Top graduating seniors at John McDonogh Senior High say they are leaving a far better school than the one portrayed by local news media following a deadly shooting two years ago.
'I want people to know John McDonogh isn't what you see on TV,' says Wyatt Diaz, 17, valedictorian of the class of 2005, which graduates this week. 'There are a lot of good things that are happening in the school. John McDonogh has good students who are willing to learn and do anything to succeed.'
Salutatorian Arthur L. Jones, 17, agrees. Jones says that Randolph Spencer -- McDonogh's third principal in two years -- has instilled a sense of discipline at the school on tree-lined Esplanade Avenue. Jones adds that the local media need to balance coverage of school violence with profiles of rule-abiding student achievers. 'It's just that the bad people get publicized more and the good people don't get credit,' he says.
Charles Sanville 18, a graduating senior, student athlete and elected member of McDonogh's student council, says the media has failed to report how the Orleans Parish public school has improved since April 2003, when a gangland-style shooting in the school gym left one student dead, four injured and 200 witnesses scrambling for safety.
Seven suspects -- including one former McDonogh student -- were charged in connection with the murder of 15-year-old Jonathan Williams. One defendant was convicted of second-degree murder last month; a second suspect goes on trial Sept. 6. Charges against a third suspect were dropped. Prosecutors want to try the remaining four defendants together but no trial date has been set
The John McDonogh shooting and its chaotic aftermath made news as far as away as Australia.
A state Department of Education 'report card' on McDonogh for 2003-2004 concluded that while the high school is among those deemed 'academically unacceptable,' its campus is not 'persistently dangerous.' Yet TV media updates of the criminal proceedings -- and reports of violence at other schools -- are often accompanied by footage from the shooting's aftermath.
Sanville objects to the repeated airing of the disturbing images. Instead, he says, the media should show the school's more recent improvements, including the painted auditorium and a garden that students planted on Esplanade Avenue.
'The past is past,' says Sanville, who played on the school football team with the murder victim. 'So why keep showing it?'
McDonogh teachers, school officials and a few NOPD cops echo Jones' comment that good students get too little publicity. They say media sensationalism allows thugs to steal headlines from kids who are achieving little-known successes in Louisiana's worst-performing school district.
'You have your students that want to learn and your kids that don't give a care,' says one veteran NOPD officer. 'But you have more kids here that want to learn.'
Following the shooting, Gambit Weekly made repeated requests for access to McDonogh, with the expressed intent of covering graduating honors students in the class of 2003. School officials did not respond then -- nor when we tried again in 2004. Gambit Weekly has since learned that the school district began restricting news media access to the school after the shooting, at the request of police investigators and prosecutors.
This year, new principal Randolph Spencer welcomed Gambit Weekly into John McDonogh. Among the exceptional students we met at the school:
• Wyatt Diaz, who grew up in the tough St. Bernard housing development. The son of an electrician, Diaz can wire a house, but he aspires to a career in medicine. 'I'd like to work in a laboratory and try to find cures for diseases that are uncurable,' he says. He is considering attending Xavier University or the University of New Orleans.
• Arthur Jones and his three siblings grew up in Chicago's gang-plagued South Side until his family moved to New Orleans in 1999. His twin brother, Angelo Jones, a special education student, won third place in a citywide art competition earlier this year. Arthur Jones plans to attend either Louisiana State University or UNO, and hopes to become a computer engineer and eventually open after-school computer camps for inner-city kids.
• Charles Sanville played pitcher for McDonogh's baseball team and quarterback for the school football team. He hopes to attend Alcorn State University, earn a business degree and someday own his own business. 'There really are not a lot of African Americans owning their own business, but I think I can overcome it,' Sanville says.
• Vickey Brown, a 15-year-old a ninth-grade student, has aspired to be a pediatrician 'since I was a little bitty girl.' She earned an all-expenses paid trip this summer to a math and science camp at Lyon College at Batesville, Ark. Brown lives with an ailing grandmother -- who had to persuade Brown to take the trip this summer to Arkansas. 'I didn't want to leave her,' says Brown, who plans to attend LSU Medical School.
