Charter school won’t reconsider coach’s firing

Nichole Williams says Life School Waxahachie terminated her because she’s a lesbian but there’s nothing she can do about it

Williams.Nikki

DREAM DERAILED | Nichole Williams, shown in the Life School gym, had always dreamed of coaching high school girls basketball, a dream that was about to come true. But one day before basketball practice started, Williams was fired from Life School Waxahachie, and she says it’s because she is a lesbian.

JOHN WRIGHT  |
Senior Political Writer

wright@dallasvoice.com

WAXAHACHIE — Ever since she played girls basketball in high school, Nichole “Nikki” Williams has dreamed of one day coaching the sport.

This year her dream was about to come true after she was named varsity girls basketball coach at Life School Waxahachie, a charter high school 30 miles south of Dallas.

Then, just one day before basketball practice began in October, Williams was abruptly fired.

The 26-year-old Williams, who also taught ninth-grade geography and was an assistant volleyball coach, filed a grievance alleging she was terminated based on her sexual orientation, which reportedly became known to school officials after her fiancée began attending volleyball games this fall.

“I feel like they just ripped it all away from me for absolutely nothing,” Williams said. “That’s the hard part, and that’s what makes me sick.

“The story is, we’re still being persecuted,” Williams told Dallas Voice.

“That’s a strong word, but it’s true. The fact that as teachers in a professional world, you still have to hide who you are, it’s not fair. I don’t think anybody should have to hide who they are.”

An administrator at Life School, which has 3,700 students at five campuses in North Texas, including one in Oak Cliff, denied this week that Williams was fired for being gay. However, citing privacy concerns, he refused to elaborate on the reason for her dismissal.

Unfortunately for Williams, she may not have any legal recourse.

Texas is one of 29 states that lack bans on anti-gay job discrimination, which isn’t prohibited by federal law, either. And, although case law generally protects gay teachers at public schools, experts say courts have ruled that those provisions don’t apply to charter schools, even though they’re taxpayer-funded.

In her initial grievance against Life School, Williams requested reinstatement. But she’s since given up on that and now merely wants the termination removed from her record so she can pursue her dream of coaching basketball elsewhere.

“Basically, you’re looking at a 26-year-old teacher who for the rest of her life has a black mark because she’s been terminated,” said Williams’ fiancée, Jen DeSaegher. “She’ll always have to check the ‘I’ve been terminated’ box for the rest of her career, and that’s not going to go over well.”

‘More than just a coach’

During her three years at Life School, Williams said she received positive performance evaluations, promotions and even a letter of commendation from the superintendent.

Williams was also very popular among both students and parents, despite the fact that they knew she was gay in conservative Ellis County.

About 100 parents and more than 50 students at Life School Waxahachie — which has a total enrollment of roughly 300 — signed a petition calling for Williams to be reinstated.

“She is a passionate teacher who profoundly affects our children’s lives on a daily basis,” the petition states. “We cannot afford to lose such a valuable teacher and coach.”

In response to the petition, along with a steady barrage of emails and phone calls, Life School administrators set up a meeting with parents this week. Eleven parents gathered in a classroom at Life School Waxahachie on Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 15, and demanded answers about Williams’ termination. But they got relatively few.

Charles Pulliam, Life School’s director of human resources, and Ena Meyers, principal of the Waxahachie campus, told parents they’re barred from sharing details about personnel matters and wanted to protect Williams’ privacy.

“We made the decision that was right for the kids,” said Pulliam, who asked the parents to trust the school with their children’s safety. “I really wish I could share more, but I can’t.”

Pulliam made vague references to the school’s mission statement and its “standards of excellence,” saying his decision to terminate Williams was based on “a global view.”

“I can tell you 100 percent, we did what we felt was right for Life School,” he said, calling the decision “painful.”

Although he provided no details, Pulliam confirmed to the parents that Williams was terminated based solely on an incident that took place on Thursday, Oct. 13.

According to Williams’ account of the incident, four volleyball players dropped by her classroom following school photographs instead of going to the remainder of their assigned class.

