A Most Wicked Chess Game: The D.C. Schools
The District of Columbia's public school system is many things--too many things. It is educator, babysitter, social worker, police officer, nurse, meals provider, jobs program, and political plaything. And, for too many people, in too many instances, it is also a criminal enterprise.
It is criminal in its neglect of children who too often seem hopelessly out of touch while in the system, yet flourish as soon as they find refuge in another setting. It is criminal in its persistently low expectations of children because they grow up in poverty or have parents who raise them with little regard for the life of the mind. And the system is criminal in the most base and common sense of the word: As this week's installments in the Post's ongoing investigation of the schools demonstrate, the system is riddled with employees who believe their own greed and pleasures are more important than the future of defenseless children.
"We now have a system that makes no sense whatsoever," Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee told a Washington Rotary Club meeting last week. As reported in the Northwest Current, Rhee said there are too many people in the system who have an interest in the schools "staying dysfunctional. They like it that way."
Friday's report on the widespread plunder of school activity funds throughout the system was revolting--another expose of a tragic culture of self-loathing. In schools where children are routinely and mindlessly required to recite moronic chants about how they believe in themselves and how they are achieving despite test scores that shout otherwise, the very people who were employed to invite students into the splendors of rigorous learning were instead stealing from children. They ripped off the kids' money to watch strippers dance for them, to pay for exotic bottles of wine, to dine at fancy restaurants and to stage a gospel concert. Only those who are filled with contempt for the children of their own community could stoop to such a level.
Astonishingly, several of the people Post reporters April Witt and David Fallis wrote about are still employed by the school system or its affiliates.
I unwittingly took part in one piece of the criminal enterprise. In 2003, tipped by a friend to the plight of an ambitious and exciting chess program at a troubled Southeast Washington school, I visited the Moten Center, a program for emotionally disturbed kids at Moten Elementary in Anacostia.
There, I saw an extraordinary man doing what should be ordinary in the D.C. schools, but isn't. Vaughn Bennett was the volunteer chess coach who came in after school hours to teach the complexities of the grand game to kids who had been discarded--tossed out of regular schools because they supposedly could not concentrate or learn. I wrote about Bennett's remarkable success with the kids in his Chess Club, about the sacrifices he made to do without pay what D.C. schools employees had failed to do on the public's dime, and about the Chess Club's need for $2,000 to fill the gap between what the kids had raised through candy and hot dog sales and what it was going to cost to fly 12 kids to Nashville to take part in a national scholastic chess tournament.
As Post readers so often do, you came through. The checks and cash poured into my mail box, and I sat down with Moten principal Herbert Boyd to make certain that the school would set up a separate account for the chess donations, keep careful records and report back to me so I could inform readers what was being done with their money. Over the next months, I received a couple of reports from Boyd and I passed the results along to readers.
But what neither Boyd nor I knew was that the school business manager to whom the principal had delegated authority over the money turned out to be, according to federal prosecutors, a thief. Business manager Sandy Jones ripped off most of the $73,000 that had been donated on behalf of the chess team, according to the Post investigation and federal authorities.
Jones is accused of using the school's ATM card more than 100 times to steal from the chess fund. While Boyd was writing and calling to tell me about his exciting plans to commission a study that could help expand the use of chess instruction as a teaching tool to other schools serving emotionally disturbed students, the chess donations were being sucked out of Moten's account. When he discovered the pillage, Boyd immediately notified school security and the police, but authorities did little or nothing until an anonymous tipster told the D.C. government's inspector general about the missing money.
The school system fired Jones. Fired Boyd, too. Now Jones faces criminal charges. And the children of the Moten chess team never competed in another tournament.
I wish I had followed up the Moten chess story again, but I say that only in retrospect. I'd love to keep a running account of what happens to many of the people I write about, but I'm only able to do that in some cases.
The fact that the police didn't push forward on their investigation into the missing money at Moten is distressing enough. Far worse is the evidence in the Post stories that one government authority after another knew about allegations of stealing from many D.C. schools and yet did nothing about it.
A human being has only so much capacity for outrage. At a certain point, you just get tapped out. I hope I never reach that point about the D.C. schools because there are simply too many children who are being savaged by the people who work in the system. For now, what's got my blood boiling is that those whose calling it is to investigate and punish the wrongdoers found these acts unworthy of their time or effort.
By Marc Fisher |
November 12, 2007; 6:50 AM ET
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