The Horror Behind John F Tanner’s Bombshell in the Barrio
This horror story is based on true events. John F Tanner describes his book, Bombshell in the Barrio as a ‘wakeup call to America.’ Once the principal of Austin High School during a time when test scores and college admissions were high, Tanner was highly respected in his local community of El Paso, Texas. This reverence didn’t falter, even when he was targeted by a local politician and eventually the FBI, accused of cheating to achieve the school’s recent academic successes. So, why would a High School Principal be targeted in such a manner?
How did you arrive at the decision to become a high school principal/begin a career in education?
In high school I wanted to become a high school teacher. I loved the environment and I saw the importance of that critical time in a person’s life. But my parents had other plans. They emphasized science and math and strongly suggested a medical or engineering path for my education.
I was fortunate to attend Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, TX (600 miles from my hometown of El Paso). It was a joint venture between my parents’ support, a few scholarships, financial aid, and bartending. I loved TCU and I am a Horned Frog till I die. My first declared major there was secondary education as I was going to pursue my initial career goal. However, the sentiment toward an education degree at the time was not supportive. My parents were investing a significant amount of money to my education and they questioned their investment if I was “only going to be a teacher.” My father told me, “If you’re only going to be a teacher, then you don’t need to go to a school that’s so expensive. You can come back home to get your degree.”
I loved TCU too much to leave, so I changed my major a few times before settling on psychology. That psych degree led me to an industrial engineering job. Immediately, I knew that job was not a fit. And I was a bit envious of my friends who had become teachers. But instead of pursuing education immediately, I journeyed through Catholic seminary and law enforcement (adult probation officer) before I found myself as a high school teacher at an all-male Catholic high school in El Paso, TX teaching theology. There, I met my wife, Jai, and my life fell into place. Education was everything I thought it would be and I ventured a plan to become a principal.
The longer I was in the career the more I loved it. I was getting paid to do what I would have done for free. I had the audacity to believe that I could be a catalyst for positive experiences in the lives of the students I encountered. For certain, they were a catalyst for positive experiences in my life.
How would you describe your book, Bombshell in the Barrio?
Bombshell in the Barrio is a wakeup call to America. It highlights that bad things happen to good and innocent people more often than we want to believe. Our federal justice system is broken to a point where our most fundamental principles from the Constitution are violated regularly and enthusiastically by the absolute power of the FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ). With a 98.2% conviction rate, the Catholic Church is not the only institution with a Doctrine of Infallibility.
Bombshell in the Barrio serves as an example of the corruption of the free press in America. One’s political affiliation should not influence the news, but it does. Since the abolishment of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, the press in the US is for sale to the highest bidder and to the news stations that can produce the highest ratings. It is no longer about presenting facts for both sides of a topic. It is now about convincing the “customer” that the reporter’s slant of a story is the truth. Fake news, sadly, is the outcome of making news a commodity. FOX has definitely taken advantage of this phenomenon, but they haven’t cornered the market. Regardless of one’s political leanings, much of what we read is fake because of a refusal to discuss all sides of an issue or story.
For us in our story, the press refused and even quashed all reports that told our side of the story. The El Paso Times alone published over 700 articles regarding the cheating scandal. Not one of those articles presented our side of the story. And they have not published any article related to why our charges were dropped and how we regained full education credentials from the TEA, which ultimately exonerated us of all allegations.
Bombshell in the Barrio is a warning about the destruction of the public education system in America. The conventional wisdom of our country suggests that the US has a broken K-12 system. But that is not an accurate assessment. The truth is that the US has had a remarkable free and appropriate public education system that we are in jeopardy of losing because of corporate greed and a political ideology that does not honor the American foundational belief of a fair chance to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Regardless of any criticism raised about our public educational system, the US economy has continued to grow and our nation’s universities (attended mostly by public school graduates) continue to be the envy of the world. The plan to dismantle our greatest equalizer is in full swing, but invisible to average citizen.
For those who are unfamiliar with the cheating scandal that you were accused of being involved in, can you briefly describe how it unfolded?
The El Paso Independent School district was in significant academic trouble by 2005. Out of over 90 schools, 22 were in trouble with the Texas Education Agency. A few were on the path to being shut down because they were not meeting the mandates of the federal law of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). To address the needs, the district hired a superintendent known for educational reform. The district began to improve significantly with the reforms.
But that improvement was met with skepticism instead of praise. In particular, a Texas state senator, Eliot Shapleigh, began to allege cheating as the reason for the success rather than hard work. At the time, it was not known that this senator had ulterior motives of personal financial gain for alleging malfeasance with the district.
Shapleigh used his clout to get the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to investigate his claim of the district “hiding” students to keep them from taking state mandated tests in order to show a false success result. Two times TEA cleared the district of Shapleigh’s allegations. Not satisfied, Shapleigh used his clout to get the US Department of Education involved along with the FBI. Despite numerous efforts to find “cheating” nothing materialized because there was no cheating. But that didn’t stop the effort to try and find something wrong.
This process included morphing the “scandal” from hiding students to keeping students from graduating; then it turned into graduating too many students; then it became offering too much tutoring; then it became retaliation against teachers. A final result was five educators unrelated to the original allegations to carry the burden of a cheating scandal that never existed to begin with. Their indictments are still not understood to this day.
This lack of a case along with tremendous corruption by the FBI/DOJ led to a mistrial and ultimate dismissal of all charges against the five last remaining defendants. But not only those five had their charges dismissed, but three more individuals who had already pled guilty to fake charges because of intense intimidation from the FBI/DOJ.
