Fake Scandalgate Grinds on at Dallas ISD, Thanks to Brett Shipp and the News

All right, the only thing I'm doing here is hitting the button to start the half-life timer on the latest installment of Scandalgate. At the end of last week, Brett Shipp at WFAA TV and the education beat reporters at The Dallas Morning News launched a new Dallas school district scandal story, this one to the effect that a top school administrator has been firing people and then physically beating them up on their way out the door.

And like all the earlier chapters in Scandalgate, just think if it were true! OMG! They fire people, and then on their way out of the building they take a few pokes at them? Educators do this? If this were true, shouldn't we expect RTÉ, Irish National Television, and Al Jazeera to show up early this week?


Yes. This story would be totally amazing, if it were true. It would be an international story. But it will not be an international story. In fact, soon it won't be a story at all. Because that's how it goes in the land of Brett Shipp/Morning News DISD Scandalgate. Huge. Ehh? Gone.

Last week's newscast on WFAA Channel 8 set the scene by describing the alleged employee-beater as, "a high-ranking DISD administrator, already accused of hiding her criminal past."

Tonya Grayson is a mid-level district executive who was found not to have included a criminal conviction on her school district employment application. Grayson, now in her mid-40s, was convicted of misdemeanor trespass when she was 19 — something about painting or defacing the door of a fellow student who was a rival for the affections of a young man. She was given probation.

She did not record the conviction on her application, but asked a district official at the time if she should. She was told that verbally communicating it was in keeping with district policy and that she had nothing to worry about.

More recently, Grayson has been embroiled in mutual recriminations with school board member Bernadette Nutall, and the issue of her application has been revived.

So you tell me. Do we introduce her at the top of an accusation story as a person "already accused of hiding her criminal past?"

Yes? OK. Sure. It's technically correct. I won't argue that. I might have gone for something farther down in the story saying that Grayson, who has been embroiled in controversy with a board member, has been accused of failing to declare a teenage misdemeanor on her job application. Are we splitting hairs? Or giving the reader a more honest picture?

If you say it my way, it rattles. If you say it Shipp's way, it rumbles.

And, look: I am not saying Shipp won't turn out to be right. Maybe Grayson, a rather slight woman of demure composure, will turn out to be a double-life nutcase who thinks she's Sugar Ray Leonard.

But it seems awfully unlikely, does it not? It's like all the Scandalgate scandals. They're all too good to be true. Hey, it was less than two weeks ago that Shipp and the beat reporters at the News accused the district of engaging in massive federal fraud to strip-mine money out of poor kids' schools and give it to rich kids. Al Jazeera should have staffed that one, and so should the BBC have done, if for no other reason than the story's obvious resonance with the works of Charles Dickens.

But that story's gone. Evaporated! Where is it? You see it? I'm turning around and around with my hand shading my eyes, looking. I don't see it anywhere.

Before that, we had the huge, enormous, shocking, devastating news that district employees had been using bad words and saying snarky things in their text messages.

I'm not here to argue that district employees should be able to use the A-word for buttocks in district text messages. But I am a little concerned about proportionality.

We're talking about a school district that was described, before the tenure of the current administration, as a "cradle-to-prison pipeline," unable to prepare more than 1 in 10 of its graduates for college.

The jury is still out on the current administration's reforms, but an awful lot of very interesting experiments seem to be underway. Prior regimes viewed the very few high-performing schools in the district as irritants, embarrassing to the district because their success proved that the children coming to its doors were not necessarily doomed by demographics after all. And you see what that does: It makes failing them the district's fault, not nature's.

At last week's school board meeting, the administration showed the board more plans for its new "ACE" schools initiative ("Accelerating Campus Excellence"), designed to use successful schools already in the district as models, as market indicators for what works and what people want in their schools, replicating those models throughout the city.

The district is also about to launch a new effort, heavily driven by research, to lure middle class families back into the district by creating schools with the stated goal and purpose of achieving economic diversity among students. That's a fundamental reversal of field, philosophically and morally, from the racial and class-bound separatism of the era of federal court supervision.

I don't know that any of it works. That's what makes it so interesting. These are huge gambles with serious risk of failure and almost indescribable payoffs if they work, all aimed at a better day. So, uh, where were we? Oh, yes, did Tonya Grayson really whop, grab, snatch or pop someone on her way out of the builidng? Let's stick with the big stuff here.

The fired employee, Donna Blackmon, filed a complaint with Dallas police after her dismissal saying that Grayson had assaulted her. Court records show that Grayson was issued a citation on March 6 for misdemeanor assault, with a potential fine of $365 and no trial date set. I tried but did not succeed in reaching Blackmon.

DISD told Shipp, told the News and told me that it had investigated the incident and found that all three witnesses present, not including Grayson, reported there was no physical contact and no assault.

Shipp's piece was read by a news anchor, even though Shipp, who is a star, normally presents his own stories. In video accompanying the piece, we see Shipp in shadows, presenting some kind of long statement or question to Blackmon accompanied by a lot of hand gestures, but we do not hear what he is saying to her.

She then says, "I felt I was assaulted."

I emailed Shipp last week to ask him about that quote. Presumably in a sit-down, on-camera interview and with all that time to explain the question, Shipp would have gone with his best quote from Blackmon. So she felt she was assaulted? How about she was assaulted? I emailed Shipp about it:

"Why, in your piece, does she say, 'I feel like I was assaulted.' You couldn't get her to say, 'I was assaulted?'"

Shipp's father, the revered WFAA assignments editor Bert Shipp, is gravely ill. Shipp said he would respond to my question when he gets clear.

So, am I here to say that I know Grayson did not assault Blackmon and that Shipp's story, along with the version in The Dallas Morning News, is no good? No, I don't know that. But here is why I am hitting the button on the half-life timer for this one anyway:

This is an allegation from a fired employee. Shipp's story offers no corroboration from witnesses. The school district offers three witnesses who say it did not happen.

This story comes in the wake of an almost unbroken succession of wannabe scandal stories at DISD, none of which has had any staying power because none of them has turned out to be based on substance. What I call Scandalgate.

Scandalgate isn't a phenomenon that has simply occurred out of the blue. It springs from an extremely volatile context of political warfare around the district and its campaign of reform. Organized cadres of school district employees and their supporters in the community are fighting ferociously to get Superintendent Mike Miles fired and to put an end to his reforms.

Maybe you know how I feel. I think Miles is on the right track and the reforms are terribly promising if admittedly imperfect. Maybe I know how you feel. You may think Miles and his reforms are crap. That's not the issue I'm trying to argue here.

In this political context, there are people in the school district and people in the community who are powerfully motivated to go to reporters with stories they hope will put Miles out of business. And I suppose there are people on the other side motivated to pitch stories supportive of him.

It seems to me, in that environment, a reporter needs to exercise extra caution and a special skepticism whenever anybody shows up with either a school district scandal or a school district puff-piece. The forest is full of partisans out there, and you never know which one's got a knife for you.

Instead Shipp and Channel 8 take a single-source allegation from a fired employee — already rebutted by the only witnesses anybody can find — and gin it up as a scary movie about a known criminal working for the district who goes around assaulting the people she fires.

A few days from now — at the latest — that story will be gone. Beneath the waves. No more. Never another word about it. Just like all the other junk Shipp and the News have done lately.

None of it lasts, because it's all junk. Scandalgate. You'd think someone would be more worried about long-range credibility.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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