For Williams, it was a conference period, and she said she was in and out of the classroom. Williams maintains she repeatedly told the students they needed to go to their assigned class and that she wouldn’t vouch for them.

But the students didn’t leave, and they were later investigated for skipping class.

On Friday, Oct. 14, the students received one-day detentions.

On Monday, Oct. 17, Williams was placed on administrative leave, and on Tuesday, Oct. 18, she was terminated.

Williams acknowledged she should have reported the students.

“I expected to be in trouble and I knew I should have been,” she said. “But to be fired, I was shocked.”

The parents who signed the petition agreed, saying they feel the punishment was “extreme” and “disproportionate.”

At the meeting this week, parents complained that Williams was replaced two days later by someone who is “unqualified,” because he’s never coached basketball or girls sports. Williams’ replacement also recently resigned mid-year from an athletic director position in another district.

The parents also accused Life School officials of lying to their daughters, who were told after a volleyball game the same night Williams was fired that she was “moving on to other opportunities.” The parents said they only learned of Williams’ termination from their kids.

“She’s more than just a coach,” one parent told Pulliam and Meyers. “She loves her students.”

“I did not feel like my child was in any danger,” said another parent — a man wearing a cowboy hat, Wrangler jeans and work boots who spoke with a Southern drawl. “I wish the school had a lot more leaders like her.”

One parent asked point-blank whether Williams was fired due to her sexual orientation.

“What is her sexual orientation?” Pulliam responded.

“Lesbian,” the parent said.

Pulliam paused at length before saying softly, “Certainly I would never consider that.”

School says decision is final

Pulliam said later he wasn’t aware of Williams’ sexual orientation — even though it was highlighted in her grievance filed Oct. 25.

“I’ve only been here three months,” Pulliam told Dallas Voice in a phone interview Wednesday. “I really don’t know much about her other than what happened as part of this.”

Pulliam said sexual orientation isn’t included in Life School’s employment nondiscrimination policy. However, sexual orientation does appear in sections of the school’s Code of Ethics that govern employees’ conduct toward colleagues and students. Regardless, experts say the policies aren’t enforceable because Texas has no statute to back them up.  And Pulliam denied that Williams’ termination had anything to do with the fact that she’s gay.

“I don’t want it to be about that at all,” he said. “It never has been, and I really think that’s just the wrong path. We don’t wish any harm on Ms. Williams whatsoever.”

DeSaegher, Williams’ partner, said Life School’s board of directors is made up of people affiliated with conservative evangelical institutions, including Dallas Baptist University, Southwestern Assemblies of God University and The Oaks Fellowship.

But Pulliam declined to discuss the backgrounds of board members.

“It really doesn’t make sense to talk about that stuff,” he said. “This is about Life School doing the right thing for our students and about us looking to protect Ms. Williams and her rights.”

Asked about his personal views on homosexuality, Pulliam said, “My personal opinion is not important here at all.”

Pulliam also reiterated what he told the parents the night before, that Williams’ termination is final and that the school won’t remove it from her record.

When parents pleaded with Pulliam on Tuesday to allow Williams to move on, he admitted he had the authority to remove the termination from her record but said he wouldn’t — “because I’m confident we did the right thing.”

After the meeting, parents expressed frustration.

“My reaction was, I really don’t feel like we got anywhere,” said Jennifer McCoy. “I feel like he was dodging all of our questions.”

McCoy has a son and a daughter who attend Life School Waxahachie. Her daughter, a junior who plays both volleyball and basketball, has attended Life School since fourth grade.

“I think that has a lot to do with it,” McCoy said when asked if she thinks Williams was fired because she’s gay. “Everything else, to me, it’s not adding up at all.”

Another parent, Wendy Williams, said she has four children who attend Life School, including a daughter who plays volleyball and basketball. Wendy Williams, no relation to Nichole, said her kids have attended Life School Waxahachie since it opened, but until now she’s never had a major issue with the administration.

