Wednesday, September 23, 2015
The Globe and the climate of fear in Joplin schools
Two times was a stretch.
In today's article on Tuesday night's Joplin R-8 Board of Education meeting, no mention was made of Superintendent Norm Ridder's reference to the climate of fear he had encountered in the school district.
Admittedly, it has been 16 years since I was the editor of a daily newspaper, but if I were covering a meeting or had one of my reporters at that meeting and I heard there was a climate of fear in a school district, it would have been top of page one news.
Yet when such statements are made not once, not twice, but three times in public board meetings, the Joplin Globe ignores them.
Could that be because the Globe contributed to that climate of fear?
In talking with many employees and former employees of the Joplin school district since my public firing two years ago, I have admitted that while I was teaching at East I was unaware of just how bad the problems were. I knew of the general level of dissatisfaction in the direction in which the district was headed with C. J. Huff and Angie Besendorfer at the helm. I knew that principals were being removed if they even questioned one of the edicts from those on top, even if they did what they were told.
It was not until I was out of the district and began writing about my situation than I began hearing how widespread the problems were.
After confirming the stories I was hearing, I began sharing them with Turner Report readers. As I shared them, I heard more stories and revealed that half of the district's teachers had turned over primarily due to this climate of fear. Some left on their own, happy to get away from a dysfunctional school system. Others, like me, were shown the door and removed in such a way that it made teachers afraid to say anything, lest they receive the same treatment.
As I learned about the school district where I had worked for 10 years, I also learned that the Globe had been made aware of the problems multiple times and never made an effort to uncover the truth. It was obviously a situation in which people could not speak on the record for fear of retaliation, but Globe Editor Carol Stark, from her ivory tower, wrote with pride about her lofty ideals, including her refusal to use unnamed sources. The only way the Globe would print anything is if teachers and staff put their jobs on the line. There are some who might have done that, but they did not trust the Globe to deliver the goods.
They had every right to be suspicious of the area's newspaper of record. At the same time the Globe piously kept its pages free of anonymous whistleblower sources, it frequently used information that been supplied to it by Huff, Besendorfer, former City Manager Mark Rohr and others without any attribution.
So now when Norm Ridder talks about the climate of fear he has encountered, it is ignored by the Globe. Perhaps that would be all right if the departures of Huff and Besendorfer had corrected the problem.
It has not.
What Ridder inherited was an upper administration filled with people who enforced, some of them gleefully, policies that damaged lives and were counter-productive to creating an educational environment in which learning was the chief objective.
The interim superintendent also has a large number of principals who were not placed in their positions because of their abilities but because of their willingness to follow without question directives that were not in the best interests of the students or the taxpayers. Some had been promoted after doing internships in teaching/learning coach positions which served as upper administration's eyes and ears into each building.
Ridder has been diplomatic in what he has said, but at the same time he has made it clear that change is coming.
Last night, Ridder spoke of the fear that the top-down management had created in the system.
"Nobody wants to work in that kind of environment," he said.
In those nine words, Ridder explained why more than 50 percent of the faculty in Joplin schools has turned over in the past four years and why students now have an abnormally high number of inexperienced teachers, instead of the mix of veterans and talented newcomers that ensure a healthy and educationally proficient school district.
The process of undoing the harm that C. J. Huff and Angie Besendorfer did in this school district for seven years is well underway. Those who rely on the Joplin Globe for their information will never realize the true extent of the change.
If the Globe reports on it, it would have to concede that for seven years, it ignored a major story and willingly damaged the education of children in the Joplin R-8 School District.