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The Smooth Operator

Innuendo and rumor surrounded Frank, Crestwind School’s janitor. A loophole in the school district’s policy allowed him to retain his job after an arrest and conviction for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer. Jenny Marsh was unable to quell her uneasy feelings despite reassurances from the administration.


It was a cool crisp morning when Jenny Marsh arrived at Crestwind Elementary School. There was a buzz in the air as Jenny entered the building. "Hey, Jenny, did you see the paper this morning?" a fellow teacher asked as they met in the hallway.

"Yes, I guess you mean the article about Frank."

"Can you believe it?" Jenny’s colleague asked and then went on to say, "I guess I always had my doubts about him.  Just look at the things he says and the way he acts here at school." Jenny just shook her head and made her way to her classroom.

Jenny had been a third-grade teacher at Crestwind for ten years. She was a confident, talented teacher who had just been named the state’s teacher of the year. She enjoyed working at Crestwind because of the diversity in the student population. She tried to instill in her students a respect for the differences in others. She wanted to help her students see the richness that diversity could bring to their lives. Jenny was beginning to question her humanitarianism when it came to Frank Pitts, however.

Frank was the school’s head custodian. He was a 46-year-old, white man who was somewhat overweight. He appeared unkempt in many ways, usually sporting a full day’s growth of beard and rumpled clothes. He wore glasses that often slid down his nose giving a nasal quality to his voice. He was native to the community and had been married for several years. Although many people at the school commented on Frank’s appearance, it wasn’t his appearance that Jenny was beginning to question.

The morning paper had a detailed article about Frank’s arrest and conviction for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer. He had been placed under house arrest, but due to a loophole in the district’s policy was going to be allowed to retain his job with the school. The policy stated that employees who had the responsibility of direct supervision of students would be removed from their job if convicted of a crime. Frank was able to utilize that loophole because he did not directly supervise students.

As Jenny sat down at her desk to look over her plans for the day, she began to think back about Frank’s behavior at school. Frank always "pushed the envelope" concerning appropriate interaction with children and staff. He often told dirty or offensive jokes to staff members even when they bluntly told him, "Frank, I don’t want to hear any more of your jokes." His feelings about the minority children in the school were no secret. He could often be heard making racial slurs about them under his breath. If anyone dared to confront him about his comments, he denied making them and informed the person that they must have misunderstood him.

Jenny leaned back in her chair and remembered what Sue, a second grade teacher, had told her about Frank. One morning Sue was carrying a box of supplies to her room. As she passed Frank in the hallway he said, "I would carry that box for you, but when you carry it I can watch your butt wiggle all the way down the hall."

Jenny began to wonder why everyone, including herself, put up with his behavior. One word popped into her mind: intimidation. Jenny was not one to be easily intimidated; however, Frank was the master of intimidation and retribution. If you questioned any of his actions or did not remain on his "good side," you would suddenly notice that your room was not being cleaned well and that you were not receiving requested repairs or janitorial help. If you asked him or the administration about these things, he would quickly respond by saying, "I did not receive a written request for those supplies or repairs. I didn’t know they were needed." Even though you had verbally made the request the day before, he would deny hearing you. He was a master at "covering his tracks" and would always make his accusers look inept or misinformed. No one had ever been successful in making an accusation of Frank "stick."  Most of the teachers at Crestwind had given up trying to do anything about Frank, fearing that it would cost them too much personally or professionally.

Jenny recalled what had happened to a new teacher last year. The new teacher, Ellen, told Frank that his jokes and racial comments about the students offended her, and that if they did not stop, she would speak to the principal.  Frank denied saying anything inappropriate and brushed her comment aside. A few days later, Ellen received a scathing letter from Josie Bellows, a teacher on maturity leave from school that year. The letter stated that Ellen had been seen going through Josie's personal materials in the school’s storage room. Josie reported that she left her materials in the storage room because she was planning to return to Crestwind the following year and did not want them disturbed.

