Last month, in the aftermath of the Littleton, Colo., school shooting, Tatum summoned 18 students after a few of their classmates reported overhearing a conversation that included talk of shooting or bombing. Security guards questioned and photographed them, angering both parents and students.
"I didn't think that was right," said Claudia Nevarrete, 16, who talked to a few of the targeted students. "It's sort of discrimination in a way, even if it was done for the safety of the school."
During lunch on a recent day, Tatum enforced some of her more traditional rules. She told several students to pick up their trash and to hurry on to class. When one student started to walk across the grass, she calmly looked him in the eye and said, "Young man," and the boy jumped to the paved path. And when another walked by wearing a skimpy tank top, Tatum said, "Where's the rest of your shirt? Meet me in my office to get another one."
Tatum says she firmly believes in holding everyone accountable for their actions, but not at the expense of their dignity or self-esteem. She'll yell and scream at students, she said, but then hug them.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 28, 1999 Ventura County Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Zones Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
School principal--An article Monday contained incorrect information about Oxnard High School Principal Daisy Tatum. In 1994, Tatum became the first female African American principal in Ventura County.
Tatum was born in Arkansas in 1944 to a mechanic and a homemaker, and grew up with little money. She graduated from Oxnard High School in 1962, where she was on the drill team and the honor roll. Her high school years, she said, were some of the best in her life. Now, Tatum's conference room wall is decorated with high school memorabilia.
After earning bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Arkansas, she took her first teaching job at a high school in Little Rock.
In 1969, she accepted a job at Channel Islands High School as a physical-education teacher. Five years later she became assistant principal, and in 1982 she was moved to Hueneme High School as assistant principal. After 11 years at Hueneme, she was appointed interim principal at Frontier High, the alternative school.
She became the first African American principal in Ventura County in 1994 when she was assigned to Oxnard High. And since she has been there, attendance and test scores have increased, and the number of fights has decreased, according to Tatum and several parents.
Tatum is also credited with alleviating racial tensions at the school. Campus supervisor Pat Martinez said he remembers walking through the middle of campus, with blacks on one side and Latinos on the other, and feeling the tension. But now, he said, people of different races interact with little conflict.
Though Tatum has been married twice, she spent too much time at school to make either marriage last, she said. She has no children of her own, but cared for a foster child for more than eight years and has invited at least 30 foreign exchange students into her home. During summers, she visits her "children" all over the world.
One of her former exchange students, 38-year-old Belinda Poore of Colombia, said Tatum changed her life. "Through her, I saw that you can come from a poor family and succeed, and you can be a woman and still have some sort of power," said Poore, who calls Tatum "Mom." Poore said she decided to pursue a career in education because of Tatum.
Arrives Early, Stays Late
Supporters say Tatum goes the extra mile for students and their parents. And, according to Assistant Principal Denise Barnett, she wants teachers, counselors and administrators to do the same. Tatum arrives at school at 5 a.m. and sometimes doesn't leave until 9 or 10 p.m. She rarely takes a lunch break, instead eating her yogurt and carrots on the go. Every year, she learns the new students' names. And every day, she makes it a point to say hello to a student she doesn't know.
"The first thing on Ms. Tatum's mind is the students' and parents' concerns," said David DeCaires, 16, the assistant editor of the school paper.
Nicole Morgan, 14, said Tatum helped her raise her grades when they dropped, enabling her to play sports again. Senior Claudia Nevarrete said Tatum helped her get a job when she needed money to help out her family. And Chris Luna said when his grandfather died, Tatum prayed with him. "Ms. Tatum has touched all our lives in some way," he said.
When faced with a challenge, Tatum said, she tries not to worry; she just deals with it. And that's exactly what she is doing in regards to her new position at the community day school, which will start with about 300 students and could have as many as 800 within a few years.
It's going to be tough to motivate the students, many of whom have been expelled from other schools, she said. It's also going to be difficult to get them to come to school six hours a day, when many are used to being on independent study at home and attending school one hour per week. And Tatum said she doesn't know how she is going to train and manage staff at the four separate locations: two in Oxnard and one each in El Rio and Camarillo.
Though she is gearing up for her new position, Tatum still expresses a desire to stay at Oxnard High. "There are so many different kinds of kids here," she said "There are my special-education kids, my regular kids, my little gangstas. There is so much to give here, and I'm sad to be leaving."