Nine days ago, Curtis Marks, a physical education teacher at Garnet-Patterson Junior High School in Northwest Washington, was found slumped over, near death, at the bottom of a dark staircase leading to the school gym.
Marks, 6 foot 1, 210 pounds, was breaking up a fist fight between two eighth-graders moments before students came running upstairs from the gum screaming that their teacher was lying unconscious at the bottom of the steps. Although teachers and policemen went to his aid, Marks was pronounced dead at Howard University hospital 45 minutes later. He was 60 years old.
According to the D.C. medical examiner's office, homicide detectives and school system investigators, Marks died of a heart attack.
"I found no evidence whatsoever in the autopsy to indicate a violent attack or that he was pushed or fell down (any) concrete steps," said Leroy Riddick, a District medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Marks. "He had a slight contusion on his head. It was less than I usually see, though, after someone has a heart attack and falls down. I've seen cracked skulls from just that . . ."
Lt. Kenneth Winters, a D.C. homicide detective, confirms the medical examiner's report that there was no evidence of an attack on Marks. "At no time was he kicked or pushed," Winters said. "His collapse was not the result of any physical contact."
Despite the autopsy report and the findings of homicide and school system investigators, sepculation and gossip about how Marks died continues among teachers.
Some city school teachers, distrustful of school system administrators who have issued no public statement about Mark's death, suspect that school officials are covering up what happened to their colleague. And they are openly doubting that the former athelete, who had no known history of heart trouble, died of a heart attack.
In death, Marks has become a symbol of the fears city teachers have of being attacked by students in school. The undisputed truth that a fellow teacher died in a school has aroused strong concern, even fear, among some teachers. That fear is based on a combination of truth and univerified rumor that make the rounds in conversations between teachers.Since Jan 1, there have been no rapes and 30 officially recorded assaults by students on teachers in the D.C. public schools, according to school system officials.
The teachers' fears have been fueled by TV specials about school violence elsewhere in the country as well as a general public belief that violence against teachers is a reality of city public schools.
In addition, Mark's wife, Lucilla, a home economics teacher at H.D. Woodson High School, said the first word she received that something had happened to her husband came from an anonymous caller who told her he had been shoved down the steps by students.
"He would complain to me every day about the fights and the way (the students) would curse him out," Marks' wife said in a telephone interview from Tyler, Texas, where she buried her husband Monday. "They say he had a heart attack. Well, I'd have a heart attack too, from fright, if I saw I was going to go flying down those steps."
More than a dozen teachers have called The Washington Post since Marks' death to say that they have heard from other teachers that Marks was killed by a group of angry students and that the incident is being hushed up by school system administrators.
"The people downtown have got to be concerned about suits and their public image," said one caller who identified herself as a teacher. "I'm concerned about myself. Me. If they (students) kill me I want everybody to know about it and I want those kids put in jail. When they start killing people I couldn't care who gets a bad name from it."
Interviews with other teachers confirrmed that there is widespread discussion of Marks' death.
"The word is definitely out that the guy was pushed down the steps," said John Nickens, a physical education teacher at K.C. Lewis Elementary School. "I guess people feel there are some violent things going on in the public schools that aren't being properly taken care of . . . people are worried that maybe it could happen to them."
The only person to formally question how Marks died has been Calvin Rolark, Editor and publisher of The Washington Informer newspaper. Rolark sent school board president Conrad Smith a telegram Wednesday demanding that an investigation be held of Marks' death.
Rolark said he has received several phone calls from students at Garnet-Patterson Reporting that the gym teacher was pushed to his death. Rolark said he has heard at least four versions of the incident, some in which several students pushed Marks down the steps, some in which just one student pushed Marks, some in which Marks was found at the top of the steps and the official version in which Marks was not pushed but was found at the bottom of the steps. Rolaark, who attended Prairie View A&M College in Texas with Marks, said he wants the school board to determine exactly what happened.
The uproar surrounding Marks' death has been further fueled by comments attributed to Washington Teachers' Union president William Simons. Simons was quoted in The Washington Star as saying that he advises teachers to "let the children destroy themselves. Do not attempt to interject yourself into it (a fight between students)."
Simons said in an interview with The Washington Post that his remark was taken out of context. "All I'm saying is that a teacher had better take a calm, objective look before inserting himself or herself into an altercation," Simons said. "It's better to stand on the sideline until matters have cooled down than to put your head on the chopping block . . . After all, one has to protect one's self, especially teachers approaching middle age who are not in the same physical condition they were in when they were younger . . ."
School Superintendent Vincent Reed called Simons' remarks unfortunate. And Rolark said members of the teachers' union should move to oust Simons.
Reed said he thinks there has been commotion over Marks' death because "it is upsetting when a colleague dies on the job . . ." But Reed emphatically denied that any evidence indicates Marks died at the hands of students.
The principal of Gernet-Patterson, Charles Epps, said the teacher's concern "is not legitimate. All of the evidence clearly indicates what took place . . .None of the teachers here are scared about what happened to Mr. Marks. And I'd say to any teacher who is scared because of what happened here that they had better take a good look at their own situation."
Calvin Hubbard, the investigator for the D.C. public schools' division of safety and security who compiled the school system's official report on the incident from interviews with students and teachers at the school, said the events leading up to Marks' death began with a fight during a basketball game in the school gym.
A few punches were thrown in the fight before students broke it up and one of the fighters was sent to the locker room to wash his bloody nose.
But, according to Hubbard, the fight was not over. The body who was still in the gym ran into the locker room and began fighting with the other boy again. This time Marks stopped the fight and, tightly holding the arm of the more aggressive boy, walked up the staircase from the gym to a door leading to the first floor of the school. Marks had planned to take the boy to the prinicpal's office, Hubbard said.
However, the 14-year-old broke away from Makrs as Marks relaxed his grip on the boy's arm to unlock the door to the first floor hallway, Hubbard said. The boy ran back down the steps to the locker room to start fighting again.
Marks began to go back down the steps, Hubbard said, but when he reached the last step he collapsed and was found lying there.
"When we heard the students yelling we went down to see what happened," said Carter Bowman, the assistant principal who was one of the first persons to reach Marks. "He was slumped right there on the first step. Right by him was his class roll. It wasn't scattered as if it had come out of his hand while he was falling down the steps.
"(Someone) went to get a damp towel for his head and I asked the boys to push up the window and give him some air," Bowman said. "All the while I was trying to see if he was bleeding or hurt somehow. There was nothing . . ."
"There is no question that stress precipitates some heart attack," said medical examiner Riddick. "However I would assume that as a gym teacher this man broke up maybe one or two fights a day. Here's a big man in fantastic shape, he looked five years younger than his age. He's breaking up a fight between two 14-year-olds. Another fight. So to say that this one fight caused him to have a heart attack, well . . . some people go to every Redskins game and then at one game they have a heart attack. Are you going to blame the Redskins?" CAPTION: Picture, CURTIS MARKS . . . speculation continues