D.C. principal's killing leaves behind a field of mangled little souls

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, April 23, 2010

With every loss, the shell of a traumatized child grows harder.

That's the ripple effect we're going to see at Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson.

Beyond the hellishness of the crime and the tragedy of any killing, last week's fatal shooting of the D.C. school's principal, Brian Betts, will leave behind a field of mangled little souls.

It might not have been so bad for them if Brian Betts weren't so good.

If he were just another adult who came into these kids' lives, went through the motions, proclaimed that test scores would be going up and sat in an office issuing orders and shuffling papers, it might not be so hard on the kids right now.

But he was a force. This was a guy who got them. He got in their faces, crawled into their lives. He got on the phone with them, called their parents and their grandmas. He knew their names, their problems and their triumphs.

"He spoke their language," said Kevin Bey, a father of three of Betts's students. "He saw them and said: 'Hey, what's up, Cuz?' or instead of scolding them, he'd ask them: 'You wanna chill out right now?'

"Half the time, I don't understand what my own kids are saying, but Mr. Betts, he spoke their language," Bey said.

In a school that reports zero white students in a predominantly black neighborhood, Betts was the white guy who ended up being called "a father" by hundreds.

The notes all over the memorial boards outside the school declare this. The kids who step in front of TV cameras, awkward, looking down, fiddling with their coats, repeated the phrase: "He was like a father to me."

"To every ethnicity, every race, he was the father there," said Bey, who loved the effect Betts had on his own kids so much that he asked the principal to be godfather to his children.

In three years of doing pickups and drop-offs at the school, Bey said he has seen only two other dads at the school.

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