Have a Hart

Parents say that the principal at Howenstine High School didn't do enough to protect students from violence

On a crystal-clear Friday afternoon, not long before classes adjourned, TUSD administrators and security as well as Tucson police dashed to midtown's Howenstine High Magnet School. The police and the TUSD crew--which included bureaucrats, spin doctors and its own police--converged on the Oct. 1 peace march, organized by some parents who say their children are being beaten and terrorized at Howenstine.

The last time the cops and TUSD moved that fast was to cite and discipline the very students who were attacked.

Patricia Kline's daughter, Rachelle Murray, a Howenstine junior, was one of the girls who suffered when confronted around lunchtime on Aug. 27.

"I had to take her to St. Joseph's (Hospital) emergency room," Kline said, as she waved to well-wishing motorists who passed the pickets in front of Howenstine's 555 S. Tucson Blvd. location. "She had a concussion, a slightly displaced jaw, and we still have to go to the dentist."

And to a probation officer.

TUSD quickly suspended Murray, who has attended Howenstine since her freshman year, for five days. And Tucson police, equally quickly, cited her for fighting.

"They didn't even interview my daughter," Kline said. "I told the police that if I had a dispute with a neighbor, they wouldn't arrest me without interviewing me.

"It's caused a lot of emotional distress," Kline added. "I had to go get a restraining order. I felt I had to protect my daughter. The school cannot. And that's real scary. It's a slap in the face. I turned to a legal firm, and their response was, 'You send you kids to school at their risk.' That's a slap in the face, too."

Two of the three alleged aggressors were cited. Hearings on the restraining orders are pending in City Court.

All of it could have been prevented, Kline and others say.

Her daughter twice told Howenstine's rookie Principal Jimmy D. Hart that she was being threatened--most recently, two days before she was jumped. Hart, parents say, responded that the matter was "serious" and that he would bring the sides together to resolve the conflict.

"He did nothing," Kline said in an assessment repeated down the picket line.

Susan Moreno said her two daughters--a senior and a junior who are student council president and vice president, respectively, at Howenstine--were also victimized that day in August.

"Hart told us, 'It's in God's hands,'" Moreno said. "I hope not."

"That," added Laura Read, mother of Danielle, a sophomore who also was struck, yet suspended and cited by police, "has no place in the public school. They were victimized by those girls, and now they are being victimized by the system."

Hart disputed having heard of specific threats.

"To our knowledge, no threats were made prior to the fight. We did have a few student complaints; however, they were unrelated to a fighting incident that occurred earlier in the school year. Any information regarding threats or fights is taken seriously by the school and the district."

As to the suspensions, Hart said that "based on all information received, it was a fight between several students. It's standard practice that whoever is involved in a fight is subject" to discipline outlined in Student Rights and Responsibilities.

Howenstine's mission, "through individualized student-learning, is to prepare students for the adult world."

The school also emphasizes diversity, according to a vision statement found both on school grounds and the school's Web site: (Howenstine) "fosters a culture of diversity appreciation, high expectations, and respect for self and others where students are actively engaged."

But Moreno and Read said the girls were attacked after one was called a lesbian. Moreover, Read said, the climate of tolerance has chilled. Students now are reluctant to join the gay and lesbian organization.

Sit-downs with TUSD brass--including Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer and his second-in-command, Patti Lopez--in early September yielded nothing, parents said.

Kline was shocked to hear and read Hart's responses to the Weekly and other media that included the declaration that the "school is safe," that "things are in place" to address the disturbance and prevent another.

"That's not true," Kline said, three days after the demonstration. "Nothing has been done."

She said she called Hart in the last week during the morning to resolve a matter that he did not address until classes were being dismissed at 3:37 p.m.

Hart said additional staffers now "help with lunch coverage," that the school works with TPD officers assigned to schools as well as TUSD security on a daily basis, and that extra counseling staff were added. School and TUSD officials also held a series of meetings with students and parents.

The school will continue regular meetings of the Gay Straight Alliance, Hart added, and will work with Wingspan--the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community resource and advocacy center. The school also will tap grant programs that seek to reduce gang violence and promote tolerance and diversity.

TUSD board members voted unanimously June 24 to make Hart the Howenstine principal. He is paid $71,345 per year. Before the appointment, he was an assistant director of a campus of the Tulsa (Okla.) Technology Center. He also was an assistant principal for two years in the Tulsa public school system.

The next Howenstine School Council meeting is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 12, in the school's multipurpose room.