Citizens against assholery, pt 2: how the American murder/suicide attempt helped disrupt Kathleen High

American kids are watching too many American adults model or indulge nihilism as civics. When power refuses to model just order; we shouldn't complain when children emulate the nihilists.

Here is part 1, introducing “Citizens Against Assholery.” If you’d like to join us, email me at townsendsubstackpe1@gmail.com

Also, subscribe to “Public Enemy Number 1.” It’s free.

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In just the last few months, the young people of Polk County have witnessed all of this from adults in their county:

1) Allies of Jimmy Nelson’s so-called County Citizens Defending Freedom (CCDF) behaved with so much feral public menace that they forced deputies to shut down a School Board meeting. This was about the same time the CCDF itself invited prominent military coup advocate Michael Flynn as an honored guest at a meeting.

2) Elements of the community have cheered on and protected Jonathan Pollock, of unincorporated north Lakeland, as he hides from the FBI because of the role he played in brutalizing police and representative democracy during the Capitol Lynch Mob. Polk Sheriff Grady Judd has been utterly silent — except for one meek Facebook post — about the wanted domestic terrorist, possibly at large in his jurisdiction, undoubtedly protected by some county residents (I won’t call them citizens) who know his whereabouts.

3) Various County Commission and School Superintendent Fred Heid public meetings have been disrupted and punctuated by menacing “questions” from CCDFers and other members of what I call the “assholery faction” of the Republican party. They’ve raged at everything from masks to vaccines to the existence of LGBT children to wanting Ivermectin-on-demand to a deeply stupid insistence that Civics, which is taught in public school, actually isn’t.

In the case of the Polk County Commission, Commissioners Neil Combee and Bill Braswell have cheered them on.

All of these disorderly and menacing adults have provided a powerful real world civics lesson to our kids: if the existence of your fellow citizens angers you or you resent the directives of legitimate power, go act like menacing, unprincipled, ignorant, feral fools, and you might intimidate meek institutional leadership into getting your way.

The Kathleen High incident would never have happened under the leadership of Johnnie Jackson

That brings us to what happened at Kathleen High recently. Based on my readings of public accounts and discussions with sources at Kathleen High and the Polk district, the dynamics of the Kathleen protest-gone-bad appear to be this:

A new principal and leadership team, hired en masse by previous superintendent Jackie Byrd in December of 2020, was woefully unqualified, unprepared, and incompetent to lead Kathleen High effectively, especially in this very difficult era.

Some kids chafed under the principal’s approach to leadership. They decided to hold a peaceful demonstration that spiraled out of control among enough kids that a dozen or so had to be arrested for menacing, disruptive behavior. And at least one irresponsible teacher/coach, with a grudge against the new principal, egged on the bad behavior, modeling the worst kind of adult leadership for kids. He has since been arrested for it.

Here’s an account from NewsChannel 8.

All in all, it’s a situation full of local assholery in a time full of national assholery.

And if we hadn’t tragically lost former Kathleen Principal Johnnie Jackson to cancer, it would not have happened. That’s because adult leadership and behavioral modeling matters — a lot. Bad modeling and bad leadership do not justify violent or threatening confrontation by even a handful of kids.

But they certainly make it more likely.

A rising star tragically gone

With that in mind, I want to compare the circumstances under which Johnnie Jackson got the Kathleen job and developed into one of Polk County Schools finest principals to how the new principal was appointed and supported.

In the 2016-17 school year, Johnnie Jackson was the top assistant principal at Crystal Lake Middle School, a zoned neighborhood school that serves a very diverse and low capital student population. My own son happened to attend Crystal Lake for 8th grade that year after leaving a Montessori charter school. He knew basically no one at Crystal Lake. But Mr. Jackson took an interest in him, like he did all kids, and helped him have a really good year and make some very close friends.

Moreover, Mr. Jackson’s leadership helped “lift” Crystal Lake out of the punitive state scrutiny that consistently stalks most low-capital neighborhood schools. He was genuinely beloved by the faculty and kids at Crystal Lake by every indication I ever saw. I thought the world of him myself.

Former Superintendent Byrd elevated Mr. Jackson, a Kathleen graduate, to principal of Kathleen for the 2017-18 school year after Kathleen’s “performance” on the fraudulent school grade scale more or less pushed out the previous principal.

But here former Supt. Byrd also did something really smart, both for Mr. Jackson and for Kathleen. She appointed veteran Polk County principal Ernest Joe as co-principal/mentor with Mr. Jackson. It’s a big jump from middle school AP to principal of a big diverse public high school community. The former superintendent made sure Mr. Jackson was not set up to fail. And he did not fail.

Mr. Jackson’s tenure at Kathleen saw steady upward progression — both in school culture and numbers it threw off. This continued when he took over as full principal after Mr. Joe’s year until he became ill with the cancer that killed him. During my tenure on the board, Kathleen’s progression was considered a real success story. In a time filled with too much tragic death, Mr. Jackson’s death was particularly tragic.

With Mr. Jackson in charge, there is just no chance what happened at Kathleen last week would have happened.

Curious hires with curious lack of support

Contrast Johnnie Jackson’s experience and support when he became Kathleen principal with Daraford Jones, who replaced Mr. Jackson in January. Mr. Jackson died a few months later in April.

Former Supt. Byrd hired Jones from Gause Academy in Fort Meade, which has 159 kids. This is the U.S. Department of Education information sheet for Gause:

Moreover, Gause is a strange sort of grade 6-12 alternative school. Kids have to be referred there by their zoned school. Gause offers the “Penn Foster” graduation alternative, which, frankly, I never quite understood as a board member.

