Class Action

updated 12/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

FOR A MAN IN THE MIDDLE OF A firestorm, Ruben Perez seems remarkably cool. "I knew I was in the right," says the assistant principal at Denver's Horace Mann Middle School, who last week vaulted into the national news by trying to suspend 100 of the school's 786 students for chronic disciplinary problems. "We have a really good school, and I'm only trying to make it better."

Perez, 41, who was himself suspended with pay for a day after district administrators thwarted his plan, is now back at his job of 2½ years pending an investigation. But the debate he sparked shows no sign of abating. To some in Denver, he is a grandstanding opportunist who may be helping to stigmatize Latino youngsters. To others, Perez simply seems like an educator so fed up with lack of discipline that he had no choice but to take a stand.

"You can walk the halls and hear students cussing at the teachers and screaming across the classroom to their friends," says parent Sandy Serrano, whose 11-year-old daughter Stefani attends Horace Mann. "They lack respect." Said state senator Al Meiklejohn, chairman of Colorado's Senate Education Committee: "I think they ought to give the guy a medal."

Some of Perez's critics, though, dismiss the threatened suspensions as just a bid for personal publicity. "Anybody who would do that on the backs of kids, I don't respect," says Nita Gonzales, co-chair of Denver's Latino Education Coalition, which has voiced concern that Latino students are often expelled for minor infractions. (Seventy-eight percent of Horace Mann's student body is Hispanic, as is Perez.) "No matter what, students do have rights," said schools superintendent Irv Moskowitz, who disciplined Perez for violating district procedures. "We're not into vigilante justice."

But Perez, an Air Force veteran who taught Spanish for 13 years in his native New Mexico before moving to Denver in 1992, says there is a time for going by the book—and a time for throwing it. And though Horace Mann's discipline problems—absenteeism, talking back to teachers and fighting—are statistically about average for the city's schools, Perez got fed up with dutifully adhering to procedure only to see "kids always doing exactly what they want to do with no consequences." That wasn't the way he and his four siblings were raised by their mother, a nurse's aide, and their father, an illiterate laborer for the Southern Pacific Railroad. When it came to schooling, says Perez, "you were supposed to do what the teachers told you to do, no matter what."

Just recently, Perez says he called a parent to tell her that her daughter had been late 27 times. "Yeah, I know," the mother replied. "But she just can't get up on time." Deciding it was time for a wake-up call for both parents and kids, Perez hit on the idea of mass suspensions. "The sole purpose was to get those parents we can never get into the building," explains teacher Nancy Partin, who, like most of her colleagues, applauds the administrator's initiative.

During a mid-November trial run, Perez booted 10 problem students whose parents wouldn't meet with teachers. Within days parents of each of the children called to arrange a conference with teachers. Encouraged, Perez waited until principal Martha Guevara, who he knew would disapprove, was out of town, then asked teachers for lists of frequent troublemakers. On Dec. 1, 100 students were to receive notes saying they would be suspended the following day. However, district administrators, hearing of his plan through the media, intervened that day and sent Perez home.

"It took courage for him to do what he did," says Perez's wife, Norma, 32, a department manager for Sears. "I support him. I'm very proud of his decision."

Before Perez's return last week, superintendent Moskowitz announced that the district would take a fresh look at its policies for students who are "chronic offenders." As for the assistant principal himself, and the penalties awaiting him, "I'm just going to face the music when it comes," says Perez calmly. "I still want to stay in education. I want to help kids."

PAM LAMBERT
VICKIE BANE in Denver

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