Paul Public Charter School/ Courtesy Photo
Despite assurances that administrators would prioritize teacher safety, and that of the greater school population, an overtly opaque investigation into a student’s alleged attempted assault against an instructor, the latest in a series of questionable events to take place in a D.C. charter school, recently culminated in the instructor’s termination, with no explanation from school officials.
On Thursday afternoon, the now former Paul Public Charter School employee, Sam P.K. Collins, while on paid administrative leave, received a phone call from school leadership announcing the “severance” of their relationship. This transpired just hours before Paul PCS hosted its annual My Brother’s Keeper banquet, a community event to celebrate the male-bonding initiatives and trips that took place throughout the year at the school, the majority of which Collins recruited students for and participated.
The attempted assault, carried out by a male student of color Collins had taught this past academic year, took place 10 days earlier, on the afternoon of May 14th, and ended with the student on top of Collins. Security personnel was nowhere in sight for more than 10 minutes.
That afternoon, the young man abruptly walked into Collins’ classroom, ignoring him and bumping into other students, as the instructor stood at the front door and passed out the classwork for that day. The student then sat away from his peers as Collins, a co-teacher, and nearly 15 other young people made their way to the more-than-a-dozen desks formed in a circle in the middle of the room.
For much of the class, as other students followed Collins’ instruction, the student in question, just as he had done several times before, plugged his headphones into his iPhone, pulled out several sheets of paper and started doodling before working on assignments for other classes. The co-teacher, who had been working with the young man in the weeks leading up to the incident, motioned him to come over the circle, a request he denied. After glancing at the young man, Collins started the lesson hoping that he would change his mind.
More than 15 minutes into the 53-minute class, Collins, seeing that the student was still enamored by his doodles, stopped the lesson, walked over to the young man’s desk, gently grabbed the papers, being intentional about only touching the papers, not the young man. The student, surprised and perturbed, took his headphones out of his ears and demanded his papers, yelling “Give me back my shit” to Collins.
At that point, Collins told the young man, in a stern but calm manner, “You have to do work related to English and Language Arts in this class. Only that work and nothing else.” Shortly after, Collins backed away from the young man’s desk, walking backwards to the tan locker across the classroom, where he intended to lock the student’s drawings for the remainder of class.
By the time Collins reached the locker, the young man had gotten from behind his desk and started walking toward the teacher. The co-teacher, most likely sensing the student’s desire to retaliate, stretched out her hand and pulled him away from Collins in an effort to diffuse the situation. In those few seconds, Collins pulled out his keys and successfully opened the locker, placing one door between himself and the young man so that he could open the other side and secure the materials.
Unfortunately, the co-teacher’s efforts didn’t suffice. As Collins attempted to close the locker, the young man walked over to him, fists balled up. Seconds later, he swung a right hook at Collins, who, in self-defense, bear hugged the student. What followed was a scuffle during which the young man tried to break free of Collins’ grip, swinging his fists into Collins’ back and whispering “Yeah nigga, yeah nigga” in his ear.
Three minutes into the quasi-wrestling match, the male student tripped up Collins and proceeded to get on top of him. At that time, Collins, trying to avoid getting punched while on his back, held the student’s hands back and squirmed on the floor with the student on top of him before the co-teacher pulled him off and ordered the other students out of the room and against the lockers in the hallway.
As the co-teacher pulled the alleged assailant by his hand into another classroom, Collins followed behind the pair, in deep labored breaths, asking him why would he try to punch a teacher. Seconds later, Collins gained composure, walking back to his classroom and leading students to their desks to continue the lesson. Shortly after, security personnel and school administrators, just as Collins got back into the lesson, called him out of class to start the investigation, which included submission of his written statement, and interviews with administrators and the Metropolitan Police Department.
That afternoon would be the last time Collins’ students would see him, sweating and disheveled, in the teaching capacity.
Journalist Turned Educator
During his nearly two-year tenure at Paul PCS, Collins gained a reputation as an instructor who cared deeply for students’ academic and personal success, taking on a teaching style that integrated English instruction with other disciplines in a manner that facilitated students’ holistic education. A self-avowed Pan-Africanist who started openly embracing a Black Nationalist philosophy as an adult adolescent, Collins often described writing and reading to his students as means to self-determination, encouraging his Black and Latino students to read deeply and for themselves, all while providing deep historical and cultural context for the stories they would read as a class.
