Ruben Perez, an assistant principal in Denver, took extreme action against chronic troublemakers at Horace Mann Middle School: last December he summarily suspended 97 of the school’s 795 students while his boss, principal Martha Guevara, was out of town. Unsurprisingly, his actions drew a quick and hostile response from school bureaucrats—along with intense sympathy from a public fed up with discipline problems in the schools.
District superintendent Irv Moskowitz suspended Perez but quickly rescinded the order when it provoked widespread protests. Not only did teachers at Horace Mann don black armbands in solidarity with Perez, but district and local media offices were flooded with phone calls backing Perez and denouncing the superintendent. District officials tried to portray Perez as an unstable publicity-seeker, but he came across in interview after interview as composed and purposeful. He had resorted to a mass suspension, he explained, because other methods of discipline weren’t working. Too many teachers complained of classroom harassment, fighting, cursing, and a host of other disruptions by a minority of repeat offenders. They readily identified the 97 students Perez suspended.
The school district’s response was denial. Moskowitz commissioned a study, completed in February, which concluded that discipline procedures were both fair and sufficient. But Denver residents know better. Like many urban districts, Denver has hemorrhaged middle-class students over the past 20 years, its total enrollment slipping by one-third. Even a city councilwoman pulled her nine-year-old daughter out of the district recently, after a teacher told her that the girl, who had been victimized by bullies, needed to "toughen up." Because parents are properly indignant about violence and disorder in the schools, they made Ruben Perez an overnight hero.