Holly Keiser was sitting on the living-room sofa, watching the evening news, when the story broke: a Dallas public-school teacher had been suspended from her job, supposedly for telling her black fifth-graders to "Go back to Africa."
At first blush, Keiser couldn't imagine the story was true. What schoolteacher in her right mind would say such a thing to children?
Which is the point, actually.
"When they said the teacher was Deen Williamson, I nearly fell off the couch," Keiser says. "Because I knew that this incident was just the tip of the iceberg--that people had no idea who they were dealing with here."
Keiser, you understand, has seen the bottom of Deen Williamson's iceberg.
"From 1989 to 1992, I colored her hair," says Keiser, a hair stylist at Salon Preston Center in North Dallas. "She had told my boss and me that she was a diagnosed manic-depressive who was in the throes of a divorce, and she was concerned that her ex-husband was trying to kill her. She was very, very thin, almost emaciated, and real high-strung--just a non-stop talker who never took a breath. She was always telling us about this lawsuit she had pending with the Abilene Independent School District.
"She was on quite a bit of medication," Keiser continues. "One Saturday she told us, 'I'm concerned that my doctor is trying to kill me because I've read about the medication--the concentration and the dose--and it's lethal.'" So she would quit taking the medication until two or three days before her checkups and blood tests, and then she'd double or triple up on everything.
"At one point, she told us the medication was drying her body from the inside out," Keiser recalls, "and she'd come into the salon oiled from head to toe."
"She coated her skin with this oil--she said it was to keep the moisture inside her body," Keiser says. "It was pretty thick--thicker than baby oil, more like Vaseline. She'd smear it all over herself, and I had to wash it out of her hair. It was pretty disgusting."
Hairdressers know everything. This is a given. Still, what Holly Keiser told me over coffee two weeks ago seemed as incredible as what Deen Williamson had told her students two weeks before that.
But, incredibly, what Deen Williamson's hairdresser told me is true. This longtime Dallas school teacher is a sad, troubled soul--who has no business being in a classroom. And DISD knew it years ago.
The proof of Williamson's problems--save, well, the Vaseline anecdote--sits in courthouse archives in Abilene and Houston. It's all there: the manic depression, the medications, the psychiatrists, the paranoia, the pain.
"I am not a rebel," Williamson scrawled across the top of a psychiatric examination of herself that she filed in 1990 in U.S. District Court in Abilene. "Rather I am simply a victim of opression [sic] (which I can prove), who is being denied redress, but the redress is 'in the works.'"
Forget for a moment that this 51-year-old career teacher can't spell or craft a proper sentence. That's the least of this woman's problems--despite what you've been reading in the Dallas Morning News.
For the past month, the News has run a series of lazy stories that Williamson and her three lawyers have fed the paper in an attempt to clear her name. The most recent, which appeared last Monday on the front of the Metropolitan section, was the strangest--not surprising since Williamson was quoted, rather than her lawyers.
"Ms. Williamson denied making the remarks to her students and said some of the pupils have been used by others who want to harm her," News staffer Larry Bleiberg reported. Williamson was quoted telling the paper: "The people that are fronting these children are putting the children up to this."
Comments such as these might have seemed a red flag--cause to delve a bit more deeply. Instead, the News has offered little mention of DISD's case against Williamson--one of the best-documented termination cases DISD has ever brought. It's also a case that--for different reasons altogether--could well have been brought against Williamson seven years ago, when she was first hired. But we'll get to that later.
The truth is there are 19 kids in three classes at Umphrey Lee Elementary--not to mention six teachers--who are prepared to testify against Williamson in a termination hearing later this month. (Williamson is currently suspended with pay.) In fact, school officials were initially going to go with statements from only 11 children, but Williamson gave them the names of nine more she claimed would back up her version of events. Eight of them didn't; the ninth couldn't help either side.
Interviews with school district employees, parents, and students--plus a review of Dallas Police Department incident reports--present a picture of a woman in a rage about race. Their story is that on October 17, Williamson came to the largely black Oak Cliff school where she has been employed for six years and spent the day discussing--and criticizing--the Million Man March.
In class, her students will testify, she made disparaging remarks about march leader Louis Farrakhan--things like "That guy is crazy, you know. He speaks out of both sides of his mouth."
