Teaching Mr. Dreyer

Kids at one school found a new weapon: False accusations.

Mark Dreyer Robert Jamison School
Mark Dreyer's name hangs like a specter over Robert Jamison School.

The long, low-slung brick building at E. 149th and Harvard teems with more than 750 returning K-8 students. They might as well be shipping off to Kabul.

"I always tell everyone it's like walking into a war zone," says one teacher, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. "I can't tell you how many times the glass in the hallway has been shattered."

Teachers hope this year will be less violent than last, when one instructor was injured by rowdy students no fewer than five times. Then there was the kindergartner who told a teacher, "Fuck you bitch. I got people that can take care of large women."

"It was like all the cages had been opened, and the animals were running the zoo," another teacher says.

Frustrated instructors say they have long searched for a way to regain control, but they're fighting an uphill battle -- against administrators as well as students. If teachers enforce discipline, they say, the kids complain to their parents, who then complain to the principal. The teacher takes the hit.

"It's almost like the environment is allowed to be that chaotic," says one faculty member. "Teachers are being set up for failure, because the discipline problems are so crazy and they're not getting taken care of."

But there was once a teacher who stood up. In 2001, Mark Dreyer came to Jamison with an unusual thing: expectations. While others resigned themselves to babysitting rather than educating, the science teacher refused to look the other way at droopy pants and oversized T-shirts. Students couldn't enter his class without adhering to the dress code of dark slacks and light shirts. He kept extra clothes on hand, just in case.

"We taught eighth grade together, and the eighth graders were the only ones who acted like they had any sense," one teacher remembers.

By his second year, Dreyer's results were so impressive that Principal James Balotta empowered him to hand out detentions and suspensions.

But the students didn't appreciate the enforcement of rules. They cursed Dreyer and openly challenged him to fights. And when all else failed, they invented stories of brutality and perversion.

Which is why Dreyer's name is still spoken in hallways. It's how the kids remind teachers of what happens to those who try to control them.

"After he was gone, that's what they used to call it: 'We're gonna do a Dreyer on you,'" says one instructor. "That was the point when it really sank in to me how bad the situation had gotten."

Dreyer doesn't have the appearance of a man with an easily triggered temper. He's a wiry 38, with Anderson Cooper hair, loose-fitting khakis, and leather loafers -- no socks, thank you very much. It's the look of a man on permanent vacation.

But during the 2002-2003 school year, he was all nerves. His wife had just given birth, and doctors had found that she suffered from a kidney disorder that threatened her health and her ability to have more children.

At the same time, he'd taken over discipline responsibilities at work. It was a bad idea, one that transformed him from respected teacher to house bouncer. "That made me out to be a bad guy," he says. "I was the enforcer, not the teacher."

The students didn't bother to hide their disdain. "When I would issue a detention notice or a suspension notice, they would throw a fit," Dreyer says. "They would rip it up and throw it back at me."

So in January 2003, when the students returned from winter break, Balotta called an assembly to discuss behavior. But the principal didn't show up for his own assembly, Dreyer says. (Balotta, now a district superintendent, did not respond to interview requests.)

That left Dreyer and a handful of teachers playing for time before an increasingly hostile audience. A boy named Terrell was a particularly enthusiastic heckler. "He was unruly to every teacher," Dreyer says. "He had to leave."

When Dreyer ordered Terrell out, the boy made a show of it, rolling his eyes and walking with slow defiance. Dreyer decided to speed him up. But as he put his hand on Terrell's shoulder, their legs got tangled. "To the whole seventh grade, it looked like I pushed him," Dreyer says.

It seemed a minor incident, but they would continue to pile up.

Three months later, he got upset when a boy named Freddie Ellis called an honor student a "bastard." Dreyer pulled Ellis aside and scolded him, but when the kid walked away, Dreyer heard him mutter "Fuck you." Whirling around to face Ellis, Dreyer hit a work table that bumped into the boy.

"It only hurt for like a few minutes, because it shocked me too," says Ellis, now 16, adding that he has no hard feelings for Dreyer. "He was a good teacher. He taught some stuff that we could learn from."

Then, just 10 days later, Dreyer tapped another kid on the head, hard enough that the boy felt as if he'd been struck. "In a district with no money, we somehow got brand-new textbooks, and there's a kid with a pen scribbling in it," Dreyer says. "How would you react?"

Around the same time, a girl accused him of inappropriate touching. It happened during a field trip, says Dreyer. The girl was standing on a moving bus. He touched her knee to get her attention, something he often did, regardless of the kid's gender.

