McCabe's Plea Fails To Move Board

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

In an 11th-hour attempt to keep her job as Freedom High School principal, Dorothy McCabe gave Prince William School Board members last week a written plea praising her own tenure, and, more significantly, railing against the way she had been forced out.

Her attorney claimed in the plea that McCabe's boss, Deputy Superintendent Rae Darlington, had presented School Board members in April with a "secret file" that showed an abundance of disciplinary referrals at Freedom and complaints lodged against McCabe. "Ms. Darlington's secret file represents the tired tactic of a smear campaign," wrote the attorney, Steven Stone. "It is a reprehensible tactic and it is one which this School Board should not sanction or tolerate."

The plea failed to sway School Board members to McCabe's side. Last week, in a vote that brought a partial close to the controversy surrounding her removal as head of the county's most diverse high school, the School Board rejected all of her grievances, including her allegation that she is being discriminated against based on her age. McCabe is 60.

Now, the only recourse she has left lies in avenues outside the jurisdiction of the school system. Stone said McCabe intends to file a complaint of age discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a lawsuit in Prince William Circuit Court.

After the School Board rejected McCabe's grievances Wednesday, the school system wasted little time in announcing her replacement. On Friday, Inez S. Bryant, an associate principal at West Potomac High School in Fairfax County, was named as Freedom's new principal.

In a brief interview, Darlington defended her actions and said the file of referrals and complaints was hardly "secret" and simply reflected the work of high-level administrators who constantly scrutinize data.

"I don't have any secret files. I have access to that information," she said. "It's part of the statistical data that we analyze so we can see where problems are and so we can look to improve management practices or behavior modification for the students."

After nearly three years on the job at the Woodbridge area school, McCabe was about two months shy of receiving a "continuing contract," or tenure as a principal, which would have made it more difficult for administrators to demote her. In internal school system memos obtained by The Washington Post, Darlington stated that the school climate at Freedom had deteriorated and that minority students were being treated unfairly by some members of the faculty.

McCabe has contended that morale at Freedom is high and that school officials are not following their own regulations regarding evaluations: She claims she was given specific reasons for her demotion only after she filed her grievances.

She also alleges that Darlington inappropriately asked about her age when the two first met to discuss her job as principal in early March. Darlington declined to comment when asked about the allegation in an interview, saying the matter was a personnel issue.

The district's conflict with McCabe -- marked by packed School Board meetings and a town hall meeting at Freedom -- has become contentious within the community and is proving to be Superintendent Steven L. Walts's first major test with his own School Board and the public. The controversy involves the same issue that cropped up in his previous tenure in Greece, N.Y., where more than a dozen school system employees filed EEOC complaints between 2003 and 2004, claiming they were discriminated against based on their age or a disability.

In April, the chairman and vice chairman of the board, Lucy Beauchamp and Betty Covington, voted against Walts's recommendation to demote McCabe.

At Wednesday's School Board meeting, both supporters and detractors of McCabe's stepped up to the podium to vent. Students spoke of their allegiance to McCabe because of her fairness and kindness, while others criticized the academic performance of the school and said it has a lax environment that allows too much student misbehavior.

Claudia Plowden, a teacher finishing her last year at Freedom, told School Board members: "There are maybe 200 people that have been supporting her. But we have 1,300 others whose parents are working. . . . This is the only reason you do not hear their voices."

Stephanie Flores, a Freedom student, ripped into the School Board: "Board members, you think you're so high and mighty because you are the board members and you make the decision, . . . but you're not that high and mighty. I think you judged Freedom High School and Dr. McCabe very unfairly. I think you treated everyone unfairly, because if any of you went to our school and met with parents, students, teachers and community members, you would know what happens in our schools and out of our schools."

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