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IN THE PRINCIPAL'S OFFICE

Thinking back to the day his nose was bloodied, Jack Eason says he probably should have left the principal's office sooner than he did.

Bill Wicevich, the principal of Desert Arroyo Middle School in Cave Creek, had ordered Eason, a 53-year-old janitor and maintenance man, into his office to discuss Eason's "insubordination."

Eason entered the principal's private office at around 3 p.m. and left at 3:15. What actually transpired during that 15-minute interval last April 9 has been the subject of much dispute and has caused a hubbub in Cave Creek Unified School District circles.

About the only point on which the two agree is that the meeting wasn't friendly and that it ended with the two men standing "eye to eye, nose to nose" over the principal's desk.

What occurred next, Eason says, is that Wicevich, a 43-year-old Vietnam War veteran and a black belt in karate, slapped him across the face.

Wicevich says, however, that Eason hit himself and then ran screaming from the room claiming Wicevich had hit him.

No one but Wicevich and Eason will ever know for sure what took place that afternoon between the principal, who is called "Rambo" by his students, and the janitor who admits "provoking" him.

But the incident led to a special school-board hearing last week at which the janitor received a ten-day suspension, and has prompted rumblings from Wicevich's detractors in the northeast Valley town.

The school board has gone to great pains to not publicly discuss who hit whom in the principal's office. And district officials insist Eason's suspension is not related to that question but to other difficulties between Wicevich and Eason.

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has investigated the punch in the nose; no charges have been filed. But the incident set the school buzzing, and in its wake, several parents and former staff members--most of whom requested anonymity--have contended that the principal has a history of abusive behavior.

One parent says he withdrew his son from Desert Arroyo two years ago, after Wicevich allegedly threw the boy against a wall and the boy urinated in his pants.

Wicevich, who describes himself as a "disciplinarian," steadfastly denies that and similar allegations--none of which are at issue before the board. In fact, Wicevich contends--and school-board member Gloria Dahlquist confirms--that in the seven years he has been the principal, no one has filed a formal complaint against him with the board.

"I am an administrator," Wicevich says. "I am here to help people, not to hurt them."
However, one teacher, who says she left Desert Arroyo for another school after she had problems with Wicevich, describes Wicevich as a "bully."

"He didn't think anything about having a conversation with me and making me cry. I think that was satisfying to him," says the former faculty member, who requested anonymity.

Wicevich, in an interview, describes that teacher as "a very negative woman" and points out she's no longer at the school.

Another teacher who is no longer at Desert Arroyo, but who was there last April, describes Wicevich as difficult to deal with and "hell on wheels."

To janitor Jack Eason, Wicevich is "kind of like a football coach--he runs around and yells and screams."

The day after Wicevich's encounter with the janitor, the teacher says she confronted the principal about it. After she told Wicevich she didn't believe a person would slap himself, Wicevich did just that: He slapped himself. (Wicevich confirms he did it to "demonstrate how someone could hit himself.")

"I was shocked," the teacher recalls. "Absolutely shocked. I didn't know what to say."
What she did tell him was that she didn't believe him and that he should seek "professional help for his anger."

Wicevich confirms that conversation and says he accused the teacher of spreading the word around the school that he had hit Eason.

If people who attended last week's board meeting on the Eason incident wanted to find out who hit whom, they left disappointed.

Before the hearing started, veteran prosecutor Georgia Staton announced on behalf of the board that it had decided to accept a motion made by superintendent David Alexander to prohibit discussion of the hitting incident on the grounds that it had nothing to do with Eason's alleged insubordination.

As a result, the hearing focused on everything leading up to the meeting between the principal and the janitor, and the meeting itself--except for the punch in the nose.

Staton, a former candidate for state attorney general and county attorney, was in Cave Creek, she says, to advise the board on "procedural matters" and to ensure that Eason was given a fair hearing. During the hearing, Staton sat with the board and occasionally whispered instructions into chairperson Vicki King's ear.

The board heard four hours of testimony about the dispute between Eason and Wicevich, which, according to both men, began on the morning of April 9 when Eason was reprimanded by Wicevich for coming to work too early.

The tension between the two was heightened later in the morning when Eason, in front of some co-workers and Wicevich, threatened to file a complaint against the principal for harassment. Following this confrontation, the two met in Wicevich's office at 9 a.m.

Eason, hoping that the encounter would be broadcast to other workers around the campus, said he pressed the button on his radio transmitter. He claims rigging the radio was necessary for his "protection." Eason said he and the principal had not been on the best of terms during the four months the janitor had worked at the school. During that morning meeting between the two, Eason said, Wicevich threatened to have him fired by the end of the summer. Wicevich said he simply told Eason to do a better job if the janitor wanted to continue with the district. Later that day, Wicevich learned that Eason had attempted to secretly broadcast the conversation over his two-way radio. (No one else has admitted hearing the conversation.) This discovery prompted another meeting at 3 p.m.

During the second meeting, Eason said, Wicevich took his radio and renewed his pledge to have the janitor fired. That's when both men wound up standing "eye to eye, nose to nose." Eason tells New Times he was angry and told Wicevich, "If you're going to have me fired, then I am going to take you with me.'"

"And then 'smack,' he hit me," Eason says. "The deputy asked me if I provoked him, and I guess I did."
Wicevich admits he took Eason's radio and accused him of unprofessional behavior, but denies hitting him.

In the deputies' report, Wicevich maintains that Eason started screaming, "Help! Help! Help! Don't hit me! Don't hit me!" and then slapped himself across the face, smashing his glasses into his own nose.

Wicevich tells New Times: "It's no different than if you and another fella are walking along the railroad track, and he shoots himself in the foot and then says, 'Here, could you hold this gun? I got to check my foot,' and then he accuses you of shooting him."

Some witnesses who saw Eason after he came out of Wicevich's office told investigators the janitor had a cut on his nose and was shaking. X-rays taken a few days later indicate Eason had a small fracture in the bridge of his nose.

The day after the incident, Wicevich wrote a letter to superintendent Alexander, asking that Eason be fired for insubordination. Alexander fired Eason, but the janitor appealed the decision to the school board and remained on the job until his hearing.

In the end, the board, without explanation, decided not to fire Eason but to suspend him for ten days for insubordination. Eason could not be reached for comment after that decision.

Who hit whom? Former school counselor Charlotte Lallis told investigators--and Wicevich generally confirms it in an interview--that the principal told her the day after the incident: "No one will ever know what happened, just Jack and I, and we'll go to our graves with the truth!"

LEFT TO OTHERS' DEVICES THE SAD SAGA OF ... v7-01-92

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Matt Karnitschnig