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January 23, 2007 > Educational priorities

Educational priorities

By Steve Warga

When Hannah Rodriguez arrived at her Advanced Placement English class on December 19, she was anticipating another thought-provoking, illuminating lecture from her favorite teacher, Jeff Hallford. It would have been a rare treat for Hannah and most of the other students in that class, as Hallford had retired that past summer and was only planning a handful of guest lecturer appearances, and then only in AP English, the class he taught to award-winning standards for many years.

Hannah saw the video equipment ready for use, as was expected. Then she looked at the black board and found a shocking message: "Mr. Hallford is banned from campus and he will be arrested if he refuses to leave." The teacher, Christy Hallford, signed her name under the message. Christy is Jeff Hallford's wife. As others in the class absorbed the message, their shock turned to outrage. Hannah describes serious discussion of storming the principal's office, demanding an explanation.

Student Body President, Joseph Reynolds, wisely defused the tension by promising to speak to the school's rookie principal, Bill Morones. But that promise didn't deter a less volatile protest the following day, which was also the final day of classes before the long Winter Break. After a frantic flurry of phone calls, emails, instant messaging and exchanges, a large contingent of students showed up in T-shirts stenciled with "SAVE HALLFORD!" Some students arrived with paper copies of the same demand, complete with safety pins for attaching to the shirts of any other students wishing to support the movement.

subtitle: Protest papers confiscated

Also distributed that day were copies of "The Newark Times," a single-sheet, underground publication. The sole article consisted of a satirical rendering of the Hallford situation, authored by one Satir Watchman, a pseudonym. Numerous students have described how teachers and campus monitors waited outside the school assembly to demand surrender of the underground publication, including several reports of having the papers snatched from their hands.

One of these students, Justin Vijeh, is still awaiting a meeting with Morones to lodge a complaint. Justin says that Vice Principal Ellen Howerton confronted him outside the assembly hall, asking for his copy of the paper. Justin refused the demand and headed to the center of campus to sit and read the article. According to Justin, Howerton then walked over to him and grabbed the paper from his hands. When the student asked for an explanation, Howerton would only say, "You can't read this."

Pending his meeting with Morones, Justin says he may pursue a complaint to the superintendent's office.

subtitle: The case against Hallford

What's going on at Newark Memorial High? Was a highly respected teacher, retired after 32 years service, 30 of them at Newark Memorial, banned from campus and threatened with arrest?

Not according to Bill Morones. "Jeff Hallford was not banned from campus," he asserted in a recent interview. The principal claims Hallford had not completed the appropriate paperwork to secure a campus pass on the day in question. When asked if Hallford would be approved in the future, Morones said, "Right now, it's a personnel issue that is going to be resolved at the school site."

Only when prompted would Morones explain what his statement meant. He explained "that there needs to be some dialogue and conversation regards to following the correct policy" before Hallford would be approved again for a guest lecture appearance. Morones then re-emphasized, "[Hallford] has never been banned from this campus."

TCV spoke with Newark Police Officer Allen Chan regarding the arrest threat. Chan is the regular campus officer at the high school. He would be the arresting officer should a situation on campus require such action. Chan emphatically denies any direct orders to arrest Hallford. In fact, should such an order come from a school official, he would ignore unless he perceived sufficient justification. Campus officers are not at the beck and call of the principal.

"Mr. Hallford would be treated like any other citizen on campus without a pass. A school official would ask him to leave; if he refused, a police officer would be called. That officer would then ask the individual to leave the campus. If the person still refused, actions would be taken that might include arrest for trespassing."

Christy Hallford's dramatic message on the blackboard was not completely accurate. But there is no question that she received a phone call at 6:30 a.m. from a school clerk who oversees substitute teachers. Christy, who was ill that day, had called the automated system to request Jeff as a substitute for her that day; this was all routine protocol. But the clerk advised Christy that Jeff would not be allowed on campus that particular day.

Morones' focus on incomplete paperwork is not a valid explanation for the abrupt cancellation of Christy's request. Proper procedures were followed, as they were again on January 12. To claim that Hallford was not "banned" amounts to nothing more than semantic hair-splitting.

Both Hallfords claim that Jeff's denial stemmed from a complaint from another English teacher who told Morones that Jeff's presence on campus made her "uncomfortable." Christy states the principal advised her of this complaint back in November, but without identifying the complainant. She understood that Morones would decide what to do at some future date. Apparently, the December 19 break-of-dawn phone call was his response.

Morones now denies that any teacher ever complained to him about Hallford's presence. However, he offers no other explanation for the extraordinary censure of a former Newark Unified School District Teacher of the Year, and a man who counts about 6,000 Newark youth among those he taught while garnering many awards and recognitions for exceptional teaching skills.

Legally, he has little recourse. "Substitute teachers serve at the pleasure of the principal. He has the authority to ban them from campus." Hallford relates how he had to recommend such action to the principal several times during his 12 years as a department head. "But I've never heard of a retired teacher being banned."

Even so, the Hallfords and a substantial number of supporters, both parents and students, remain hopeful he'll be cleared for future lectures. A contingent did appear at last Tuesday's school board meeting to declare their concerns that students were being deprived of an outstanding learning tool in the form of Jeff Hallford's guest lectures. Christy further claims that this infringement of academic freedom violates her teaching contract.

Since this is a personnel matter, the school board members may not discuss it publicly. They did meet in closed session, as allowed by state law, but no action was reported from that session.

Morones insists, "I would consider it," when asked about a future guest lecture request for Hallford. Christy says Morones told her he wanted to meet and discuss the matter after school was back from Winter Break. In two-plus weeks since classes resumed, he hasn't been available for the promised conversation. He did find time, however, to flatly deny Christy's most recent request for her husband to lecture AP English. This occurred Friday, January 12

subtitle: Censorship?

As for the alleged violations of student free speech rights, it seems Morones was justified in instructing school personnel to confiscate the papers (another of which appeared January 12). District regulation AR 5145.2 states in part, "All printed matter and petitions distributed, circulated or posted on school property shall bear the name and the address or contact location of the sponsoring organization or individual." Of the two editions reviewed by TCV, neither displays an address or contact location.

If the story of an anonymous complaint is true, Morones' decision to ban Hallford with no apparent examination or discussion with the accused sets a bad precedent. Henceforth, it would seem any teacher bearing a grudge; or involved in a personality conflict, an ideological dispute; or one angling for a promotion can now expect some pretty favorable treatment from the principal's office.

On the other hand, if Morones' current version of events is accurate, Hallford should be welcomed with open arms in the future, assuming he properly completes the necessary paperwork. The paperwork was completed properly for the January 12 request, but he was still denied. Neither Morones nor any other official offered to have the "dialogue" about proper applications, as Morones suggested would happen. But that particular request came before the school board's closed session discussions.

subtitle: A question of priorities

Of her favorite teacher, honors student Hannah Rodriguez writes, "... he opened us up to our own personal discoveries. He did not close us off, he opened us up, and made us think. That is what every great teacher does ..."

If Morones has just cause for banning Hallford, Hannah and many others would benefit from an explanation. Otherwise, students at Newark's only high school are left to conclude that their education takes a back seat to petty bureaucratic squabbles. It's all kind of confusing, given NMHS's stated mission of maintaining "a shared commitment to providing students with a 'world class education' ..."

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