Tuesday, September 29, 2009

John Tyler Administrator Talks Candidly About Truvia

From the Mt. Pleasant Daily Tribune:

By MARCIA DAVIS-SEALE - Tribune Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 2009 12:42 PM CDT

About 8:50 last Wednesday morning John Tyler High School (JTHS) Assistant Principal Winston McCowan, Jr. - a Mount Pleasant native - would respond to a disturbance he heard in a classroom two doors down from his office, pass a student he'd spoken with a few minutes earlier being led down the hall in handcuffs by security guards, and find one of his teachers, stabbed and unconscious on the floor. In a phone interview Friday, McCowan told the Tribune, that Wednesday would be a day he'll probably never forget.

He said he calmed the student - that other media reports have named as 16-year-old Byron Truvia - in the school cafeteria, about 30 minutes before the student reportedly stabbed Todd Henry in the chest with a kitchen knife, piercing the special education teacher's heart.

McCowan said he believes that schools should monitor more closely student histories and tendencies. He said that JTHS had no knowledge of the violent family background of the student charged with stabbing the teacher to death, and if they had, perhaps they would have managed his situation differently.

"You never know! With No Child Left Behind laws, you must provide all students free and appropriate public education in the Least Restrictive Environment."

A specialist in the realm of special education, the young - but lauded - administrator, who comes from a family of professional educators, said that in this situation he feels his biggest contribution has been to provide a supportive calm presence during the chaos.
As the administrator in charge of working with and evaluating the JTHS special education teachers, McCowan said he talked with Henry often. "He never talked about being afraid or threatened by the students. He worked in the prison system for 10 years before coming here. He was always seeking to help students."

But that day, the teacher lay silent, unable to help student or self.

That morning on his way down the hall, McCowan said he heard a teacher's aide scream out the words, "Oh, my God, he stabbed him!"
The commotion was coming from the adaptive behavioral class where Henry and a teacher's aide worked with Truvia and two other students.

It's a class, McCowan said, "for students who need to work on social skills. It's more of a structured one-on-one for students that really can't make it in the regular classroom."

The school administrator said he yelled for the school nurses, and for someone to call 911. "And they [the school nurses] began to work on him [Henry] doing CPR."

The two students were escorted out of the classroom and paramedics and firefighters crowded in.

McCowan said he remembers that when the ambulance came, he helped bring in some of the paramedics' equipment.

The school was locked down, following a crisis plan that no one ever really counted on having to use. "Things were very orderly-no students in the halls-only the required personnel in the hallways as in the crisis plan.

"The crisis team secured the parameters, we had police backups, made the required communications with school and administration, and all the proper procedures were in place."

But this was not a drill, a teacher was dying or dead, a student's future hung in the balance, and no one on campus that day would walk away the same.

McCowan said no one knew Henry's condition when the ambulance left with him. The assistant principal said he saw the paramedics were still working on the teacher as they hauled the stretcher carrying his body down the hall and into the ambulance.

"The Tyler police came in, roped everything off as a crime scene, and we closed the school down, put out messages to the parents, called transportation - the buses, and released our students at 10:45. By 11:45 the campus was clear, and we began debriefing meetings with central administration."

Just a few minutes before that class began, McCowan said, "We had a small disturbance in the cafeteria. He [Byron Truvia] was standing up against the wall. I knew he didn't like a lot of disturbance, and I told him to get out of the way if they [the other students causing the disturbance] came toward him. I wanted to calm him.

"He seemed fine. He always kept to himself. There were no warning signs."

In the days following the stabbing, McCowan said, students and staff had been leaving notes and flowers on a memorial mural, of sorts, on the classroom door. Attendance is back to normal. One of the students, who was in the classroom at the time of the stabbing returned to class on Friday, according to McCowan.

"The other student was pretty rattled, and hasn't come back," he said.

"We've offered counseling for all the students with the school psychologist. All the counselors in the district are here to help, with extra school resource officers and central staff administration. We went classroom to classroom yesterday offering support.

"We always have security on site, and we brought in extra police officers and extra monitors. I don't know how long we will have them. The superintendent just told us we would have them ‘for the foreseeable future.'"

"It was a learning experience - for all of us - puts everything in to perspective as a reminder of how precious life is. It could have been any one of us. I was beside that student a few minutes earlier. I didn't see any signs of a weapon on him. He had on blue jeans and an orange shirt. I guess the knife was in his pockets.

"We never had any recollection that he was previously violent. Now we know he moved here after Katrina. He did have a troubling home life, threatened his sister with a knife, and his mom's brother killed her mom [Truvia's grandmother]."

"I believe school systems as a whole need to monitor more closely the background and tendencies of students with emotional disturbances, and also the family histories as well."

He said that he feels it's critical that students be placed appropriately. "In every school district some students fall through the cracks, [in terms of] their disability and the appropriate placement.

"We never want to put them at a disadvantage either way. But if they can't function in a normal school setting, we should put them somewhere they can function."

McCowan said he wasn't aware of a culture of violence at the high school. "Any school is going to have challenges. I don't see this any different from the schools across town. We cater to a different area than they do and have some of those students coming from difficult families and environments.

"This particular incident was a random act of violence that was unprovoked, and was without warning."

McCowan comes from a family of educators. His mother, LaWanda McCowan, serves as principal of the local Corprew Elementary School. His dad, Dr. Winston McCowan, Sr., is a professor at North Texas Community College, and his two sisters both teach in the Dallas area.

This school year marks his first year as assistant principal at John Tyler, in charge of the discipline of 460 students (with last names E through L) of the 2100 students at the school.

McCowan was named Assistant Principal of the Year by the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals, Region VII, 2009-2010. He served as assistant principal of Palestine High School last year, and before that, spent seven years working with students with special needs in the Texas public school system.

He said at the moment he is drawing on his family support and his faith to cope. "My wife is concerned and supportive. My children, ages two and seven months are too young to understand. My family calls or texts every day offering their support and their prayers.

"It's not every day you see something like that. There are moments my mind replays the whole scene…surreal…like a movie.

"Always running through a lot of our minds, ever since the incident, is the question of whether we could have done anything different. It's the kind of thing that makes you wonder, ‘What could I have done?…probably for the rest of your life."

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