Frequent fights in the hallways caused students to leave class en masse. Students banged on glass partitions that separated the classrooms from the hallway, screaming at the top of their lungs. One teacher warned Martin never to let a student walk behind her.
A white male teacher approached Martin with a suggestion that sickened her. "'Take 'em in, sit 'em down, and shut 'em up. If someone comes around, act like you're teaching them, then send them home,'" Martin says he told her. "'As long as you think you are going to teach them, you are fooling yourself.'"
Martin ignored the advice--but admits she struggled to gain control of some of her classes. If she asked students to quiet down, they'd tell her to shut up. On her second day, she ended up crying in the principal's office. Lewis told her that the children's behavior would not be tolerated. To prove it, he gave Martin's entire third-period class conference forms, which meant the students would not be able to return to class until their parents showed up for a meeting with the teacher.
"He took my little pinkie in his and said, 'We are going to do this the old-fashion way,'" Martin recalls. "'Promise me you won't leave.'"
Parents came in for their conferences, all of them concerned about their children's reported behavior. But the children changed completely in their parents' presence. "When they were sitting in front of their mothers, they were like, 'Yes, ma'am, no, ma'am,'" Martin says. Many of the "parents" were actually grandparents, she adds, who admitted having their own troubles controlling the children.
On Martin's third day, Dean Evelyn Akram approached her with a gentle rebuke. "I was a little surprised that you didn't know your students' names," Martin says Akram told her.
The criticism stung. "I had been there two days! I had kids with names like Shaquilla, Tamika, Laqualla--names I never heard before," Martin says. "I had one guy in the back of the class saying 'here' for everybody."
A few weeks later, Martin reported a student to the principal's office for cursing her. "I asked him to be quiet, and he responded, 'Fuck you, you big-mouth bitch.'" The student, she says, got a mere verbal warning for his behavior. Martin says she couldn't believe it when a few days later, the school suspended another young man for two days. His transgression: showing up at school without any socks.
But Martin says the last straw came in April during a series of well-documented episodes with a 14-year-old student we'll call Kevin (not his real name).
Martin says Kevin had taken an instant dislike to her. Then he began threatening to kill her, she says. He made it very clear that he did not like white people, and specifically did not like Martin. "The kid would say he was going to kill me. [He'd say] I was white and he was black and I was racist. He'd tell the other students, 'See, she wants to flunk all the black people,' which was nonsense, because all my kids were black."
If the boy passed Martin in the hallway, he would glare at her. If she asked him a question, he'd dismiss her with an expletive. Martin says she had turned the student in before for hitting girls in his class. She grew to fear him.
One day, after the bell rang, the student began to file out with all the other students. But when he reached the door, he turned abruptly, looked at Martin, and screamed, "Kill whitey, kill whitey, kill all the whiteys!"
Martin escorted the boy to the principal's office. When the student admitted threatening to kill his teacher, Lewis immediately ordered him expelled for the year. The police were called, and Martin reported the incident. When Vice Principal Richard Lamb asked the boy why he threatened his teacher's life, the 14-year-old answered that he did not like her because he preferred his other teacher, who is black. He didn't like white people, he explained, because whites were racist. He sobbed throughout.
"He is learning that racist stuff at home, because he doesn't learn it here," Lewis told Martin. Lewis instructed Lamb to begin expulsion proceedings immediately. And Lewis saw to it that someone walked Martin to her car every day.
On April 12, the boy's mother brought him back to school, and he weepily apologized to Martin. She said she accepted the apology, but was shocked to learn that the boy had not been expelled or placed in another school. What's more, Lamb, who is white, had informed her that the boy would be returning to campus. He assured her the boy would not come into contact with her in any way. (Lamb wouldn't return several phone calls from the Observer.)
They agreed that the student would be placed in a separate building for the remainder of the school year, and would not be allowed to enter the main building. "Under no circumstances was this student to be in the building where I worked," Martin recalls. "That was the agreement on Friday." If he violated the agreement--Lamb warned the student--he would be expelled.
But the very next Monday, Martin noticed Kevin standing in a front hallway of the main building. A coach escorted him out of the building.