• Lester Everett, 14, plans to become a surgeon. This summer, he will attend an all-expenses-paid math and science camp at the University of North Texas at Denton, Texas. At McDonogh, he says, he feels safe and he likes the way school officials check to make sure he is in class. 'It's a good school,' he says.
'The real McDonogh that the city doesn't know is that there are a lot of committed, caring teachers and staff,' says Delores Winfield, a New Orleans Parish Schools (NOPS) administrator who served at McDonogh from July to December 2004, including three months as principal. 'And the students are working very hard to survive the shooting incident.'
CLASS OF 2005 VALEDICTORIAN WYATT DIAZ and salutatorian Arthur Jones are the only two males in New Orleans' 20 public high schools to graduate as 'val' and 'sal.' Diaz is quiet, contemplative and soft-spoken. Jones is outgoing, gregarious and obviously competitive. Both grew up in crime-ridden neighborhoods but avoided the thug life.
'I do not hang around those kind of people,' says Jones, who is a deacon in his church. 'I hang around people that don't get into anything bad or smoke or drink anything.'
However, Diaz, who recently moved out of the St. Bernard project, says he does not shun thugs. 'I do hang around with people who are like that, but I don't try to act like them and try to be what they are. I try to focus on achieving my goals.' He avoids people who could pressure him into getting into trouble. At school, he usually stays to himself.
In their leisure time, both like to play computer games. Diaz also plays chess with his father, Wyman Diaz. 'To me, he's a grandmaster,' Wyatt says, proudly. Jones says his role models are his parents, Jessie Lee and Lisa Lee, and his grandmother, pastor Regina Craft.
'I chose the path I chose because I've seen what happens to people involved in crime,' Jones says. 'They either get killed or end up on drugs and I don't want that to happen to me. I have better plans for my life.'
Jones says some of his friends at McDonogh regret not following his example because they will not be graduating this year.
Diaz says everyone makes mistakes, but he is selective about counseling his friends. 'If they want advice then I will give him advice, but otherwise I leave them alone until they decide they want to change their ways,' Diaz says. What advice he offers, depends on the individual and the mistake. 'My friends look up to me as a smart guy, somebody they can come to if they need help in life, like with a class,' Diaz says.
Both students say peer pressure is the greatest pressure of all for teenagers. They say students get into more trouble during the school year because peer pressure is so much greater then. 'In the summer, you really don't see a lot of the people that you see inside the school and that relieves a lot of pressure on you,' Diaz says. 'And the kids that you hang around with in the neighborhood might not put pressure on you like the ones in school do.'
'Kids feel like they have to prove something or make an image for themselves,' Jones says.
Both seniors say they urge their friends not to worry about being called a 'nerd' for pursuing an education. 'People begin to look up to you as you progress,' Diaz says.
'If people call you a nerd, you can take that because being a good student is going to pay off in the long run,' Jones says.
Both students smile when asked if police and jail time are effective crime deterrents.
'Most people think it's cool to go to jail,' Jones says. 'I know people that brag that they went to jail.'
'I've been around people who are actually on their 'last strike,'' Diaz says, referring to the state's 'three strikes' law requiring a maximum sentence of life in prison for habitual offenders. 'The question is, 'What will make them want to learn on the first strike in order to keep them from getting a third strike and going back to jail forever?''
Jones says after-school sports and education programs are effective crime deterrents. (The New Orleans Police Department states that most juvenile crimes in the city occur between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.) The best way to save kids from the streets is clear, Jones says. 'Start early in elementary school. That's where it all starts.' Diaz nods in agreement.
Asked how racism harms the ability of students in New Orleans to get a good education, Diaz seemed miffed by the question: 'Racism really doesn't play a big role in education. We are all the same; we are all just people.'
However, Jones says, 'some races are under-estimated or are not expected to do well (academically). All races should be expected to do well.'
Jones offers another observation: Crime was worse where he grew up in Chicago, but the public education system there is superior to New Orleans. 'The schools in Chicago are much more competitive and they give you more work,' he says. 'They are much cleaner and much more organized.'
