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Sun Burned

Before she burned her rear while sitting on a toilet in the kindergarten rest room, before she discovered that children were being forced to stand in the sun as a form of discipline, Nerina Kagan, an offbeat, highly credentialed music teacher from Connecticut, figured she'd found her niche teaching hip-hop and show tunes and spirituals to inner-city kids at Mary Bethune Elementary School.

When Kagan was hired at Bethune last January, she recalls sensing a certain simpatico with her new boss, Principal Earl Epps. Like Kagan, Epps was a transplanted Easterner devoted to educating poor kids living in what we now euphemistically call Phoenix's "urban core"--the gang-infested inner city where junkies toss used needles on school playgrounds, where kids cart knife shanks to class in backpacks, where a felled leader of Wetback Power or West Side City has more name recognition and respect than Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez or John F. Kennedy.

Kagan wasn't at all intimidated by the toughness of Phoenix's inner-city schools--she'd taught in similar schools in Connecticut for years.

But before moving to Phoenix, she wondered how she'd fit into the Arizona educational landscape, where schools were underfunded by the legislature, where the teacher's union seemed emasculated by right-to-work laws, where wing nuts were popping out fringey charter schools faster than she could say "Piaget."

Despite her apprehensions, Kagan moved to Phoenix in 1998 because she wanted to be near her adult daughter, who lived in the Valley. Except for her daughter, she didn't know a soul. She figured she'd make friends once she got a teaching job.

Upon obtaining her Arizona teaching credentials, Kagan interviewed with Principal Earl Epps (she describes it as a wonderful session) and was hired by the Phoenix Elementary School District to teach music at Bethune, 1310 South 15th Avenue, which enrolls 583 students in kindergarten through the sixth grade.

Kagan's hire was a blessing for Bethune, which had been relying on a "long-term" substitute teacher to teach music to the children.

Then, just a few days after her hire, Kagan sat on the toilet seat in the girls' kindergarten bathroom and noted to several staff members that she'd burned her butt on what she claimed the janitor told her was an "acid" used to remove rust from toilets. Kagan wasn't so worried about her burn, but she said that children might similarly be injured. No one at the Phoenix Elementary School District could determine that such an acid had been used in the rest room.

The school nurse suggested Kagan had been bitten by an insect.
Kagan's complaints annoyed Epps because she hadn't voiced them directly to him, the boss.

She was told by Epps to address future "concerns" to him.
And Epps instructed her to use the faculty bathroom, not the kindergarten bathroom.

Kagan said okay.
For a while, it seemed as though Kagan had settled right in to Bethune School.

In late March, Kagan received a perfect evaluation from assistant principal Kristyne Hannah, who noted, among other things, that Kagan "carefully displays self-control, good judgment and tact" and "follows established policy and procedures as established by the District in accordance with state law."

Kagan "has really turned around the Music program" and "displays a lot of energy and enthusiasm while conducting lessons," Hannah wrote in the same evaluation.

"The students in turn show this energy and enthusiasm," Hannah concluded.
Then, in late spring, Kagan overheard a teacher say unruly students could be forced to stand in the sun as punishment.

Kagan never saw kids standing in the sun, but after talking with parents, teachers and children she concluded that such a punishment did exist.

She wasn't alarmed by kids standing in the sun on winter days, but the notion of students being made to suffer autumn and spring rays while being deprived of shade and water seemed unusually cruel to her.

Still chafing from her last encounter with Epps over the toilet-seat incident, she decided not to complain to the principal. Instead, she rang up the Child Protective Services hot line. She phoned CPS, she says, to figure out whether standing in the sun is a suitable punishment for children in Arizona.

CPS replied that it wasn't okay to line kids up in the sun for punishment, but that CPS could not intervene because the alleged abuse occurred on school ground. It was up to school officials to put an end to the practice. So Kagan informed assistant principal Hannah, the one who'd given her the great evaluation. And Kagan also told parents that standing out in the sun was not acceptable in CPS's eyes.

After parents and kids decided to talk to Epps about this bizarre form of discipline, Kagan sensed that other teachers in the school shunned her because she was a troublemaker.