“I think they tried to get rid of her because she’s gay,” Wendy Williams said. “They can’t say that, but I don’t see any other reasons.”

Wendy Williams said although she was raised “very conservative,” she doesn’t think Nichole Williams’ sexual orientation should be an issue.

“I don’t think it affected her coaching, and I don’t think it affected her relationship with the children,” Wendy Williams said. “I don’t think it matters.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 18, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Drawing Dallas

Who’s going to the Super Bowl in style? Packers fans Evan, Mavis May

MARK STOKES  | Illustrator
mark@markdrawsfunny.com

Name and age: Mavis May, 44

Occupation: Bartender, insurance agent and basketball coach

Spotted: Bartending at Sue Ellen’s

Setting the bar: An 18-year veteran of Caven, this outgoing Pisces worked at Moby’s for four years, but has spent the majority of her career behind the counter at Sue Ellen’s. A Texas native, Mavis was born in St. Joe on St. Patrick’s Day, and spent some of her years in Santa Fe, N.M., before migrating to Dallas.

The love you take is equal to the love you make: Mavis is active in the community with a long list of volunteer work including 10 years with Resource Center Dallas’ Outreach Prevention/Education program, case management in the women’s program and logistics manager for the Lone Star Ride. She has also been a table captain for the Black Tie Dinner. But her pride and joy is 8-year-old Evan, her son with ex-partner (and birth mother), Diana. His blended family includes a transgender aunt and numerous gay and lesbian aunts and uncles.

Bowl bound: Evan is all about sports, and Mavis coaches his basketball and soccer teams (the latter with his mom Diana’s partner Jennifer). Evan was the proud captain of Sue Ellen’s baseball team. If Evan thought that Mavis and his mother “knocked it out of the ballpark” by taking him to Cowboys Stadium for the Cowboys/Saints game last Thanksgiving, Mavis has even bigger plans in the works. A fortuitous turn of events dropped two 20th row seats in the end zone in her lap. You can guess who she’s going to take

Her philosophy: “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s about the experience.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 4, 2011.

—  John Wright

Schoolteacher arrested in 2008 shooting death of partner

Vaughn told police Judy Bell was shot by an intruder, but police say Vaughn was a suspect all along

John Wright  |  Online Editor wright@dallasvoice.com

Seidah Muhammad Vaughn

CEDAR HILL — Few details emerged this week about what may have led a woman to fatally shoot her lesbian partner in this suburb south of Dallas in 2008, or how authorities finally linked her to the crime three years later.

Seidah Muhammad Vaughn, 41, was arrested Monday, Dec. 6, on a charge of first-degree murder in the February 2007 murder of her partner, Judy Marie Bell, 34.

After being taken into custody at the high school where she teaches in Oklahoma City, Vaughn waived extradition and was brought Tuesday to the Dallas County jail, where she was being held on $500,000 bond.

Vaughn called 911 in the early morning hours of Feb. 29, 2008, and said an intruder had shot Bell in the Cedar Hill home they shared. But there were no signs of forced entry, and authorities never believed Vaughn’s story.

“She’s always been a person of interest, and our detectives have actually kept up with her location over the years because of that,” said Corky Brown, a spokesman for the city of Cedar Hill. “Recently, they came across some information that gave them what they were looking for.”

Brown declined to elaborate and said the motive for the crime remained unknown.

“We don’t typically try them [cases] in the public,” Brown said. “The idea is to get the information to the district attorney and let them try the case.”

Marshall McCallum, the assistant Dallas County district attorney assigned to the case, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons said court records contained no additional information because the case was referred by a grand jury.

According to media reports, both Vaughn and Bell taught at Permenter Middle School in Cedar Hill at the time of the murder. They’d lived together for four years.

Bell was a special education teacher and basketball coach. Vaughn taught English and language arts.

Bell’s 10-year-old son and three of Vaughn’s children — ages 11-20 — were in the home sleeping at the time of the shooting.

Vaughn began teaching in Oklahoma City in February 2009.  Bell’s son now lives with his father in Houston.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 10, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens