D.C. School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie has ordered Wilson High School Principal Michael Durso to return to work today, but Durso said he will disobey the directive as long as a 16-year-old student charged with raping a classmate remains at the Northwest school.
Durso, 43, said he received a letter from McKenzie late Friday that "directed me to be at Wilson Monday morning," but he said he will continue his protest against what he decribed as weak school policies that prevent principals from transferring, suspending or expelling students accused of breaking a law. Durso's expected refusal to obey McKenzie's order marks the third time in his four years as Wilson principal that he has run into conflict with school rules and policies.
The current controversy started on April 14, the day police arrested the student at the school. Durso told the student that he could not return to Wilson and would have to be transferred to another school. The student's mother appealed Durso's decision, and a school system hearing examiner overruled the order.
But Durso, who has been on personal leave since Thursday, said he could not in "in good conscience" allow the youth to remain at Wilson.
"This is not just a Wilson issue, and it's not just an issue with this particular student [the alleged rapist] . . . . It's a school system issue," Durso said.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled in the student's case today in D.C. Superior Court. Police have refused to comment on the case.
Durso, a Washington native and 21-year veteran of the school system, has gained a reputation as a tough but popular administrator who strongly values his control over school operations. Wilson is regarded as one of the city's best high schools.
He was reprimanded by school officials after a December 1984 incident in which he detained about 300 tardy students outside the school, lectured them on punctuality and the next day sent home about 70 latecomers. Durso was told by the deputy superintendent to find "alternative" ways of fighting tardiness.
In another incident, Durso was reprimanded and suspended for three days for forfeiting a Friday afternoon football game after failing to reach an agreement with the opposing team to reschedule it for Saturday.
Durso started work as a social studies teacher after earning an undergraduate degree from Catholic University.
He earned a master's in education administration from American University. He lives in Montgomery County with his wife and four children, ages 9 to 16.
He is prepared for the consequences of his decision to disobey McKenzie's order, he said.
In past years, he said, "I went against the regulations as they stood and was prepared to take the consequences of my actions. The same holds for this instance also. I don't take this action lightly. I have a wife and four children. I need a job, but I also have certain things I believe in, too."
He continued, "The concern here is that we are putting a young man arrested for a relatively serious crime back into the same setting with the alleged victim and we're hoping that it won't happen again, and it makes no sense," Durso said.
The young man's mother said her son told her that he wanted to continue attending classes at Wilson because "he knows he's innocent." She called the arrest and Durso's actions "a travesty of justice."
Several Wilson teachers and recent graduates described Durso as a principal who enjoys his work. He runs the 1,600-student school, at Nebraska Avenue and Chesapeake Street, with a firm but fair hand, they said.
"I've been at some schools where principals are autocratic," said a Wilson counselor who asked not to be identified. "What they say goes and that's that. But Durso is different. He allows teachers freedom to develop creative programming. He asks for your opinion about his decisions, and he listens."
A Wilson teacher said, "Some people have problems with his style. They think he is a bully and meddlesome. He has a lot of energy and he watches everything that goes on in and around the building, like a hawk."
Another Wilson teacher said, "Durso has made a decision that has put his moral convictions in conflict with his loyalty to his employer. I and many other teachers applaud his decision. It took a lot of guts."
But the principal of another Northwest Washington high school said, "I think his present actions are insubordinate. We all must follow the rules. It's not his school, it's a public school, and he is paid to obey the rules."
Durso is popular among students and often uses slang in talking to them, several students said. He is well regarded because he is a firm leader, they said.
On Friday, many Wilson students staged a demonstration after lunch to express support for Durso.
But some students disagreed. "I think he's taking it a little bit too far, especially since the young man in question hasn't been convicted," said David Bowers, 16, a sophomore.
"Besides," Bowers said, "I know of students at other schools who have been convicted of crimes and still are allowed to attend school."