After two years of scrutiny, controversy and corruption, the Texas Education Agency last month finally announced that it would revoke the charter of Prime Prep Academy, the publicly funded charter school founded and led by Deion Sanders. With the school plotting its appeal, the hits have only continued, in the form of leaked audio, a searing New York Times story and word of a criminal investigation.
But none of that has stopped parents from sending their kids to the school from around the country and beyond, on the hope that, like Sanders says, its troubles are in the rearview and its doors will again open this fall. And some of those parents have put more than their children's schooling in Sanders' hands: The Observer has learned that several players are living in an off-campus apartment, apparently with Prime Prep coaches, in an arrangement that the school's new superintendent said this week he knows nothing about.
"I've never heard of that before," Prime Prep's superintendent, Ron Price, told me this week, when I asked about kids living with coaches off-campus. But it's hardly a secret: The students are living in at least two units at the Madison Point Apartments, a family-friendly gated apartment village a mile from the school's Oak Cliff campus. There is a pool, large patches of grass and a 10 p.m. curfew for all kids in the building. "P Prep" is listed in the apartment building's directory.
I visited the complex for the first time last week and promptly encountered a towering teenager, sitting outside one of the units, waring earbuds and red gym shorts. He introduced himself as Brandon Martin, and his online recruitment profiles help explain his and Sanders' mutual interest in one another: 6-foot-4, 207 pounds, a sub-4.4 40-yard-dash time. Last year, Martin played receiver and defensive back for Wossman High School in Louisiana. Now he's in Dallas, hoping to play football and basketball and run track for Prime Prep.
He heard about the school from watching Sanders' reality show, he said, and from an uncle who lives nearby. He came to Dallas this summer after he was invited to attend Sanders' football camp, though he's not sure how the school heard of him. "I just wanted to go here," he said.
Asked how many roommates he has, he said three, plus a coach. The coaches take the kids wherever they need to go, he said. "We ask the coach to take us, and they'll come get us," he said.
Among his fellow apartment-dwelling recruits is Netori Johnson, a sophomore who moved to Dallas from Atlanta. Johnson's mother, Tara Stroud, told me this week that Johnson has had a troubled childhood and needed a place like Prime Prep to guide him. His father abused her and is now serving time, she said, and his older brother committed suicide. By middle school, Johnson was disrupting class, getting in fights and had been expelled from multiple schools. But he was good at football -- at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, he's built to play offensive tackle -- and she had her eyes on Sanders' charter school when it first opened, hoping the former NFL coaches could better discipline her out-of-control son. She had a connection through her boyfriend, she said, who knew someone through work, who knew a coach in Florida, who knew Sanders.
Stroud was already putting the Prime Prep pieces in motion around February 2013, when her son was arrested for possessing a handgun, she said. Police told her he was in a gang. Desperate, Stroud called up the Florida coach again, and he put her on the phone with former NFL star Jamal Lewis. "'Look, we might be able to help you, we heard your story, we've seen him,'" she recalled Lewis telling her.
Soon, she said, she got that help in the form of an attorney, who agreed to represent Johnson pro bono. (Stroud believes Lewis funded the attorney.) More important, Stroud said, Sanders himself decided Johnson could come to Prime Prep if he kept his grades up. The school sent the judge a letter, she said, pleading for leniency so he could leave Georgia.
The judge seemed impressed, Stroud recalled. "She thought it would be an awesome thing. And she told him, 'If you blow this, if you blow this opportunity, with somebody of Mr. Sanders' caliber ... I'm going to take as much of your freedom that the laws allow me to take from you.'"
Johnson traveled with his mother to Dallas before school started last year, she said. She stayed for a few months before traveling back to Georgia, living in an apartment near the school -- one of two units where coaches live with student athletes. She told Sanders she couldn't afford to go in on rent, she said, and he told her it was fine. She's not sure who writes the rent checks. "I liked the fact that it was gated," she told me. "And I met the rent lady, I met the property management, all of them."
Now, Stroud said, in visits and phone calls, her son is behaving differently. He's more disciplined. The coaches relate to him in a way that she couldn't, she said. "Tori's very arrogant, and he is very full himself. He makes Mr. Sanders laugh," she said. "He's like, 'Boy, I see a lot of myself in you.'"
Even after the TEA said it was revoking Prime Prep's charter this summer, Stroud sent her son to start a second school year here. He flew back to Dallas on Saturday. "Mr. Sanders told us he's taking care of everything," Stroud said. Happy to talk about her son, she compared Prime Prep to boarding schools or military academies, where troubled students sometimes live with their instructors. "I think there should really be more schools like that."
Some of Johnson's roommates have come from even farther. The Blazer Elite Academy is a three-year-old sports league for kids who live in the Turks and Caicos Islands. "Helping Students in the region off going to school in the usa and canada," reads a tagline on the group's Facebook page. In August of last year, Prime Prep's athletic director, Andre Hart, visited the islands and watched the kids play.
Two of those kids from the Caribbean are now students at Prime Prep -- linebacker David Been and track-and-field standout Curvin Edwards. (Photographs that Edwards posted on Twitter also show him in a Prime Prep football jersey, though he's not listed on the roster.)
Ray Evans, the vice president of Blazer Elite Academy, told me by phone that he made sure that his league wasn't violating any NCAA rules, so the boys may eventually be able to attend American universities. "From our understanding, the housing situation was that they had some coaches or people living with them, and it was a decent apartment," Evans said. "Kids were being fed on time. Parents can go and inspect it, whenever they feel like it."
