A BIZARRE INTERNAL power struggle has gone public at Lincoln High School after a teacher's family built a website in response to the principal asking him to move classrooms.
Teacher Mike Sweeney has occupied Room 135 at Lincoln High School for 26 years, but he was asked in June by Principal Peyton Chapman to move classrooms over the summer. Sweeney's wife, Jodi Lorimer, says the principal's request for her husband to move crossed a "line in the sand," which prompted her to set up the website sweeneysroom.com.
"This past year Sweeney taught the first African American studies class, which for the first time gave African American students a feeling of recognition and having a home at overwhelmingly white, upper-class Lincoln," Lorimer wrote. "Now they are being summarily moved from a very visible presence in the main hall opposite the office to the portable out back or, possibly, to a classroom in a side wing. The metaphor is astonishingly obvious to all but Principal Chapman, to whom it never occurred this could be construed as racist. She doesn't get it."
The website also accuses Principal Chapman of using a "top-down management" style and of failing to gain the input of the Lincoln community before imposing her decision on Sweeney. It has so far spawned dozens of comments from former Lincoln students, most of whom support the website and ask Chapman to reconsider the move.
"His classroom was/is fundemental [sic] to his teaching," commented Simon Yugler '07.
Principal Chapman declined comment for this article, but directed the Mercury instead to her comment on the site. It describes Sweeney as an "inspiring teacher," but explains that Room 135 is required as the new home for the school's international studies program. Sweeney will now be moved not to a portable, but just 100 yards down the hall to Room 141, Chapman says.
Meanwhile, others have hit back at Lorimer's decision to put up the website. "As a former student at Lincoln and a former pupil of Mike Sweeney's, I can say that as an educator and faculty member he has only looked to instigate conflict," says the school's former student body president, Jasper Smith. "There is no racist subplot."
Former Lincoln PTA President Debbie Asakawa accuses Lorimer of overreaction, saying the website reminds her of Sweeney's alleged reaction to Principal Chapman removing the school's 10-minute break last winter, to make up for lost time from the snow storms.
"Sweeney spent at least one full day of discussing whether Principal Chapman had integrity, was worthy of trust, and so on with every class and then whipped the students into a frenzy," wrote Asakawa, on the website. "What was the life lesson that he taught them? Sadly, I think it was to kick and scream and whine when those in positions of authority make a decision that you don't like."
Lincoln is the richest school in the Portland Public Schools system. Of its 1,335 students, 75% are white, 4.9% African American, and 26.9% qualify as "talented and gifted." Meanwhile at Jefferson High School in North Portland, 57.1% of the 631 students are African American, 18.9% are white, and 21.4% qualify for special education.
Asakawa suggests that these disparate numbers are only one indication of an "embarrassing" sense of entitlement at Lincoln—that she feels is further embodied by the struggle over Sweeney's classroom.
"I'm embarrassed to have this sense of entitlement linked to Lincoln when so many people in Portland have lost their jobs this past year," she says. "Other people must change firms, careers, or the state they live in to remain employed. I just don't understand all the hand wringing over moving 100 yards."
Sweeney declined to comment for this article, saying only that he thought Lincoln's African American students should be given "more continuity" than its white students by being taught African American studies in his current classroom next year. He then passed the phone to his wife.
Lorimer denies accusing Principal Chapman of racism, and says that she is referring to "institutional racism," instead. Lorimer also says the treatment of her husband is a metaphor for the treatment of teachers in the school system in general. Asked whether the website reflects a sense of entitlement at Lincoln, Lorimer said she is "sensitive to the recession." Asked whether she might be serving only as a mouthpiece for her husband's passive aggression—another accusation leveled by Smith—Lorimer says: "That's just not true. I have my own mind and life."
The school's custodians are scheduled to complete the move in mid-August, with or without Sweeney's help.