INGLEWOOD — Lawrence Freeman acknowledges that when he became principal of Inglewood High School three years ago, he planned to bully the troubled campus into a model of order.
"You can't be soft on a campus that has the kind of problems Inglewood has," Freeman said the other day. "You have to come down hard on everybody if you expect things to change."
But now Freeman, 64, says his "hard-line" strategy for transforming a school plagued by gangs, graffiti and some of the lowest reading scores in the state barely got off the ground--weighted down, he said, by teachers who never gave his policies a chance; district officials who lost faith in him, and parents who praised his rigid academic programs but didn't participate in them.
Although he still has some supporters in all three groups, more than $200,000 in stress-related worker's compensation claims filed by teachers are pending against the district. All cite Freeman. About a dozen teachers have transferred from the school or have taken leaves of absence in the past 12 months. In addition, the Public Employees Relations Board has upheld eight counts of unfair labor practice charges filed by teachers over Freeman's policies. Last February, about half of the school's 85 teachers picketed the campus, calling for Freeman's ouster.
Almost all of the teachers who left "were unable to cope with Freeman and his hard-line policies," said Jacques Bernier, executive director of the Inglewood Teachers Assn.
"Teachers who taught there for years and were considered by all standards to be premiere teachers have left because they just couldn't stand to work with that man and watch his policies destroy the school," Bernier said.
Nonetheless, Freeman had strong backing from district officials--until recently. Now one board member is openly calling for his removal.
Freeman's support started to wane after school opened in September and the school board and other district officials began to question his ability to unite the staff and revitalize the academic environment.
At the board's direction, Supt. Rex Fortune sent Freeman a memo in late November threatening to remove or transfer him at the end of the year if teachers and other school employees continue to file complaints against the district or leave their jobs on stress-related disability.
Freeman acknowledged receiving the notice, which is the first step in removing an administrator under the district's agreement with the Inglewood Management Assn., which represents school administrators. A second admonishment by March would be a "sure signal" that the district was planning to remove him at the end of the academic year, a board member said.
"We encourage all administrators to build a spirit of cooperativeness and teamwork and we have to take steps to make sure that happens," Fortune said in an interview. He refused to comment further, saying he is unable to discuss personnel matters in public.
No other Inglewood High employees have filed stress or worker's compensation claims against the district since Freeman received the warning, a school board member said.
But board President Earnest Shaw, who
says Freeman should be removed immediately to "restore a learning environment," has introduced a measure that would allow the board to remove Freeman without going through the lengthy warning procedure. Though Shaw and board member Rose Mary Benjamin have said openly that they would like Freeman removed, Trustees William Dorn and Caroline Coleman declined to comment on the Shaw proposal. Trustee William (Tony) Draper said he opposes the measure.
Shaw's proposed new policy, which will go before the school board in February, would empower the district to sidestep formal proceedings in "emergency or special" circumstances and transfer school administrators from one position to another without warning.
Though the policy would apply to all school administrators, Shaw acknowledged that the measure is aimed at Freeman.
"This whole thing has gone on for too long, it is time we got rid of him," Shaw said.
"We have teachers leaving the district like crazy. Morale at the school is at an all-time low. The academic environment has suffered. A change has got to take place if learning is going to go on at that school."
But Freeman supporters, including parents, students and some teachers, say Inglewood High has improved greatly during his tenure.
All agree that the high school was a mess when Freeman arrived in 1984. One district employee in a recent interview described the campus as a "hell hole." A city employee said it was a "nightmare." Trustee Draper called it a "jungle that no one had been able to tame."
Graffiti covered the walls both inside and outside many classrooms throughout the sprawling campus at Grevillea Avenue and Manchester Boulevard, school officials said. Gang violence was rampant, test scores were low and the school had one of the worst truancy records in the county.