She had 'a huge smile on her face. I just ignored her'
A teacher's complaints about another might make you laugh. Not superintendent Wilcox.
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published March 26, 2007
LARGO - A day after the terrible event, a letter arrived in the front office at Walsingham Elementary School.
"Dear Bill ..."
Bill Nordmark is the principal.
"On Monday, 9-18-06, while I was doing my daily morning bus duty by the media center, I was assaulted by Jan Owen! I was standing still, monitoring the students as they were going to breakfast. I complimented the students on their good behavior. ... Then as Jan Owen came walking by me - she hit me with a large brown envelope striking the right side of my face, neck and top of my shoulder.
"I was appalled by her attack and unprofessional behavior! Immediately I said, 'Excuse me?' Jan just stared blankly at me - saying nothing. Then I said, 'Don't ever touch my body.'
"This was a deliberate, physically hostile attack on me."
The letter was signed by Diane Murphy, one of Owen's fellow teachers at Walsingham. That day, she complained to the school district's Office of Professional Standards, which investigates employee misbehavior.
In OPS case 31967, there's no gripe left behind.
* * *
The professional standards office entered two offenses on Owen's record: "Problem with Colleagues" and "Harassment/Non-Student."
It turned out that three teachers had witnessed the episode between Murphy and Owen, both veteran educators in their mid 50s.
One said Owen "gently brushed" an envelope across Murphy's shoulder as she said "Good morning." Another said Owen "lightly touched" Murphy. "Very harmless," she said.
The third witness said Murphy and Owen both seemed startled by what happened.
The OPS told the principal to tell Owen to write an apology to Murphy. Case closed.
* * *
Instead of apologizing, Owen wrote a letter saying she was upset that such a small matter had generated a disciplinary file.
She explained that she had merely raised her hand to say "Good morning" and touched Murphy with the envelope. She recalled saying she was sorry. It had been an accident.
Murphy said that the harassment continued. In a letter to the principal in October, she chronicled five weeks of outrages:
- Five times when Owen parked in her space or parked too close to her car.
- A time when "Jan Owen's shirt sleeve brushed across me as I was standing against my doorway."
- A morning when Owen walked toward her in the hallway, "staring at me with a huge smile on her face. I just ignored her and went into my room."
- Owen displaying a bumper sticker on her car so Murphy would see it. It quoted the French philosopher Voltaire: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."
Later, Owen would say the bumper sticker had been on her car for years. It was her comment on a different war.
The one in Iraq.
* * *
By February - five months after the envelope incident - Owen had convinced the professional standards office that she hadn't harassed anybody. But she was still upset that the offense, problem with colleagues, remained on file.
She complained to the School Board, which forwarded the matter to superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who asked his staff attorney to look into it. Last week, the attorney gave Wilcox a four-page summary with 11 pages of background material.
Wilcox wondered why an envelope attack in September would be on his desk in March - why it would be on his desk at all. "No private firm would put up with this kind of stuff," he said testily.
The superintendent often talks about urgency, and about "Nero fiddling while Rome burns."
The way he sees it, Walsingham Elementary is Rome, and it's on fire. The school has an A grade from the state. But about half the children are from poor families. Sixty percent of Walsingham's large population of Hispanic students tested below grade level in reading.
The district recently surveyed the Walsingham staff about the school's climate. Teachers groused about favoritism and inconsistency from management, about cliques and negative e-mails. They talked about having to "fight for everything."
One anonymous person had a helpful suggestion. It's what they always tell the kids: "Everyone needs to be nice to each other."Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at 727 893-8923 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they will play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of the news. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, please contact editor Mike Wilson at email@example.com or (727)892-2924.