Lamb, after hearing about the breach, promised to begin expulsion proceedings for the student. But two weeks later, the boy was still there. On May 6, Lamb informed Martin that Kevin would be returning to her class on May 13 to review for finals. "The boy deserves an education," Martin says Lamb told her.
Lewis, Martin believes, was not aware that Lamb had failed to expel the student; the principal's lack of input in the case bothered the young teacher. (Lewis would not discuss the incident.)
That afternoon, as Martin walked to her car, she heard someone calling her name. "I look around, and it's Kevin waving his arms and screaming, 'Hello, Miss Martin! Hello, Miss Martin!' Then he starts to walk the other way, but then turns, walks in front of my car, stops, stares at me, snickers, and turns away."
Later, Lamb asked her if she was sure the boy wasn't just being friendly. "The kid he knew was a baby," Martin says. "I told him that the sobbing Kevin was an act--that the real Kevin was completely unremorseful. And frankly, why wouldn't he be? Because he hadn't been punished. Kids are going to get away with what they can get away with, and at Lincoln they can get away with murder."
On her exit interview at the district level, Martin told Dr. Robert Bourdene, a psychologist employed as DISD's director of employee relations, that she left Lincoln because she feared for her safety and because she refused to be harassed by a 14-year-old boy.
She learned during that meeting that Lamb never required the student to see the school psychologist, who drops in on campus once a week. School administrators never gauged the seriousness of the boy's threats against Martin. "There was just Dr. Lamb saying this kid is 14 years old, and give him a break--against my word and the kid's admission that he had threatened to kill me," Martin says.
Martin called for a substitute on May 7, a day after learning the student would return to her class. She then picked up her personal belongings and quit Lincoln. Another teacher helped her carry her things to the car.
"These are tough kids, aren't they?" the other teacher asked in sympathy.
"It's not the kids," Martin responded. "It's the administration."
Lewis' supporters say they overlook the principal's gruff demeanor because they know his motivations are good, and because he knows what he's doing. "He wants people to stick by the rules," says former Lincoln substitute teacher Rozyland Pinkerton. "And yes, he may get on the loudspeaker, and yes, he has an authoritative voice, and no, we may not like it, but he's right."
As a token of its appreciation, the district named Lincoln's math and science annex after Lewis in the spring of 1995. The old building has undergone an $800,000 renovation, and has been equipped with modern lab equipment. It is one of the few public buildings in Dallas dedicated to a living person. The new classrooms were named after teachers who taught there during the days of Jim Crow, such as A.W. Brashear and Dr. Mamie McKnight.
Lewis is proud of the annex. "We have everything right up to date," he says. "In the labs, they have a cat for every child, all the best tools. Those children are learning things that I didn't learn in college. It's got all those sacrosanct types of things that Anglos are always trying to reserve for themselves."
Lewis, who does not suffer the media gladly, declined to discuss his teachers' specific concerns with the Observer. And he simply rejects the criticism that he is racist.
He doesn't mind talking about his son, Rod Lewis, however, who just joined the Houston Oilers, or the horses Lewis plans to buy for his farm. When asked if his wife would prefer that he retire, Lewis says, "I'm my own person. I still have all my vital organs."
His face lights up with pride when the subject turns to Lincoln students. He recites the achievements of several students who graduated last May. "We have plenty of those," he says. "Our students haven't become discouraged [by bad press]."
Nobody loves their schoolchildren more than Dr. Napoleon Lewis, and the feeling is mutual.
Najja Hayes, for instance, credits Lewis with helping him focus on his future. A self-described former class clown, Hayes would sometimes get sent to the principal's office. After a while, Lewis began to recognize him and learned his name; Hayes had nowhere to hide. And the day report cards came out, Lewis demanded to see Hayes'. If Lewis caught Hayes walking out of school at the end of the day without any books, he sent him back to retrieve them. Lewis would call Hayes out over the intercom if he stepped out of line.
Hayes says he began to mature--partly to appease Lewis, and partly to keep up with classmates who had already bought into the principal's dream.
When he graduated this May, Hayes had received a $50,000 scholarship to attend Florida A&M University, where he plans to study mass communication. "If it wasn't for Dr. Lewis," Hayes says, "I wouldn't be going to Florida A&M."
Students respect Lewis, Hayes adds, because they trust him. "Dr. Lewis was strict on us, and we knew that," he says. "But we saw that it was because he cared about us, and not because he had to be there."
Even so, Lewis' critics say his behavior has become increasingly arbitrary. In April, Lewis berated a parent at an assembly for bringing balloons to it, several teachers say. The balloons blocked the view of the people sitting behind the parent. How thoughtless could the parent be? Lewis asked.
The parent abruptly stood up, cursed Lewis, and walked out the door. Others followed, and Lewis responded by canceling the whole assembly, which had already begun. The next day, he scheduled another assembly so that he could apologize to parents.
"He means well," says Pamoja, the former journalism teacher who still works at Lincoln. "He just doesn't know how to talk to people. If Dr. Lewis was white, I would have been to the board [to file a complaint] a long time ago."
The consequence of Lewis' outbursts is a highly demoralized staff. "I have had students say, 'How can you work here? I wouldn't want my mother to work under these circumstances,'" Pamoja says. "If you are not getting respect from the top person, then it's no wonder you are not getting respect from the students."
Teachers who voice their opinions are usually not well thought of, Pamoja says. "It doesn't seem like we have had a climate where we can come out and speak up."
Not every teacher took Lewis' diatribes personally. Sally Marshall, a white teacher who taught biology at Lincoln during the 1991-'92 school year, says Lewis reminded her of the CEOs she had worked with in the corporate world. "He would have made an excellent CEO for some corporation," she says. "With CEOs, of course, it won't be a democracy."
Marshall was more forgiving of Lewis' alleged antipathy for whites than other white former colleagues. "He is an old man, and he came from a place [the segregationist South] that I don't know about, but I think I would be kind of ugly coming from so awful a place. How anybody can suffer under that and achieve anything is incredible."
In the last year and a half, however, Lewis lost both of his top administrators at Lincoln. Juanita Wallace is now vice principal of Spence Middle School, and former dean Evelyn Akram just accepted the post of principal at Burleson High School in Burleson.
Wallace, who left the school in spring of 1995, was replaced by Florence Cox, who would not discuss her experiences with Lewis because she says she is preparing to bring a lawsuit against him. She would not elaborate.
Wallace's defection lends credibility to the teacher's complaints, because she was largely considered one of Lewis' closest allies. For her part, Wallace acknowledges that she left Lincoln because she could no longer tolerate Lewis' behavior. "He can be extremely difficult," she says.
The relationship between the two educators unraveled in February 1995 during an assembly to celebrate black history. Everyone had dressed up for the occasion, some male teachers even wearing tuxedos. But for some reason, Lewis took exception to some of the women who wore hats as part of their ensembles. He took to the intercom earlier in the day, and made a general announcement that those women wearing hats must take them off. When some of the women appeared at the assembly with their hats still on, Lewis took the stage and denounced them. They deserved to be fired for their insolence, he said.
Pamoja was one of those women. "He was very irate," she says. "He said, 'You defied me.'"
In front of students, other faculty, and parents, Lewis criticized the women, bringing at least one of them to tears.
Wallace sat stone-faced in the audience. When Lewis finished his speech, he approached the dean. He noticed her sullen expression.
"'Don't you think I did the right thing?'" she recalls him asking.
"No, I do not," she replied.
"'You never agree with me,'" she says he told her.
After the assembly, Wallace went to Lewis' office and told him he could not fire the ladies. According to Wallace, he exploded. "'You don't tell me what to do,'" she says he yelled. "'Now get out of my office.'"
Wallace says she could feel the blood coursing through her face. "I'm not going anywhere today," she shot back. "But I will leave this school."
Later, after Wallace had already put in a transfer request, Lewis apologized, saying everybody was mad at him. He called DISD Superintendent Woolery and asked him to reverse the request, but it was too late. Wallace had already been accepted as vice principal of Spence Middle School.
Wallace says it broke her heart to leave Lincoln and Lewis, whom she considers a mentor, but that she could no longer reason with the man.
"He has done so many wonderful things, and I know he wants to keep doing things for the students, but his health and his age are not allowing him to think clearly," she says.
"I think there comes a time when we have to say we have done the best we can, and we need to go home.
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