RANDOLPH SPENCER, 55, SAYS HE WAS assigned to McDonogh in mid-December, following a brawl in front of the school. 'They had a big fight out here, about 500 to 600 kids, right here on Esplanade Avenue,' he says.
McDonogh is Spencer's first assignment as principal. A 19-year school administrator, Spencer previously served as an assistant principal at Booker T. Washington High School, one of the most academically challenged schools in the local system. In a May 17, 2004 letter, Spencer was credited by UNO Vice Chancellor Robert W. Brown with restoring discipline, order and improving the physical plant at the troubled high school.
Spencer took office on Dec. 14 and soon made headlines. On Jan. 10, some 40 students were detained for arriving late to school or out of uniform. Some were locked out until their parents showed up at school to hear that the rules were being zealously enforced. Students would no longer be allowed to wear medallions and other attire that might foment neighborhood rivalries. Also banned are hooded jackets ('unless temperature is below 56 degrees reported by Audubon Park Station,' says the posted uniform policy), cell phones, radios, CD players and 'any other violation determined by the principal.'
The crackdown had worked at B.T. Washington and Spencer is determined to see it work at John Mac. 'I do things in a business style,' Spencer says. He calls the school 'the company business.'
Figures for the 2004-2005 school year through March 31 show that of the 1,139 students at McDonogh, 147 were suspended and 35 expelled, though 91 students were recommended for expulsion, according to school district spokesperson Tia Alexander. 'He's clearing the hallways, making sure people get to their classes and teachers teach,' Arthur Jones says of principal Spencer. 'And he's putting the bad students out.'
McDonogh also is benefiting from stronger ties with school district vendors and businesses, Spencer says. He negotiated the renovation of the school's 500-seat auditorium with a film production company in exchange for use of the facility, he says. In February, 500 students from McDonogh and Tulane University teamed up to paint over territorial graffiti and otherwise spruce up the school.
At McDonogh, the school's halls are clear and generally clean. Students are constantly directed to pick up any trash. Those caught in the halls in violation of the dress code or without passes are reprimanded on the spot. Spencer darts in and out of hallways and sometimes classrooms, a wireless clipped to his ear, a BlackBerry clipped on his belt. 'Teachers are teaching; children are learning,' he says more than once.
Spencer is at turns charming and combative, and not one for false modesty. 'It is more my leadership than anything else that has really made a difference,' he says. 'This was a bigger challenge than Booker T. Washington. I changed the culture (of McDonogh) in about three weeks. I transformed Booker T. Washington in about a week.'
The state Department of Education in January stated that, in 2003-2004, Spencer's predecessors at John Mac failed to meet their targeted growth of 7.9 points for improving test scores and attendance. Spencer predicts McDonogh's scores will improve by 8.5 points on his watch.
He says he sees no reason why McDonogh cannot someday be compared to magnet schools or even the vaunted parochial St. Augustine Senior High School. 'Our kids are from the housing developments, but we have a good mix that provided a good culture. The youngsters care about each other, love each other. They have good moral standards. They love John McDonogh and would not trade this place here to attend anywhere else.'
ON A RECENT AFTERNOON, DOZENS of students in school uniforms spill out of the school gymnasium into the sunshine. Half of them have their shirts out. Spencer and an assistant administrator begin shouting like drill sergeants: 'Put your shirt in! Put your shirt in!'
One violator balks. Spencer orders security to escort him off campus.
As the principal rebukes another dress code violator, a smiling young man comes up and hugs him, like a son would a father. Spencer suddenly stops -- and then sees that the youngster's shirt-tail is out, too. The principal yells; the boy stops. He tucks in his shirt, but keeps on smiling.
Inside the gym, the hardwood floors are shiny with wax. The schools' yellow and green banners hang neatly. Several dozen students sit quietly in the bleachers. They are facing cosmetology teacher and senior class adviser Mercedes Torregano. Standing under a basketball goal, she holds a microphone as she reads aloud from one of her many neat lists.
A breeze enters the arena. The assembly of some 50 students is orderly and quiet. There is no evidence there was ever any mayhem or violence here.
Coach LeRoy P. Walker was not at school the day of the shooting -- but he's been here as students and staff have reclaimed the gym. 'It was difficult in the beginning,' he says. Social workers and psychologists arrived to help out, but many kids stopped coming to school for several weeks.
The students were told the shooting was an isolated incident. Arrests were made. Yes, it was a tragedy, but it could have happened anywhere. Like Columbine.
'It's just a scar and it's something that's going to stick with us every time it's shown (on television),' says Walker, a 32-year health and physical education teacher and coach of McDonogh's football team. 'It's rough on those kids who experienced it.'
The faculty and the staff do their best to build up what's positive about the school, he says. Now, the public and state officials need to come visit the school and talk to the students, and see the changes for themselves.
'There's some good things going on at John McDonogh,' Walker says.
Good things like a drive for breast cancer awareness called 'Pretty in Pink,' that raised $400 last year. 'That drive was the start of something,' says former principal Winfield.
Today, the names of students and recent graduates who have won scholarships and various competitions are placed on the school's marquee, outside the principal's office window. The sign faces both sides of traffic on Esplanade Avenue.
To the dismay of student Charles Sanville, however, television has a wider audience. Recently, two students were shot and wounded in separate incidents in the vicinity of O. Perry Walker and Lawless high schools. The graphic footage of the McDonogh shooting was played again, Sanville says.
'It's a two-year-old tragedy,' Spencer says tersely. 'The school has taken a turn for the better.'
The Class of 2005 graduates Wednesday, May 25, at UNO Kiefer Lakefront Arena. The school's woodworking class has built a highly finished birch podium for the occasion. Engraved on the front is the name of the school and the words 'All children can learn.'
John McDonogh students' concerns about TV coverage of the two-year-old shootings are valid, says Loyola University communications professor Larry Lorenz. 'There is that tendency in television to focus on the terrible thing that happened,' Lorenz says. 'I know people in the news business would not go out and do a story saying, 'Sixty-five thousand students went to school today, without incident.' But when you have a situation like [McDonogh], why not go back and show how the school has been put back together so the public has a better-rounded view of the real situation?'
Roger Simpson, director of the Seattle-based Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, an international organization for reporters who cover violence, also underscores students' concerns. Research on the Columbine massacre and other life-threatening events are 'visual triggers' that activate memories of the tragedy, he says.
'When that memory gets activated, that person is back in the scene again,' Simpson says. 'They feel that same shock and they need to work their way out of it all over again.' The roughly 900 other students in school that day -- like Charles Sanville -- who were not witnesses to the murder but did witness the chaotic aftermath, may re-experience less severe symptoms of 'secondary trauma.'
Management of WDSU-TV, WWL-TV and WVUE-TV could not be reached by press time. But Bob Noonan, news director of WGNO/ABC26, defends the practice of using the old McDonogh tape to illustrate the crimes for which the remaining defendants are charged and to depict the recent history of school violence. 'We are trying to give perspective to the violence,' Noonan says.
WGNO uses images limited to security guards and parents gathering outside the school. 'My policy in my newsroom is we don't show blood,' he says. The station, which launched a regional pro-education initiative in January, also will continue to tell the story of how schools like McDonogh are improving, he says.
Simpson demurs when asked if he thought New Orleans TV stations should stop replaying the old McDonogh footage. However, he said it would seem that the 'news' now is that a lot of people who were at the school then have lived 2 years longer. 'The really interesting thing is where are they now?' Simpson says. Some people make life-changing decisions after a tragedy, he says. Some adopt a cause. Others continue to struggle with the psychological effects from the trauma.
"I think the most important story now is what happens afterwards, not what happened then," Simpson says. -- Johnson
- Cheryl Gerber
- Class of 2005 valedictorian Wyatt Diaz and salutatorian Arthur Jones both grew up in crime-ridden neighborhoods but avoided the street life.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Vickey Brown and Lester Everett both plan on medical careers -- and both are attending all-expenses-paid math and science camps this summer.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Principal Randolph Spencer is at turns charming and combative, and not one for false modesty. 'It is more my leadership than anything else that has really made a difference,' he says.