In totality, I perceive Gause as one of those schools designed to artificially drive up graduation rate and provide a lifeboat to kids struggling in their home schools. This is from its website. Note the asterisk:

Gause, with its enrollment of 159 specially-referred kids looking for alternative graduation offerings, cannot be more different as a school than Kathleen High, a 2,000 student general education high school, with the Central Florida Aerospace Academy built into it.

Moreover, Jones was announced as Kathleen principal as part of a wholesale change in school leadership in December 2020 that took effect in January.

A Kathleen teacher I spoke to emphasized his or her dismay at the mass leadership change. “I was a hot crazy mess [on the day the changes were announced],” the teacher told me. The district did not appoint Ernest Joe — or any other veteran principal — as co-principal for Jones like it did for Jackson. But Joe has been a paid consultant to Kathleen, like former George Jenkins High School principal Buddy Thomas has been a paid consultant for Tenoroc High Principal Jason Looney.

The Tenorocking of Kathleen

Tenoroc is significant to the discussion here.

It is no secret that I have long considered Tenoroc Polk County’s worst-led high school because of Looney. The “data” backs that up; but it’s much more. A multi-faceted leadership scandal engulfed Tenoroc and the Polk district during my term.

I reported on this scandal at great length and publicly addressed it repeatedly with my fellow board members from 2016-2018 to no avail. Indeed, former School Board Member Tim Harris actively destroyed the integrity of the district’s botched investigation into the Tenoroc scandal, while it was active. Full run down here if you want it.

Talking about Tenoroc publicly likely helped cost me my 2020 election for various reasons not worth discussing here. But I was on the right side of Polk history. Period. Lying about public good and public business and public leadership and public behavior benefits nobody. Not then, not now.

And at least three members of the new Kathleen High leadership team come out of the Looney-era Tenoroc, including principal Daraford Jones, who worked under Looney as an administrator. Jones had left Tenoroc before the scandal I’ve mentioned. I want to be clear about that. However, a top-ranking member of Jones’ leadership team at Kathleen was one of the central figures of the Tenoroc scandal.

A very difficult position for the new superintendent

I don’t know what accounts for the Daraford Jones hire and the lack of support and the general Tenorocking of Kathleen. You would have to ask Jackie Byrd. These were her decisions. I was not on the board in January; so I was not asked to ratify them.

I do agree with what Board Member Kay Fields says here, generally. But also note the part in bold:

"I don't know Mr. Jones well, " Fields said. "But all indications, from what I've been able to understand and hear, is he wants to do what's right and my understanding is that he was highly recommended for the position," she said. 

She added, "When you're in a leadership position like that, you've got to build relationships, and you've got to be able to listen and hear from the students. Especially when they are high school students, they want to be heard and listened to." 

It would be good to know who, specifically, “highly recommended” Daraford Jones for a position he had no business taking over without any meaningful support beyond the failed Tenoroc leadership diaspora. The kids and faculty of Kathleen High deserved better. Jones himself deserved better. So did new Superintendent Fred Heid, who has to try to clean up this mess now. I think he can.

I think Heid has the tools and demeanor and commitment to do as well as any human being can as an institutional leader until these toxic national and community forces subside. I’m very pleased by what I’ve seen so far.

In this specific situation, Heid’s in a very tough bind. If he removes Jones, he rewards bad behavior by some kids and a teacher. If he doesn’t remove him, he ignores the reversal of fortune and loss of control of a school culture that was ascendent under the previous principal. If there is a Ernest Joe-type figure out there willing to take command and develop Jones, in a similar fashion to the development of Johnnie Jackson, that might be the ideal option.

But Heid, who is working his butt off, is closer to this situation than any of us. He is modeling the leadership behavior that I want to see as a citizen; and I think he deserves some grace on whatever he chooses.

Confronting the national murder/suicide attempt right here at home

The Kathleen incident is representative of this crisis era in almost all American institutions. That includes education, policing, health care, government, and even big business.

As I’ve said before, a faction of the modern Republican Party, made up of indulgent, entitled adults, is engaged in a sort of organized national murder/suicide attempt. I’ve called this faction the “assholery” faction; but the “murder/suicide” faction works just as well.

This faction claims not to like the supposed “culture” of modern diverse America. So its members have reverted to mass disorder, disruption, and menace — like the Capitol Lynch Mob and organized screaming at School Board members and pretending to believe the presidential election was stolen — to try to kill this version of America and replace it with nothing but social media fever dreams.

That’s the entire ideology and goal structure of the murder/suicide faction. It has no belief in common recognition of legitimate civic authority, much less democratically-shared power, with its fellow citizens.

Big institutions and authorities, too often led in frustrating and self-interested ways, make easy targets for the murder-suicide faction. Bad, selfish leadership from authority is nihilism fuel. It’s why I fought so hard to improve the leadership culture at the Polk School District and annoyed the Polk leadership class endlessly. It’s why I kept hammering the Tenoroc situation. I demanded that “leaders” everywhere, myself included, lead better. Because I knew and know that the murder/suicide of institutions poses a very real alternative, as we’re seeing now.

The politics of the Kathleen incident aren’t the same as the Capitol Lynch Mob or the organized Republican murder/suicide faction. I’m not even clear there was a politics. But unhealthy disorder happens when there’s a vacuum at the intersection of citizenship and just order and institutional leadership and the adult behavior publicly modeled.

Institutions of all kinds are vulnerable to nihilism when nihilism seems more potent than leadership.

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