Ellen was horrified. She had no idea that the materials in the storage room belonged to someone else. She would never have looked through them had she known. Ellen began to wonder who could have told Josie about it. Later, Frank made a comment that answered her question. As he filled the soap dispenser in her room (that had been empty for over a week) he said, "You know, you really need to be careful about going into the storage room. People have put things in there that they don’t want disturbed." Ellen got Frank’s message loud and clear.  He was a slick operator and a force to be reckoned with.

Jenny glanced up at the clock. The students will be arriving soon she thought. Just then, a school-wide announcement came over the intercom. "There will be a mandatory faculty meeting today at 3:30 in the media center." Jenny stood up and walked over to the classroom door to get ready to greet her students. She thought to herself, "I wonder what the meeting is about. We just had a faculty meeting last week." The students began to scurry in and she quickly focused on the day’s plan.

After the students left that afternoon, Jenny quickly put away materials and prepared to go to the faculty meeting. As she left her room, she heard some of the teachers in the hallway talking about Frank and when she entered the media center, the room was a buzz. She saw Edward Michaels, the school principal, talking on the phone in the media center’s back office. He hung up the phone and walked out into the large room. "Everyone, please take your seats. I’d like to get started. This won’t take long," he said. The room quickly became quiet. Everyone was focused on Edward. "I’m sure you are aware by now of the arrest and conviction of Frank, the school’s custodian. Frank will be returning to work tomorrow. I want to call on all of you to be sympathetic towards him. He is embarrassed and under a lot of stress. I think it is unfair of us not to give him a chance. He made a poor decision and is now paying the consequences. I don’t think we need to make a big incident out of this. Of course, if Frank does something that puts a child in immediate danger, I want to know about it. Otherwise, let’s concentrate on what we are here for, the students." Edward quickly changed the subject and announced that he would be evaluating all of the teachers this year. The evaluation would go into each person’s permanent personnel file. As Edward began explaining the evaluation process, Jenny thought to herself, "That’s strange. Although the evaluation is his option, he did not evaluate everyone last year."

Edward,in his mid 50’s, had many years of experience as a principal, although this was only his second year at Crestwind. Crestwind’s previous principal was an excellent administrator who was admired by the community and the local superintendent. Many felt that Edward was trying hard to build a good image and live up to the previous principal’s reputation. He was slated to be the president of the local principal’s organization. There had been rumors that he was planning to retire in three years to  run for political office. Jenny felt that Edward was a well-meaning, intelligent man, but got the impression that he did not want any controversy surrounding his administration.

Edward ended the meeting and wished everyone a pleasant afternoon. As he left, Jenny noticed that everyone’s focus quickly returned to Frank.

In the days that followed, the topic of conversation did not change. Although it was done quietly, everyone’s focus was on Frank. It seemed Frank’s every move was being analyzed and discussed. Jenny could not help but wonder if too much was being made of the situation. "Perhaps Edward is right. We should not judge him too harshly. We need to focus on the kids." She then asked herself, "What is my responsibility in terms of the emotional and physical safety of the children?" She continued to ponder the situation without any resolution and felt resentment that her attention, as well as that of the rest of the school staff, was being focused on Frank rather than the children.

The next day, as she stood at the classroom door to greet the children, Amy, one of her students, walked in with a flower. Jenny remarked, "Amy, what a pretty flower!" Amy replied, "Thank you, Frank gave it to me." Jenny got an uneasy feeling in her stomach as she began to greet the rest of her class.


Discussion/Study Questions

  1. List what you learned/know about each of the characters in the case.
  2. What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?
  3. What are the issues/problems in the case?

Additional Questions

  1. What types of power/privilege were exercised by characters in the case?
  2. Do you think the principal is aware of Frank’s inappropriate comments, racial slurs, etc.?
  3. What do you think is Jenny’s responsibility in terms of the emotional and physical safety of the children in her class?
  4. Do you think Frank poses a safety risk to the children?
  5. What do you think Jenny should do? What are the possible repercussions?

CEC Competency/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

Major Areas:

Variations in beliefs, traditions, and values across cultures within society and the effect of the relationships between child, family, and schooling.

Importance and benefits of communication and collaboration which promotes interaction with students, parents, and school and community personnel.

Other Area:

Rights and responsibilities of parents, students, teachers, and schools as they relate to individuals with exceptional learning needs.


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