 

Epps was feeling the heat, too, although he wasn't standing in the sun.
On May 11, after Kagan called CPS, Epps sent out a memo to teachers warning them not to force kids to stand out in the sun as punishment.

On May 13, two days later, kids again said they were made to stand out in the sun. On that day, according to the National Weather Service, the temperature reached 98 degrees. There was no precipitation.

Kagan was furious. Parents were furious. Several mothers, including Maria Pinon, the mother of two Bethune students, marched to the district office and voiced their outrage. (District officials do not deny that children were made to stand in the sun on May 13. But they blame the problem on a "misinformed" school aide.)

Pinon, who is Spanish-speaking, claims she had once before complained to Epps about children standing in the sun, but says Epps told her, through a translator, that if she didn't like the rule she could take her kids to another school. (Epps denies this ever happened.) After the May 13 incident, Pinon decided she would indeed enroll her children in another school.

Epps was not happy with Kagan.
Despite her perfect evaluation two months before, Kagan got a letter from Epps on May 24. It was a Notice of Intent to Discipline. According to Epps, Kagan had displayed "improper attitudes" and had engaged in "unprofessional conduct . . . acts of insubordination" and "willful disobedience."

Kagan was not invited to return to Bethune for the 1999-2000 school year. She was offered a teaching job elsewhere in the district, but she declined, sensing she would be singled out as a troublemaker and harassed at any school in the district.

That's unfortunate.
At the very time educators across the nation ponder how to attract good teachers to inner-city schools, how to recruit two million teachers in the next decade to meet growing enrollment, how to keep teachers from leaving their profession each year at the rate of 7 percent, Nerina Kagan wonders if she herself will ever go back to teaching.

Earl Epps grew up in New Jersey, in an inner-city neighborhood. He has been an educator for 20 years, received his doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin, and has taught everything from kindergarten classes to college courses. You get the feeling Epps figures he should know how to handle these kids. After all, he once was an inner-city child himself.

He says he likes to see kids march down the sidewalk in an orderly fashion with their hands behind their backs.

Epps has been Bethune's principal for four years. In his first year, he says, kids were sent to his office to be disciplined about 1,000 times. In the last school year, he claims to have handled only 177 disciplinary referrals. Epps also claims that in his first year at Bethune, officials confiscated more than 100 "weapons" from the children. (He says no real guns were confiscated, but includes toy guns, penknives and an occasional kitchen knife in the "weapons" category.) In each of the last two school years, Epps says, only one weapon was confiscated.

Further, he says, kids aren't allowed to extol the virtues of gangs in school. Once-prevalent gang graffiti are no longer scrawled on campus walls, he says.

Here's the problem in measuring Epps' success as a disciplinarian: District officials say they have no way of confirming or denying Epps' statistics.

Epps is a bureaucrat, and he talks like one. He explains his programs to improve self-esteem and gives them catchy acronyms. He says discipline is progressive, ranging from a warning to isolation from friends at lunchtime to various forms of suspension. He admits children have to stand on their feet in the In School Suspension Program if they don't follow the rules, but says once kids agree to follow the rules, they can sit down again.

But he says students were not made to stand in the sun, or at least he has no direct knowledge of kids being made to stand in the sun. He dismisses Kagan's assertions that such a practice was routine at Bethune as "allegations."

Given Epps' views on discipline, it's not hard to believe that on occasion a teacher might have felt comfortable lining a rowdy class up in the broiling sun for a few minutes.

If it happened before, it's wrong, and, thanks to Kagan, Epps has issued a directive that it not happen again.

But the punishment meted out to music teacher Nerina Kagan by Principal Epps and the Phoenix Elementary School District seems far more draconian than forcing kids to stand in the sun for 15 minutes.

 

Kagan is undeniably eccentric. She is also a dedicated, highly credentialed teacher who loves inner-city kids. Such teachers are rare. Yet instead of being praised for following her conscience and trying to advocate for children, she was harassed and verbally assailed for "not following policies and procedures" of a school bureaucracy.

She was made to feel unwelcome in the only place she feels at home--the classroom.

Instead of chastising her, Epps and district officials should have figured out a way to make use of her considerable talents.

The way it stands now, the district has lost an excellent teacher, and the children are the big losers.

Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 602-229-8437 or her online address: tgreene@newtimes.com


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