In February, after submitting a presentation proposal, Collins, with the encouragement of school leadership, represented Paul PCS at the Rubicon Curriculum Conference in Pittsburgh, where he gave a presentation titled “Equipping Our Black Students with Knowledge of Self” to a group of teachers and education policy experts. Collins was the only Black male participant in the entire program. Weeks later, he would divulge the specifics of his presentation to Paul staff during a weekly meeting. At the time of his termination, Collins was slated to teach U.S. History next school year and assist Paul PCS in a curriculum revamp.
Before teaching at Paul PCS, Collins served as a substitute teacher at a bevy of D.C. charter schools and an instructor at an African-centered homeschool. The transition to full-time education happened amid a prolific, and ongoing, journalism career that included stints at ThinkProgress and The Washington Informer, a local Black-owned newspaper where Collins, now 28, launched W I Bridge, a monthly millennial magazine. In 2015, disillusioned by the effects of gentrification on D.C.’s cultural economy, Collins launched The AllEyesOnDC Show, a grassroots media program that hosted live news events at We Act Radio in Southeast before moving to Sankofa Video Books & Cafe in Northwest.
Collins, a native Washingtonian of Liberian descent, has deep roots in the Paul, and Ward 4, community, having attended the institution shortly after it gained its charter in 2001 before matriculating to Banneker Academic High School in Northwest two years later. During that stint as a middle school student, Collins whetted his appetite for journalism and advocacy, helping launch The Paul Post student newspaper and serving on the Student Government Association, as vice president, and later president.
Memories of a positive Paul experience, and the potential for recreating such memories for his students, motivated Collins to wake up at 5:30am every morning and make the less-than-a-mile trek from his home to Paul PCS, to start work nearly an hour before the start of the school day.
More than anything else, Collins wanted to ensure that students understood the value of discipline and perseverance on their academic journey. So much so, he embraced policies and procedures brought on by senior school officials, who, after a slew of firings last school year and dramatic changes in leadership, promised continuity and fidelity to the rules, to the benefit of students and teachers.
Despite skepticism among co-workers that work conditions would improve, Collins persevered, upholding the rules the best way he could, asking students to tuck in their shirts while walking down the halls, discouraging use of cell phones and unauthorized stairwells, and chastising students who chronically skipped class. Those efforts, in a world where the higher ups prioritized PARCC test scores and PMF data over character development, often proved futile, foreshadowing the circumstances that led to Collins’ termination.
Long Ignored Institutional Breakdowns
First came the use the unauthorized stairwells in front of administrators, an action students often found themselves carrying out while in a rush. Next, swarms of students on the third floor, where Collins’ class was located, along with other sections of the school, would often congregate and loiter when they should be in class. This type of activity most often took place during first period, before and after lunch, and toward the end of the school day; all without a dean or security guard in sight.
In the past, senior officials have stood in the shadows while, during his class, Collins had to step outside his door to gather loud, loitering students out of the restroom. The administrator that time, also Collins’ supervisor, said nothing to the five or so students skipping their class that morning. She would later write about him, in an evaluation, that he “unknowingly” ill serves students.
This administrator completed and submitted this document, based on an observation of an early April class, to Collins May 15th, the day after he defended himself against his alleged assailant.
Months earlier, during a meeting between Paul PCS’ CEO, director of schools, and teachers, Collins, to the chagrin of some of his colleagues, recounted the lack of a strong adult presence on the third floor hallway, stretching several feet between the high school section and middle school corridor, during time windows where student foot traffic was highest. Beyond the seven or so teachers whose classes lined the hallways, the lack of vigilant adults, particularly those who held significant institutional power, often complicated efforts to corral students into class between transitions, each one taking three minutes. Without the presence of security guards or a grade-level dean, students wouldn’t get into class until, oftentimes, more than 10 minutes after it started.
During classes, when all students should be accounted for and in class, the same group of young people would post up between the Boys Bathroom and the water fountain. Whenever the bell rings, these same young people often line up against a set of lockers awaiting the bell to ring so they can roam the halls, attend their friends’ lunch cycle, or play in the school gymnasium, for another 53 minutes at a time. If not there, these students would be holed up in administrators’ offices, passing the time without a valid explanation.