If he were a parent dealing with his own kids, such incidents would be chalked up to adventures in child-rearing and forgotten within 10 minutes. But in the hypersensitive world of modern education, where teachers are charged with imposing order through straitjacket rules of engagement, they spelled danger.

"You can't hug a child for a job well done or pat them on the back," Dreyer says. "I don't think you can even shake their hand or give them a high five."

By then, he had accrued four misconduct charges in as many months. On June 3, 2003, the district convened a disciplinary hearing. After the evidence was heard, Dreyer accepted a 10-day suspension without pay and agreed to anger- and classroom-management training.

"I made a few bad choices, and I admit that, and I learned from it," Dreyer says.

Others weren't so inclined to move on.

Annette Price has grown wary of reporters. When Scene called her Warrensville Heights home, she initially refused to talk. "What's in it for me?" she asked.

But she wasn't always so media-shy. With reluctance, she falls into old habits and begins talking about why Dreyer should never teach again.

She came to that conclusion in 2002. It started when Dreyer was preparing students for an exam with a game of Science Jeopardy. The winners got stars drawn on their answer sheets. One wanted the star on his hand; another wanted it on her cheek.

Then student Chris Brown asked Dreyer to draw an "L" on his face -- for loser, he said, laughing.

At first, Dreyer resisted, but the classes were changing, and Brown was insistent. "I finally gave in, because I had 25 students waiting in the hall," Dreyer says.

When Price, a special-education substitute, found out, she was outraged, and she made sure Dreyer knew it.

"I said, 'Those kids didn't ask you to write on them,'" she says. "I said, 'You write on blackboards, you write on paper, you don't write on kids.'"

That was the origin of her beef, she says. "I never disliked Mark Dreyer. I just knew that Mark Dreyer had a problem with the cruel things he was doing to children."

But as Dreyer tells it, Price isn't nearly so selfless. She'd been nursing a grudge from the year before, when he refused to grant her a schedule change. And co-workers say that Price made no secret of her desire for revenge.

"To me, her animosity toward him seemed like it was personal more than professional," one teacher recalls. "She was a gossip, and she used to call me and other teachers nonstop, and all she wanted to talk about was him."

Whatever Price's rationale, there's no doubt that she wanted to expose Dreyer. She sent schools CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett three letters complaining about his alleged abuses. And when she got no action downtown, she called Fox-8.

TV investigators took the bait. Price hastily arranged sit-down interviews with Chris Brown and his mother. It would ultimately cost her her job, she claims. "They thought I coached the parents into doing it."

On July 21, 2003 -- less than two months after Dreyer signed off on his disciplinary accord -- Fox-8 aired its report. It was quintessential TV news. The story made Dreyer out to be an out-of-control teacher who humiliated kids and beat them into submission.

"I was sick," Dreyer says. "And I was wondering: Where's this going to go next?"

Price wasn't content to merely expose Dreyer before the viewing public. She sent a tape of the story to the Ohio Department of Education. She then followed up with no fewer than 20 phone calls, according to Lori Kelly, a state investigator.

"Yeah, I did; I contacted the state quite a few times," Price admits, hastily adding, "to protect the kids."

She also faxed the department letters from parents complaining about Dreyer's behavior.

"Over the last two years, my child has been subjected to stares by Mr. Dreyer," one mother wrote. "She says she can feel his eyes on her when she goes to sharpen pencils or throw away her trash."

The woman described how Dreyer had recently wrestled with her daughter and another girl, alleging that he had thrown them to the floor, then "proceeding to lie down on both of them."

But if that truly happened, other students and teachers would have known, says one former co-worker. "The complaints I did hear were about him being strict in class, not about anything inappropriate going on."

Madge Ellis, Freddie's mother, wrote about the time her son had been clipped by the desk and added a new, more alarming tale: Freddie had found "naked women" on a computer in Dreyer's classroom.

"When you do something to one of my kids, somebody needs to be held accountable," says Madge, who runs a trucking company with her husband. "I even went so far as to try to reach Jesse Jackson. I said, 'Somebody is going to listen to me.'"

On May 12, 2004, Dreyer received a terse letter informing him that he was again under investigation, this time by the state. Punishment could include suspending or revoking his teaching license.

"Try getting a job after you have to mark on an application that your license has been suspended," Dreyer says. "It's not gonna happen. They were taking my ability to ever teach again."

Dreyer was literally bred to teach. He's the son of an Aurora teacher and a Kent State architecture professor. "When I was about six years old, I decided that's what I wanted to do," he says.

But it's a nine-month job. During summers, Dreyer trimmed trees.

