Principal's Demotion Roils Freedom High

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 21, 2006

The news last week at Freedom High School came abruptly and with a jolting impact that resonated throughout the school's diverse Woodbridge community and across Prince William County: With little explanation from school officials, Dorothy "Dot" McCabe, Freedom's first principal, is being demoted and reassigned to another building in the fall.

In internal school-system memos obtained by The Washington Post, McCabe was criticized for the school's "climate" and the "tone of school staff," suggesting that members of the faculty had made insensitive or offensive remarks about the school's mix of students.

After being told last week that their leader was being transferred, Freedom teachers and parents filled the School Board meeting room Wednesday night to express support for McCabe in front of the board members and Superintendent Steven L. Walts. They submitted a petition bearing more than 100 signatures of people calling for McCabe to be retained.

The Prince William Education Association, which serves as the school district's teachers union, believes that McCabe is being removed from her post without due process and for vague and unsubstantiated reasons.

"School principals are very concerned about it," said Christy Sullivan, an association director. "They're feeling if it can happen to Dot McCabe, then it can happen to them. They are concerned that the process was not followed."

School system officials said that they could not comment on McCabe's case because it is a personnel matter, and that they could be held liable if they released sensitive information about a person's employment to the public.

Rae Darlington, the school system's deputy superintendent, said she sympathizes with staff members' frustrations, and she hopes that a national search for a new principal will be completed by the fall. She said a panel composed of representatives from each of Freedom's departments will help interview candidates and advise the school system about whom to pick.

"Anytime there's a change process, it can be very emotional and highly sensitive time," she said

Steven Stone, McCabe's attorney, said McCabe declined to comment. Stone also said McCabe is appealing her reassignment.

According to the internal documents, Darlington, who had been recently promoted from an associate superintendent's position overseeing Freedom, wrote in a memo that "the staff continues to make poor decisions when communicating with parents, 'you don't want your students in class with those students.' " She also cited in the memo to McCabe references allegedly made by people in the school to " 'the type of students' staff had to teach" and how someone was "contacted to provide faculty with Culture Connections inservice."

Freedom High School is the most diverse high school in the county, and some students have said that racial tension sometimes surfaces, but only in doses that would be typical in any highly diverse school. According to 2004-05 school-system data, the most recent available on the district's Web site, about 38.4 percent of the students are Hispanic, 34.3 percent are black, 20.6 percent white and 5.4 percent Asian.

Darlington also said in her memo that she had received "excessive parent and student concerns from coaches, cheerleaders, and PTO [Parent-Teacher Organization] members" about McCabe's decision-making skills and that, overall, the school "has not developed the core capacity nor academic culture needed to be successful."

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