SAMENIA MAYER said that she'd always tried to do right by the students she served at Germantown High, where she recruited and trained mentors to keep incoming freshmen on the right path.
So, when she noticed that teachers there were helping themselves to federally funded lunches before their students could get to them during a summer program, she complained to the principal, who ignored her complaints, she said.
Mayer said that the problem became so bad that even when the school ordered more than 100 boxed lunches for about 80 students, up to 20 students still went hungry, an allegation that students backed up last week.
She alerted alumni, clergy and community organizers, about what was going on, but when nothing changed, she called and e-mailed staff at the school district, seeking action. She was told to raise her concerns with the school's principal, Margaret Mullen-Bavwidinsi, who turned around and fired her, Mayer said. To add insult to injury, the day after she was fired, signs went up around the building warning teachers not to eat the students' food.
Mayer plans to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that she was let go for bypassing Mullen-Bavwidisi to blow the whistle.
"They responded to me after all, but I get fired for asking a question?" she asked recently about the school hanging up the signs after she was fired. "Just because I spoke up, I get thrown under the bus, I got fired. Somebody had to speak up for the kids."
Mayer was incensed.
"The staff gets paid. They have no right to take that," she said of the students' lunches, paid for by a $6.5 million Department of Labor grant. "This is the federal government's money. You have to do what they tell you to do with it."
Mayer was hired in January by the Boys & Girls Club, which has $220,000 in contracts for this year and next to provide mentoring services at the school.
"I had a passion for what I was doing," said Mayer, a 1994 Germantown grad. "I gave the kids my total support."
She'd enjoyed a cordial relationship with the principal as well, often exchanging questions and ideas with her, she said.
But she said that all that changed late last month when the freshmen transition program Summer Bridge began, and Beverly Barksdale, the school's Turnaround Assistant Principal (TAP), who helps implement reforms, was fired.
With Barksdale gone, Mayer said, no one was watching to make sure that all the rules were being followed, and she saw teachers poaching the kids' lunches, sometimes taking enough food for several people.
During a recent parent roundtable, Mayer brought her concerns to Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, whose aides suggested that she inform the principal. A district spokesman said that the district expects to fill the TAP position, but added that a principal is responsible for addressing complaints.
Mayer said that she felt that the teachers she'd seen taking lunches - usually hoagies, chips, fruit, cookies and juice or water - were cheating their students, 83 percent of whom are considered economically disadvantaged, according to district figures.
"Some of [the students] would come to me crying, saying that they haven't eaten," she said.
Last week, two teachers leaving the school who didn't want to identify themselves denied the claim.
"Do you see what the students are fed? Why would I want to eat that?" asked one teacher, while the other added that she buys her lunch from the culinary students.
But incoming freshman Cierra Riley said that she was annoyed after seeing teachers digging in her grub earlier this month.
"For some of the kids, these are their last [meals] for the day," she said.
Her friend, Kayla Hazzard, also a freshman, said that on several occasions she and at least five classmates she knew didn't eat.
"A Campus Pal [a high school senior] told us that they ran out of food because the staff was eating our stuff," she said of one of those instances. One time, "they tried to give me just an apple."
An investigation by the school and district found Mayer's complaints to be unfounded, said district spokesman Fernando Gallard.
"At no point were staff fed first," he said.
The district, the principal and Mayer's former supervisor from the Boys & Girls Club, Diane Datcher, wouldn't disclose why Mayer was fired, saying that they don't discuss personnel matters.
But Mullen-Bavwidinsi and Datcher said that Mayer wasn't innocent. They said that she not only ate the food but also brought leftovers home to her four kids.
"We are not filing a grievance [against the district] because Samenia is not giving you the whole picture," Datcher said. "Do you think I would jeopardize my career if she got fired because she asked a question? We better have more than that to hang on."
Mayer scoffed at the accusation.
"Why would I take food that was left out all day to my kids?" she asked. "Why would I go to great lengths to go to 440 [Broad Street, district headquarters] based off of something I was doing too? That's hypocritical."
In an e-mail to Mayer sent on July 17, Mullen-Bavwidinsi told her to leave the matter alone.
"Since you are NOT in charge of DOL incentives as part of your charge, I will respectfully ask that you NOT concern yourself with this issue," she wrote.
When reached at her school last week, Mullen-Bavwidinsi said that teachers are not allowed to eat the lunches and that she didn't recall sending the e-mail. She declined to comment further.