Evans was also confident that Prime Prep will remain open. As he understands it, there was just a fine that needed to be paid, and Sanders has paid it. (In fact, the school's appeal awaits its day before state regulators.) "We've been keeping in contact not only with the students, but Mr. Sanders, and the administration," Evans said.
It's an arrangement with obvious potential pitfalls, as demonstrated by the May death of Troy Causey, a basketball star at Dallas' Wilmer Hutchins High School. Causey had been recruited to the school from Richardson ISD and was living with another Dallas ISD player, Jonathan Turner, in an apartment near the school when a fight broke out between the boys, police say. Causey died, Turner is charged with his death, and a resulting Dallas ISD investigation revealed sweeping recruiting violations and resulted in 15 firings.
But Prime Prep, though public, isn't in Dallas ISD, where such an arrangement would be banned. And because of its recruiting, Prime Prep's sports teams have been barred from playing in Texas' main high-school sports league, the University Interscholastic League, which also bars schools from providing residence to players.
Instead, it belongs to the Texas Christian Athletic League, which has no such rules. TCAL director Darryl Crain said he's aware that Prime Prep players live with coaches. Generally, he said, no housing can be offered to athletes that isn't offered to non-athletes. But there are exceptions.
"They just have to go through the paperwork process, and then we have our compliance officer that will help them make sure they are getting into a situation to make them be able to play collegiately," he said. Some of the kids who live with coaches may not have parents who can provide for them, he added. "We're trying to get kids, especially kids with some life disadvantages, to get some stability."
The boys' neighbors had only nice things to say about the Prime Prep kids. "They're wonderful kids," Marvelis Yates told me last week when I met her in the complex. Yates and another neighbor saw a lot of boys there during the school year, maybe around 10, and about four coaches. They were often seen training, using the apartment's lawn and swimming pool. The crowd has been smaller during the summer.
They weren't sure of all the coaches' names, but I asked about one coach, Welton Johnson, who I'd heard lived there. They recognized that name, the neighbors said. Johnson did not respond to a Facebook message, but he describes himself on Twitter as a coach for Truth, Sanders' sports-focused nonprofit, and that Twitter handle shows that he lives with Prime Prep athletes.
"Off work tomorrow and all 4 of the kids in my house will be in Houston," Johnson tweeted on October 31. The next day, Prime Prep's football team had a game in Tomball, a suburb of Houston, the schedule shows. Johnson's prayers, he explained through Twitter symbols, had been answered.
On Monday night, Netori Johnson, the boy from Georgia, stood in the parking lot with another teenage boy. He said he'd have to ask his coach for permission to give an interview. A few minutes later, the coach, an older man whom I didn't recognize, came downstairs. Visibly upset, he asked me to leave and never return. He had no comment. The students were "babies" he said, too young to be interviewed. "There is no story," he said.
Update: Welton Johnson sent me a lengthy email last night and spoke with me on the phone. He disputed that the kids were recruited for sports or that any student lives in the apartments full-time. "First off Brandon doesn't live with me," Johnson wrote. "He lives with his uncle who lives in Dallas. Does he come around to hangout with his classmates and teammates? Yes, just like high school kids from all over the United States do with their classmates and teammates."
(When I spoke to Brandon, he said he heard about Prime Prep from an uncle who lived nearby, but didn't say that he lived with him when I asked about the apartment and how many roommates he had). "I gave him permission to spend the weekend over there," Johnson explained to me over the phone last night.
In our conversations, Johnson described the apartments as a place where kids are welcome to stay whenever they need, but not a permanent residence. "I can't say any of the kids were living there full time, all of these kids actually do have family here," he said, including the kids from abroad.
Johnson said his work as a Truth coach is strictly on a volunteer basis and that he's not employed by Prime Prep. He didn't want to name the other adults who live at the residence, but described his own role as a tutor and a mentor to the boys, not a coach. He added in his email:
You didn't mention that we are highly educated and mature adults that are taking care of these young men. I am not a prime prep coach not have I ever been. I am a college graduate with a bachelors degree in recreation. I also have a bachelors degree in advertising/public relations. I go to work everyday just like anyone else and no I do not work at prime prep. You never mention the fact that I tutoring these kids, mentor these kids, and that I am preparing these kids to go to college as well as be successful in life. You didn't talk about me teaching these young men respect and how to be men. You didn't talk about how this experience has lead to positive change in these kids. These kids have someone who believes in them and pushes them to be the best they can be. Not just in football but in life. You didn't talk about me teaching these young men respect and how to be men. You didn't talk about how this experience has lead to positive change in these kids. These kids have someone who believes in them and pushes them to be the best they can be. Not just in football but in life. Theses kids are getting true life lessons and an experience that tons of kids would love to have. These kids are being given an opportunity to succeed in life.
This is bigger than just sports. This is about saving the lives of our African American children and showing them that they can make their future whatever they want it to be. In case you didn't know statistics show that 7 out of 10 African Americans in this area are drop outs. This is about those kids who a year or two ago didn't go to class and now they are doing very well in school and have no attendance problems. This is about those kids that nobody cared to give a chance. We aren't going to rich neighborhoods to recruit kids and we aren't going to the big high schools and stealing talent. We are giving those kids that have nothing a chance, we are giving confidence to those kids who don't believe in themselves, and most importantly we are sending those kids to college that were told they would never make it. You ask about our motive. The real question is what is your motive?
See also: - Deion Sanders' Charter School and the Making of a Prime Time Scam - Deion Sanders' Bitter and Violent Quest to Retake Control of His Crumbling Charter School - Deion Sanders Demanded a Raise, Threatened to Break Prime Prep CEO's Neck (Audio NSFW) - Here's Audio of Deion Sanders Admitting That He Choked Prime Prep's COO