Saturday, February 28, 2015

Monica Yant Kinney | These schools' backstabbers worse than the meanest girls

Move over, Mean Girls. In the Camden School District, grownups betray each other in depraved ways that the movie's catty cheerleaders could never fathom.

Whistle-blowing principal Joe Carruth secretly tape-records phone chats with School Board President Philip Freeman while supposedly working undercover for county prosecutors.

To hear Carruth tell it, Freeman pretends to have Carruth's back, only to rat him out to then-Superintendent Annette Knox, who makes Carruth pay for going over her head by firing him from his job at Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High.

Months later, just when you think this scandal has finally settled down, politically connected lawyer Ed Borden produces a $90,000 research paper with three seemingly contradictory achievements:

(a) It destroys whatever professional dignity Carruth had left by boldly declaring "untrue" his story of being pressured by a superior to cheat on standardized tests.

(b) It confirms the crux of what Carruth alleged, determining that a district official tampered with tests to make Camden students appear more successful than they really were.

(c) It blames someone else entirely, a guy whose name I'd never once heard before in nearly a year of closely covering the test-rigging saga.

So Carruth is right, but wrong? A truth-teller and a liar? A role model and an opportunist who wore a wire and still failed to get the goods?

It's treachery in the hallways, I tell you. And not a teenager in sight.

Pick a side

If you must watch, pick a side. The battle pits brainiacs who tried to fake their way to glory against Carruth, the freshman principal naive enough to think he could take down the bad guys by talking out of school.

Throwing down with either posse poses its risks.

The school district is run by mental giants who figured no one would notice when Camden kids started posting near-perfect scores on the all-important state tests. And Carruth, for all his stand-up-guy bravery, has yet to produce proof of his version of the salacious story.

Yesterday he tried, holding a news conference with his lawyers to release secret tape-recordings they hope will restore Carruth's name, reputation and earning potential.

"I don't have a job. I have a sick daughter. And my wife is terribly hurt that this report has portrayed me as a liar," Carruth explained after playing a tape of two 2005 phone calls with Freeman that he said he made at the direction of the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.

Being fired was bad enough, but when Carruth's aunt called him up thinking he had lied, he lost it.

"I'm hurt. I'm angry. I'm disappointed," Carruth said.

"This report," his attorney, Kevin Mitchell, piped in, "is a $90,000 whitewash."

See you in court

In the movies and in my own adolescent memories, the mean girls learn their lesson and make up in time to graduate grinning, hugging and mugging for the cameras.

In the grown-up version, the fighting and swiping goes on and on.

Carruth's lawyers are preparing to file a whistleblower lawsuit in which they say they'll allege he's been denied both his livelihood and civil rights.

An attorney for Scapegoat No. 2, Camden testing official Roger Robinson, is also vowing action, now that Borden has fingered him as the new face of educational evil.

(Does that explain why Robinson hid behind a handkerchief when an Inquirer photographer tried to snap a shot last week? He wound up looking like a bandit.)

And surely, sometime soon, an outraged Camden parent will ask Freeman and fellow school board members why they spent $90,000 for a 26-page report that's as inconclusive and conflicting as the stories it seeks to discredit.

For a lawyer like Borden, $90,000 is nothing. But in Camden, that money could buy books and pencils - items that could help needy students learn and succeed the old-fashioned way.


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 856-779-3914 or myant@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney.
Monica Yant Kinney Inquirer Columnist
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