In the months and weeks leading up to the May 14th incident, the lack of consistent security and leadership presence in the hallways took a toll on Collins and affected his relationship with students, many of whom felt emboldened by their newfound freedom to be out of uniform, blast music from headphones, curse freely at instructors, and engage in acts of violence. As one of the few adults to openly address these concerns with students, without the backing of higher ups until after the fact, Collins often stood by himself against students hellbent on doing whatever they wanted.
Early in the second semester, at the end of the school day as students gathered their belongings to exit the building, a colleague, noticing a melee in the works, motioned Collins to come over to the middle of the hall. Seconds later, Collins had to help break up a fight, getting punched by one of the students in the face in his attempts to quell the pandemonium. Security was nowhere in sight during this incident.
The next incident, during which Paul PCS fell short in protecting people, resulted in student injury. On the last day of Black History Month, while most of the high school was enthralled in an assembly, a violent scuffle took place on the third floor unbeknownst to anyone. One of the students involved, earlier in the year, allegedly flipped a table at a teacher in a fit of rage.
When a concerned student reported the incident to Collins, he told his supervisor who then assured him that administrators had the situation under control. What followed was an adjudication process clouded in secrecy, during which one of the alleged assailants walked into the school building though being suspended. Since that mishap, administrators, in what has been described as a reactive measure, release daily “Do Not Admit” lists that include names of suspended students.
More recent instances of student violence, or the threat of student violence, affected Collins more personally.
During the latter part of last month, a young man who vandalized the Boys Bathroom, in front of security, was allowed to go on a field trip after the fact. During that incident, which happened during a grade-wide transition to lunch, Collins walked into the bathroom upon hearing a disturbance. Once inside, Collins saw the large, green trash can dragged across the room and a toilet paper teepee over the stalls. Soon after, he saw the young man exit one of the bathroom stalls with a roll of toilet paper in his hand. After asking him to give the paper, the young man refused. At that point, Collins asked a colleague to come in and calm down the student. That teacher’s words didn’t help quell the situation.
A week later, after running down the hallway at track-star speed, pummeling a young lady, and getting up in a female teacher’s face, another student threatened Collins’ safety after he briskly walked down the hallway and asked the young man to leave the entrance of the girl’s restroom.
Again, security was nowhere to be found nor the dean, who was supposed to be posted up in the hallways during transition. Late into this incident, the dean grabbed the young man as he got in Collins’ face, spat obscenities and threatened physical harm. This would be the second documented instance when said student threatened Collins’ life. Noticing a pattern, school leaders suspended the student for two days and promised a mediation between Collins and the student upon his return.
Instead of two days, the student served one. The mediation never came to fruition.
Character Assassination Veiled as an Investigation
Time and time again, especially in the weeks leading up the May 14th incident, Collins spoke to the grandmother of the alleged aggressor about his behavior and veiled threats, often along the lines of “See me after school.” Long before that, at the end of the first quarter, Collins and the young man attended an impromptu mediation session led by a senior school official who was close with the young man’s family.
During that session, Collins bumped the young man’s grade up a couple points so that he would pass with a 70 percent for the advisory. For Collins, this served less as a means to “cook the books,” as is often and vaguely mandated by administrators, and more as encouragement that would hopefully pay dividends later in the year.
Despite several promises from the young man to improve academically and show Collins respect, his behavior showed little to no change. In addition to not completing work, the young man skipped class, and failed to attend the after-school detentions that Collins hosted for students who needed to make up work they didn’t complete. After skipping detention for the fourth time during the third quarter, school leaders gave the young man an in-school suspension and later sent him home. Upon his return to school, school officials promised a meeting between Collins and the young man’s grandmother. That meeting never happened, another disappointment amid a sea of unanswered home calls, caused by attempts by the student to intercept Collins’ outreach as he would later discover.
At the beginning of the year, the student revealed his apprehension about reading, compelling Collins to help him pass 10th grade English for the school year, as long as the young man wanted to do so. By the fourth quarter, with the student’s overall grade well below passing, but still high enough to make it, even on the margins, he had given up on himself.
Collins, noticing this, asked the student on repeated occasions to attend class more consistently and get one-on-one tutoring after school. Though this student wasn’t on her caseload, the co-teacher threw her hat in the ring, assisting the young man with his assignment twice.
As the young man’s other teachers have stated in private conversations with Collins, his disdain for his instructor overshadowed any desire to pass the English class. What transpired instead were attempts to get administrators on his side, including a time when a grade-level dean called Collins out of his room during instruction period the young man skipped to speak to him about his academic status.