On July 26, 2004, he was on a crew trying to bring down an old elm in Aurora, standing 40 feet from where a branch would fall. But the limb dropped awkwardly, bending like a bow. "It launched like a missile and it hit me," he says. "I had just enough time to turn my head."

Knocked unconscious, he was rushed to Robinson Memorial Hospital. Doctors found a blood clot on his brain. Dreyer was flown to Akron City Hospital, where he underwent an emergency craniotomy.

He was kept in a coma for three days. Recovery was slow and painful. He had to use a walker, but was too proud to let his neighbors see.

By January 2005, Dreyer was finally healthy enough to return to teaching. But because of the controversy, he transferred to Captain Roth Elementary, where he would await his fate.

On February 17, 2005, attorney Robert St. Clair convened the disciplinary hearing.

"I have no affiliation with the Department of Education," St. Clair began, explaining that he would simply hear evidence, then announce his recommendation to the state. "They can take that and they can either accept it, adopt it -- they can revise it or modify it; they can literally ignore it, if they choose, but I am not the person who makes the decision."

Elizabeth Wampler, a lawyer from the attorney general's office, would serve as prosecutor. She made no bones about her goal: revoking Dreyer's license.

Defense attorney Michael Goldberg acknowledged his client's mistakes. Yes, Dreyer had used poor judgment on several occasions. But this was no sadistic teacher, Goldberg argued. His client's greatest sin was standing up in a place where it was wiser to look the other way. For that, Dreyer had been targeted for a witch hunt.

The lawyer had no trouble proving that students often lobbed false accusations. One witness, ostensibly called to testify against Dreyer, admitted that she too had been targeted. The demure Ivy League grad confessed that students had circulated a story that she'd masturbated in front of the class.

"I would have to say that they just kind of had this mind-set of getting teachers fired," she testified.

Music instructor Nicholas Scheiberhood also bolstered Dreyer's case.

"I have heard several 7th grade students in hallways bragging that they got Mr. Dreyer fired," Scheiberhood wrote in a letter of support. "When I approached one group and asked if getting Mr. Dreyer fired was their goal, they laughed and said, 'Yes, but we would never do it to you, 'cause we like you.'"

It also became clear that Price had hyped the accusations. Two parents testified that the substitute "made repeated telephone calls to them complaining about Dreyer and encouraging them to take some kind of action," St. Clair later wrote. "Apparently, Price also called the prosecutor's office, police department, local newspapers and television stations that finally resulted in the Fox News broadcast."

The allegations of computer porn were easily disproved; Dreyer wasn't in class the day the pictures were downloaded. The stories about wrestling sounded like horseplay, and any more serious claims turned out to be hearsay.

After weighing the evidence, St. Clair recommended that Dreyer receive a one-year suspension, adding that the punishment should be waived if he stayed out of trouble. "Dreyer appears to be rehabilitated and has returned to the classroom successfully," St. Clair wrote.

But the final decision rested with the Board of Education, which chose to disregard St. Clair's recommendation. Instead, it handed down what was essentially a career death penalty: a two-year suspension, no credit for time served.

"We felt there was more discipline needed," says J.C. Benton, spokesman for the Department of Education. "When the board feels that harsher discipline is appropriate, they take that action."

Goldberg appealed, arguing that the state had capriciously ignored evidence that seemed to exonerate Dreyer of the most serious accusations.

"In essence, the people interested in ruining Dreyer's career took the same case presented to the Cleveland Municipal School District -- with some major embellishments -- to the state level," he wrote in his appeal.

Cuyahoga County Judge Nancy Margaret Russo agreed. Last March, she overturned the state, reinstating St. Clair's more lenient recommendation. "The Board of Education's decision was not based on competent, credibly sufficient evidence, thus the board abused its discretion when it rendered its decision," she wrote.

Despite the courtroom victory, Dreyer has not returned to the classroom. At the end of the 2005 school year, he resigned after he was again accused of hitting a student -- this time when he was home with the flu. He didn't have the stomach for another battle. "I just had had enough."

So he returned to tree-trimming. The money's nice, but it's not the same as being an educator, he says. "I miss teaching something to a kid and watching the light go off when they finally get it."

Last April, Dreyer got a call from a woman identifying herself as "Tony's mom." Dreyer flashed back to the easily distracted kid who had a bad habit of putting his feet up on desks. Other teachers had given up on him. But Dreyer gave the boy special attention, calling his mom with nightly progress reports.

Now she was calling to thank him for not giving up. Tony had just graduated from Glenville; he was applying to the University of Akron.

"There's a kid that's gonna make it," Dreyer says, his voice breaking with pride. "There's a kid that's not gonna be a statistic in Cleveland."

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