According to the DISD witnesses, she said other things, too--beyond the now-infamous "Go Back to Africa" line. She declared that blacks don't do well on state achievement tests; that her own sons couldn't get school scholarships because blacks got them instead; and that "black people will always find a way to act a fool."
By lunchtime, several of the children had complained to a popular school coach and physical education teacher named Kermit Sneed. Sneed, who is black, is expected to testify that Williamson walked up to him in the school cafeteria at lunchtime and, in a confrontational manner, asked him: "What did you think of the Million Man March?"
Instead of taking the bait, Sneed responded by asking Williamson the same question. "Things escalated from there," says a DISD official, "and Williamson finally told him--in front of a tableful of teachers--'Hell, if you don't like this country, go back to Africa.'"
But that's not the end of the story.
Williamson, it seems, became increasingly agitated during the course of the day. Her last-period students, who had witnessed her verbal altercation with Sneed, were highly upset about what they had overheard.
Even Williamson admits her last-period class was so upset--"it was like a revolt," she told me--that she ran out into the hall at one point to try to find another teacher who could help her calm down her students. The students also contend that Williamson lashed out at them physically. When parents began calling DISD the following morning to complain about Williamson, some also called the Dallas Police Department.
Sergeant Fred Rich in DPD's child-abuse division told me last Friday that police are considering filing misdemeanor assault charges against Williamson for alleged actions involving three students. A decision should be made sometime this week. "We've interviewed the children involved," said Rich, "but we're sort of handicapped by not having talked to her. We've made efforts, but we have not been able to talk to her. We've contacted her attorneys."
It's not surprising that Williamson would want to avoid the police on this topic. The details of her alleged actions are pretty hair-raising.
"My daughter broke her big toe a few days before all this happened," says Janice McGowan, the mother of 10-year-old Ambria, one of the students discussed in the police reports. "It was the end of the day, and my daughter was standing at her locker out in the hallway, and this woman came out of her classroom and purposely pushed my daughter into the lockers. My baby was on crutches at the time--she had a leg cast that went up almost to her knee." Ambria, who had just been dismissed from Williamson's last-period class, left school in tears. She also left in pain--in fact, what Williamson did to her caused more damage to her toe, requiring a new leg cast.
But the physical repercussions were less serious than the emotional ones. Ambria's mom says that the day after this happened, Ambria kept asking her, "Mama, why don't people like us?" She promptly fell into a depression, her mother says, and had problems eating and sleeping. A doctor at Children's Medical Center put her on an anti-depressant, her mom says, which she is still on today.
As you can imagine, racial bile can wear on a person pretty quick--especially when the person is only 10 years old. Recalls a DISD official: "One little girl said to us when we interviewed her, 'Why would I go back to Africa? I don't know anything about Africa.' Those kids were perplexed. That's what is so hurtful about this."
During the Million Man March conversation, police reports show, one little girl put her head down on her desk because she was so upset about what was going on in class. "Her teacher walked over to her desk, grabbed her ponytail and pulled her hair violently, causing pain to her head," the report states.
Williamson also walked up behind another little girl and "pushed her head, forcing the complainant's head to make contact with the top of the desk," according to another police report.
Williamson is adamant that none of this took place--the racist remarks or the assaults. "The saddest thing about this whole thing is that the children are being used as shields," she told me.
So the children know that what they're saying isn't true? "They know it's not true," she said. "But they're going forward with something someone wants them to say."
Talking to Williamson is persuasive--but not the way she thinks.
Last Friday, I called Williamson at her Arlington apartment to talk to her for the first time and ask if she'd pose for a photograph. Interviews were arranged only through her lawyer, she told me, and she wanted no pictures taken. But she did agree to loan the Observer photos. Since she was going out for the evening, she would put the photos in an envelope and tape it to her front door.
"You don't think anyone will take it?" I asked her.
"No," Williamson snapped back. "I don't live in the projects."
There are two big-picture questions here: Why did DISD ever hire this woman in the first place? And why didn't it fire her years ago?
Neither answer will give any DISD parent comfort. Because both come down to a giant DISD screwup.
It started the day in August 1988 when Deen Williamson applied for a job. She walked in the door and promptly lied on her job application. It was a big lie, actually, and one that competent personnel management would have easily detected.
"Have you ever been asked to resign or been discharged through due process from any position, teaching or otherwise?" the application asked. Williamson marked "no."
In truth, Williamson had been removed from the classroom and asked to resign at her previous teaching job in Abilene 20 months earlier. And because of bad references from the school district there, she hadn't worked as a teacher since. In fact, an internal memo from her principal in the Abilene Independent School District, on file in federal court there, states Williamson was removed from the classroom for being "extremely incompetent and incapable of changing."
The memo sums up the situation this way: "During observations, I saw many students off task, time not being used wisely, and the curriculum plans not being followed. This teacher did not monitor all of the students, thus, some did as they wanted the entire time...The students were often bribed with promises of treats, special privileges, time off if they would behave when visitors were in the classroom. These times of bribed goodness were short-lived because most of the time the class was total bedlam."
Which brings us to two more lies on her DISD job application. Williamson wrote on the application that she'd worked at AISD from August 1986 through May 1987. Asked why she left the district, she wrote "end of the year." She repeated that explanation last Monday during an interview. In truth, court documents show, she'd been forced out in December 1986--after only three months on the job.
When I asked Williamson on Tuesday why she had lied on her application seven years ago--and to me the previous day--she sighed. "Yes, OK, I told a fib," she said. "But the thing was, I needed a job. I didn't have any money."
This was not a good time in Williamson's life. She had not only lost her job, but her husband had just sued her for divorce back in Houston, where the couple had lived with their two boys before the marriage failed. The breakup is what had prompted her to move back to her hometown of Abilene.
Williamson told me she did not want the divorce--to the point that she actually appealed the divorce decree to a higher court. "I didn't think they had the legal right to end my marriage," she told me.
This is how Williamson, in her AISD lawsuit, describes her emotional state during the week she lost her AISD job: "...There was a lot of pressure, I felt my whole body was going to explode. I did not know if it was night or day. I was in bad shape."
This is how she described that period to me: "It was like I was crawling through a tunnel, and we were all going to be saved," she says, referring to herself and her two sons.
Between the time she lost her position in Abilene and got hired in Dallas, Williamson told me repeatedly, she tried desperately to get her job back and "clear my name." During that time, she tells me, "they" were "out to get her"--meaning AISD officials. "They broke into my house," she says (to look for an incriminating tape recording she had made). "They put leaves in my gas tank...they wanted to destroy me."
When AISD officials wouldn't rehire her, she shot off complaints to the Texas State Teachers Association and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Then, in September 1988, she filed a federal lawsuit against AISD, asking for $16 million in damages. When a federal judge threw her lawsuit out three months later, she appealed it. All the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. She lost every step of the way, finally giving up in 1994.
In her original suit--a rambling, disjointed 21-page petition that she drafted herself and edited with a pen because she had no lawyer representing her--she talks about the trouble she was having finding a new teaching job. ("It's incoherent because my life was destroyed," Williamson tells me now about the petition. "When I finished massaging it, it was like blood coming out of my body.")
One of Williamson's big complaints in that petition is that Abilene kept giving out bad references on her. She had applied for teaching jobs with 15 different school districts, she told me.
Every one of them turned her down, she says--except Dallas. Why? Well, it seems that Dallas, unlike all the other school districts, never called to check her references. "They did not call me for a reference in Dallas," says former AISD personnel director Gayle Lomax, now superintendent in Snyder, 90 miles from Abilene. "Dallas should have called me. Because I would have told them. I would have said, 'I don't care what the emergency situation is in your school district, you do not need to hire this particular applicant. I don't know what the shortage is--there's a better candidate out there.'"
Williamson says even she was surprised when a woman from DISD called and pretty much hired her on the phone. This was in November, she says--three months after she had applied, after school had already started. "She didn't do a test. She didn't do a background check. She just said, 'You have the job.'"
The man now in charge of personnel for DISD, Robby Collins, says it's possible that someone in his department, which he did not then oversee, called someone in Abilene other than Lomax. But that seems quite unlikely--and DISD at the time didn't even require documenting reference checks.
Besides, Williamson had listed Lomax on her DISD application as her number-one job reference--and her only one in Abilene. She even provided DISD with his phone number.
Williamson herself concedes that no one checked her references. But it wasn't due to spotty personnel work, she says. To the contrary, she believes--she knows--that "it was all set up.
"Dallas was doing this to help Abilene in the lawsuit," she says, explaining that by proving she was still employable, Abilene protected itself from big damages in her lawsuit. It was all a conspiracy between the two school districts, she told me, one that continues today. That's what explains the problems she is now facing.
Collins, who has been with the district 32 years, makes no excuses for DISD. Heck, he spent the last two years in the top personnel job--he's been promoted to assistant superintendent since--trying to clean up the mess his predecessors left. Though, of course, he doesn't put it quite like that.
"When I came into this job, we had tremendous turnover," Collins says. "We were getting between 200 and 300 vacancies each month--and there were times that shot up to 400. It was an issue at every single school board meeting, and the pressure was enormous to fill those jobs."
Collins has wrestled those numbers down to about 20 a month, tightened up the sloppy employment process, and gotten rid of an astonishing number of bad teachers and principals--"about 100 a year," he says. It now irks him a bit when the board chastises him for occasionally allowing the monthly vacancies figure to creep up to, say, 40. After all, he remembers the bad old days, which extended back to the mid-'80s. "Back then, we were basically hiring anybody who walked in the door," Collins says. "We were really scraping the bottom of the barrel."
Which is right where Deen Williamson was sitting.
Since lying on a job application gets you automatically fired at DISD, Robby Collins now wants to add that infraction to his pending case against Williamson.
But lies aside, you wonder how Williamson could have survived seven years at a huge, urban school district like Dallas when she couldn't cut it for even three months in little Abilene. Especially when she was running around town, covered in Vaseline. (She says she doesn't specifically remember doing that, commenting: "I really tried to block all that out.")
Is it possible that DISD is just so big--there are 150,000 students and 9,300 teachers--that Williamson simply got lost in the shuffle? That no one knew she had serious problems making it hard for her to be a good role model to 10-year-olds?
No. DISD knew. It just didn't do anything about it. In fact, it sent her to numerous psychiatrists.
You'd never know from looking at Williamson's personnel file that there were any problems with her conduct at school. That's because her file is devoid of anything but her original job application and records showing that she received raises every year. "In order to get regular, annual pay raises, which she got, you have to have at least a satisfactory performance," Collins says. "And she got regular, annual pay raises."
Performance evaluations are not public record, Collins says. Neither are parent complaints--though Collins says no complaint about Williamson has reached his level downtown in the two years he's been supervising personnel. Medical records are also not public record. But just because they're not in the file doesn't mean they don't exist.
To the contrary, Williamson actually filed her own Dallas medical records in her Abilene lawsuit--figuring, I suppose, that no one would ever see them.
An internal DISD memo dated May 9, 1990--sent by clinical psychologist Dr. Robert Bourdene, director of the district's Office of Employee Well Being, to Dr. H.B. Bell, then assistant superintendent for elementary school education--lays out "the pertinent facts related to Ms. Deen Williamson."
Bourdene first saw Williamson, the memo states, in February 1989--only three months after she was hired. It doesn't explain why. (Williamson says it was because Dallas had found out about her lawsuit.) She was then referred to a "consultant psychiatrist."
According to the memo, she was diagnosed in 1989 as having a "bipolar disorder"--meaning she was manic-depressive, exhibiting a condition marked by extreme emotional highs and equally extreme lows. Williamson insists that the diagnosis was inaccurate. And she can prove it, she says. "If you're manic-depressive, that means the house is falling in from the inside out. With me, it was falling in from the outside in--onto me. When you have a mental problem, they fall from the inside out. You see?"
The memo goes on in some detail about how Williamson was "treated and medicated" by various physicians at that time and pulled out of the classroom for the remainder of the 1988-89 school year.
Williamson says she only took the pills she was prescribed when she had to go back to the doctor for a blood test--the same scenario her hairdresser Holly Keiser described. In fact, she has saved the "hundreds and hundreds" of pills she was prescribed, she says, including "Lithium, uppers, downers, and hallucinogens."
When she was on the drugs, she had very bad side effects, she told me, including "bumps on my stomach," nausea, disorientation, and worse--"like the walls coming in."
"You can't operate properly," she said. Not even at school--where she says she sometimes went while medicated.
After her spring leave, she returned to the classroom--at a different school, Umphrey Lee. But her new principal sent her back to Dr. Bourdene the following spring. (The memo doesn't say why. Williamson says only: "It was some kind of ridiculous thing that didn't make any kind of sense.")
After visiting with Williamson, Dr. Bourdene wrote: "I observed what I considered to be pressure of speech, flight of ideas, expansive mood mixed with irritable mood and paranoid ideation. I was concerned she might be hypomanic and possibly become manic."
Bourdene sent her back to the same outside psychiatrist, who recommended a medical leave. But Williamson's insurance company would not cover her treatment, the memo states, and she was sent for a second psychiatric opinion. The second doctor said he couldn't make a definitive diagnosis that would support a medical leave. Dr. Bourdene met with Williamson again.
"I clearly indicated to her my concerns for her psycho-emotional well being," Bourdene wrote. "I recommend that she pursue psychotherapy/counseling and psychomedication as intervention options. I noted I had no other options but to recommend her return to active duty..."
Williamson says she has seen Dr. Bourdene at least twice since then, most recently this past spring. "There was a ridge that started raising in my head, and I thought my skull was sinking," she explains.
Looking over the Bourdene memo, Robby Collins shakes his head. Collins has never seen it. If she hadn't filed in court, he says, it would be a confidential document that DISD could neither disseminate nor act upon. Termination on such a basis would be illegal because, under the Americans With Disabilities Act, people with mental health problems cannot be fired unless their problems affect their job performance.
Which, as far as Collins knows, didn't happen with Deen Williamson until October 17, 1995.
Deen Williamson has her best foot forward. Unfortunately for her, that's not saying much.
She is holding court at the far end of a conference table in her lawyer's office, wearing a soft pink jogging suit, a pair of costume pearl earrings, and a pink manicure she clearly gave herself. While someone gets her coffee and her attorney leaves the room to get his tape recorder for the interview, Williamson, a woman I have never met, asks me--pleasantly enough--how my newborn child is doing.
When I answer "fine," she looks at me earnestly. "When he gets older, and he's getting ready to potty train, don't pressure him," she says with intensity. "It's very important that you don't push him to get out of diapers. Little children can get damaged very quickly. So don't do it. Do you hear what I'm saying?"
Loud and clear. For the next two-and-a-half hours.
Suffice it to say that toward the end of that time, Williamson's lawyer, Ed Klein, and I simply looked at each other across the table. We had heard his client meander repeatedly down the verbal path of no return--conjuring up various conspiracy theories about why she's had so many personal and professional problems over the past 10 years. We were both, quite frankly, looking a bit dazed--by the volume of information Williamson had passed on, the disorganized way it was all fashioned in her head, and the extreme passion with which she delivered it.
Passion that time and again roared right past her attorney's better judgment.
"It was out of an Edgar Allen Poe novel--short story," Williamson said at one point, during our exploration of how the Dallas and Abilene school districts had been conspiring against her these past seven years. "Very few people survive what they put me through..."
"Alright, that's enough," Klein said, cutting her off for the umpteenth time.
"That's true," she insisted.
"Name five dead people who didn't survive what you went through," Klein said.
"I mean professionally survived," Williamson shot back.
"I don't want to get into that," Klein said.
In fact, he really hadn't wanted to get into the whole Abilene-Dallas conspiracy to begin with. But in a flash, totally unprompted, Williamson was back into it--giving me, once again, some minute detail of her unsuccessful U.S. Supreme Court battle. Klein sighed heavily. It wasn't the first time.
"We are getting so far afield of reality," he interrupted.
On the issue at hand--Williamson's racial attitudes--she told me that "black teachers have a different code of ethics" than white teachers; complained about the pictures hung on one DISD school's walls ("you go in the school cafeteria and everything is black"); and that Dr. Bourdene gave her a book earlier this year, which she says was entitled "'Jiving and Jibbing'--I don't know, I didn't read it."
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Sitting there, listening to her drone on, I couldn't help but wonder what it would be like to be an elementary school child sitting in one of her classes, my mind like a sponge, waiting forEDeen Williamson to fill it up?
Yet it's been that way for seven, long years--for far too many kids.
Yes, Deen Williamson is a sad, troubled soul. But what happened isn't really her fault. She's wrestling with private demons.
It's up to DISD to protect children from such folks--to hire teachers who can help kids, not those who are so much in need of help themselves.
The Deen Williamson episode, in short, is tragic--and DISD officials have no one but themselves to blame.