During Paul PCS’ investigation, Collins outlined these events to administrators, thinking for a moment they would show some impartiality.
On the afternoon of Monday, May 21st, he tried to find a quiet location in a Miami shopping center to speak with Charlotte Spann, Paul PCS’ director of schools, and Erin Fisher, the high school principal, in a video conference during which they collected more information about what took place a week earlier and the circumstances around it.
Long before May 14th, Collins requested five instructional days, between the 16th and 22nd, for a family vacation, which Fisher granted. However after employing self-defense tactics, and at the bequest of administrators, he would start his vacation early, staying home on the 15th while they started gathering evidence.
This May 21st interview, supposedly serving as Collins’ elaboration of an earlier written statement, was peppered with questions about his actions, more so than the young man’s. As Fisher took notes, Spann, in a suspicious tone, asked if Collins had touched the young man’s chest and had him in a headlock during the incident. She later questioned the manner in which Collins took the student’s paper, and visibly showed confusion about why Collins stepped into the hallway with his students after the co-teacher pulled the young man out of the classroom.
During the interview, Spann briefly mentioned that she took testimony from other teachers, although only one was directly involved, without any specificity about the line of questions they received. Though Collins remained calm, what popped up in the back of his mind at the time were memories of perplexed looks from colleagues who would see the familial nature of his relationship with his students. Another memory that came to mind was that of a colleague, the week prior to the May 14th incident, warning Collins about being married to the rules to the point where an inconsistent administration would terminate the “militant Black man.”
For three more days, the cat-and-mouse game continued, diminishing Collins’ confidence in Paul PCS’ ability to settle this matter with all the facts and context in mind. A day later, back in D.C. and anxious about his future at Paul PCS, Collins received a phone call from Spann who said administrators would prolong the investigation two additional days to gather more evidence.
Collins, frustrated at this point, pleaded with Spann to closely examine the greater forces at play, specifically the weak security presence and lack of consistently implemented rules and school culture that threaten teachers’ safety.
In that moment, Spann paused before telling Collins in a defensive tone that none of that should be of concern at the moment, and matters related to institutional practices would be resolved after the investigation. Minutes later, the conversation ended.
Two days later, HR personnel would call Collins to break the news of his termination as an employee.
Self-Defense: A Natural Right in a Place with No Rules
It can’t be taken for granted that adolescents, undergoing a period of rapid developmental and emotional change, will often make mistakes. As the adults in the space, teachers are often encouraged to diffuse situations and utilize the protocols in place the correct student behavior. Convention holds that those who get into a physical altercation with students aren’t fit to teach.
However, the author of this piece, who’s at the center of this controversy, disagrees, imploring readers near and far to look at the issue in deeper context. The information laid out prior shows
1. ) A breakdown in procedures and customs gave young people the impression that they could do whatever they want without consequence.
2.) School administrators don’t value teachers who uphold the rules and hold others accountable to standards that were put in place at the beginning of the year and
3.) In an effort to save face and sweep a prevalent issue under the rug, school administrators, chock full of biases against strong Black men confident in their Afrocentricity and encouraging of that in others, upheld stereotypes about Black masculinity in cutting ties with a person who has contributed significantly to the academic and social culture of their institution.
Naysayers may question the credibility of this statement, citing the confidence with which the authors walks around the building and boldness with which he talks to students when encouraging, and redirecting them. However, please understand that the author of this piece feared for his safety and physical health on the afternoon of May 14th.
In those seconds, out of the watchful eye of security, he had a decision to make. In enacting self-defense measures, he was very careful to not harm the student.
The goal was self-defense, not assault or retaliation, while in the capacity as a teacher, a responsibility that obligates someone to ensure the continuity of systems in the classroom, and the safety of students, and themselves. There are laws on the book across the country that state this. These laws, like the one referenced below, have protected teachers when utilized adequately.
Section 5-E2403 of The District of Columbia School Discipline Laws and Regulations states that teachers could overcome allegations of corporal punishment, similar to what this author has faced, when in self-defense to a degree that’s comparable to what the aggressor has unleashed, and the least intrusive means of quelling the situation. That’s exactly what happened on May 14th when this student swung a punch at the author, and he bear hugged him.
School officials, however, didn’t see it that way, choosing to avoid the hard questions and the possibility of investigations into institutional practices.
However, with this article and subsequent follow-up efforts, the tide will change for teachers caught in similar situations daily at Paul PCS and elsewhere.