Executive Perspective

No Hiding From Confrontation

by DANIEL A. DOMENECH

On the evening of Dec. 14, 2010, the school board in Panama City, Fla., was conducting what started as a routine monthly meeting. Bay District Schools Superintendent Bill Husfelt was listening to community members address the board — a routine at school board meetings taking place in communities across the country. Undoubtedly, some audience members were listening with one ear while completing their shopping list for the impending holidays.

Daniel DomenechDaniel A. Domenech

Clay Duke approached the podium, but instead of talking, he abruptly turned to the white wall behind him, produced a can of spray paint and created a large V inside a circle. Police officials would discover the same symbol on his computer and speculated it was a reference to the symbol used in the movie “V for Vendetta.”

Neither the school board nor the audience had much time to respond to the impromptu graffiti as Duke whirled away from the wall and produced a handgun. He stepped forward to face the board, standing directly in front of superintendent Husfelt. Waving the gun around, Duke ordered all women and children out of the room but directed the men to stay in place.

While walking out of the room, board member Ginger Littleton, without thinking of the personal risk, came up behind the gunman and swung her pocketbook at the gun. Duke held on to the weapon and, in a crucial moment, pushed Littleton to the floor but did not shoot her. Instead he ordered her out of the room.

He then pointed the gun at Husfelt, who tried to talk Duke into letting the rest of the school board go and offered to remain and discuss with Duke his wife’s dismissal from her job in the school system. Duke responded by aiming the gun directly at Husfelt and beginning to pull the trigger. Sensing he was about to be shot, Husfelt threw himself to the ground as he heard the report of the gun.

Security Officer Mike Jones, in the boardroom at the time, decided not to wait for backup and instead drew his own weapon and shot Duke. The gunman, while falling to the floor, shot himself fatally with his weapon. As many as 10 rounds were fired in the exchange between Jones and Duke, but no one besides the gunman was hurt. Husfelt would subsequently credit God for having saved him from the bullet that had been aimed directly at his chest but had somehow missed.

Risky Business
Although incidents of school violence have become much too common since Columbine, superintendents generally do not expect to be looking at the business end of the barrel of a gun. Bill Husfelt courageously faced that scenario and tried to talk the gunman into letting the school board members go. Ginger Littleton courageously faced it as she, without regard for her own life, attempted to knock the weapon from the shooter’s hand. Mike Jones faced it as he singlehandedly took on the gunman rather than wait for backup.

School system leadership is a risky business. Physical confrontations have become more prevalent, leading us to wonder whether self-defense training should be part of the professional development curriculum. But system leaders more often are called upon to demonstrate courage in areas that are more likely to be professionally perilous.

We are familiar with the statistics that report the relatively short tenure of the superintendent. Called upon to make the tough decisions, the superintendent becomes the target of disgruntled employees, parents, students and members of the community. The superintendent, however, has a responsibility to be courageous.

Lone Voices
Who else will stand up for the students who have no voice? We are well aware of the infamous “helicopter” parents who hover above their children to ensure they receive all the privileges and benefits the school can afford. Going to any length to make sure their voice is heard, they have the experience, ability and means to shape their children’s education.

But we also are aware of the many children who come from homes where the parents are not actively engaged in advocating on behalf of their kids. These tend to be the children of the poor, the non-English speakers and the ethnic minorities. It is the superintendent’s responsibility to become the public defender, the champion of those children who will not have advocates during the public-be-heard portion of school board meetings or during deliberations on the delivery of programs and services that will affect their well-being.

At such times, the superintendent may be the only voice speaking on their behalf and willing to take on the interests of the empowered and the privileged where such interests conflict with the needs of the underpowered and underprivileged. Confronted with the worst economy since the Great Depression, the mandates of a federal law acknowledged as faulty but not yet fixed, a torrent of new accountability data requirements and a relentless attack on public education, the courageous superintendent is being tested like never before.

We know, however, that you and the other men and women who have taken these jobs do not shy from controversy and will courageously continue to do what is in the best interest of all the children we serve, physical danger or professional annihilation be damned.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org