This case took 10 years to unfold. Although the defendants ultimately won, their lives were forever affected to a point that they can never be fully restored. Damage was done. But they move on and all are putting their lives back together again.
Why do you believe you were targeted?
I was targeted for three major reasons. First, I publicly challenged Senator Shapleigh regarding untruthful allegations. That placed a target on my back by him and his allies.
Second, I along with my incredible team of educators, were proving that public education works incredibly well for minority students in socioeconomically challenged neighborhoods. That is not a narrative desired by those who want the public to believe that our schools are a failure. Further, it highlights a sentiment given by Dee Margo, a known El Paso politician, who question me when I highlighted the number of my students going to four-year universities, “Then where are we going to get the day laborers?”
Finally, I would not acquiesce to the narrative set by the FBI/DOJ. I refused to admit to anything I did not do. This angered the FBI agents and the prosecutor to the point where my indictment was more about personal revenge than trying to seek the truth.
What would you like readers to take away from reading your book?
I want readers to realize that public education is under attack in the US. And it isn’t just from powerful Republicans. And it isn’t just from powerful Democrats. It is from powerful politicians from both sides of the aisle. From Arne Duncan to Betsy DeVos, there is a concerted effort to dismantle our public education. Don’t let charter schools fool you into believing otherwise. Charter schools are the methodology utilized to dismantle what has made America, America. And on that, there is no divide between Republican and Democrat.
To your knowledge, have other schools and administrative professionals been targeted in the same manner?
When viewing this issue around the country, the only educators that have been targeted are those in urban areas whose students come from poverty and other challenging situations. This has been true in El Paso, Atlanta, and Houston. I am sure there are others.
What is your opinion or view of the public education system in the US? How does that compare with the way you see other types of schooling (private, charter, etc.)?
My view of the public education in the US goes against the conventional wisdom of what is often reported. More often than not, we are sold a belief that our school system is inferior to most of the developed world’s educational systems. That simply isn’t true. There are many examples to highlight the fallacy of the claim. But two come to mind that sums it up. First, the US is the only nation on earth that guarantees a free and appropriate education to ALL children. This includes those with special needs whether it is physical, mental, or both. If necessary, this education can be pursued for free until age 26. Second, the US is known to have the best university system, both private and public, in the world. That is pretty much undisputed. The majority of students in US universities come from US public K-12 schools.
I do not criticize private schools. Parents have a right to send their children to any school of their choice. But private schools have the right to exclude students from their halls based on just about any reason they see fit such as socioeconomics, gender, religion, etc. Outright, they can exclude students with special needs. This allows a private school to advertise their “attributes” academically by only having select students in their hallways. Further, private schools get to advertise only what they want to advertise meaning they can highlight all their positives without exposing their faults. Public schools don’t have that luxury. Everything about public schools is exposed to the public: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Charter schools are technically public schools. But they really aren’t. They are funded with taxpayer money, but they do not have to abide by the strict and necessary rules of the average public school. Meanwhile, they are funneling money away from the public schools. In sum, charter schools are becoming private schools funded with taxpayer monies. And thus far, they are not as academically successful as most public schools, especially in urban areas. Most media outlets, regardless of political leanings, do not fully report the entire story of charter schools. Even the Obama administration promoted the movie, “Waiting for Superman.” This movie’s bias for charter schools highlighted the successes of a few charter schools while demeaning public schools and not showing any public schools in a positive manner. The movie did not report that charter schools underperform regular public schools just about every category. This push for charters continues with the Trump administration thereby highlighting that this push is bipartisan. And it will destroy public education as we know it.
Is there a silver lining to your story? If so, please explain.
Simply put, there is no silver lining to this story. Our lives as we knew them were destroyed with no hope of ever getting them back. Even if it were possible, the PTSD we all suffer will keep us from achieving what we wanted to do in education. As humans, we desire the happy ending to a story, and we feel cheated and/or not fulfilled when it doesn’t happen. But the reality is that not every story has a happy ending where all problems have been resolved. Our story ends with things not going as badly as they could have and there is gratefulness in that. But it is not a happy ending and it doesn’t make me feel that all of this happened for a good reason. It didn’t.
That said, I have come to know experientially what I had only known academically. Never will I minimize what we went through. Our lives were ruined for no reason and the government actively pursued this goal even when they undisputedly knew we were innocent. It’s a terrible experience that no one should endure. But many endure it all the time. As bad as our ordeal has been, it pales in comparison to what many minority communities have experienced for centuries in our country. Black and Brown America is overrepresented in our nation’s penal system. Numerous individuals are there unjustly because of powerful law enforcers who were out for a “win” rather than finding the truth. I know what has happened to my sense of security since going through this ordeal. I now have an inkling of understanding what is commonplace in the lives of minorities (for generations) in our nation.
Conservatively, we know that at least 10% of those behind bars in our country are innocent of the crimes of which they have been convicted. If we break it down into absolute numbers, we have around 210,000 innocent people behind bars. How do we sleep at night?
To learn more about John F Tanner’s book, Bombshell in the Barrio, click here.
John F Tanner’s Bombshell in the Barrio seeks to answer this question, along with many others that arose over the course of his indictment. In the following interview with Writer’s Life, Tanner discusses his career in education, the allegations he faced, and his warning for every American – if it could happen to him, it could happen to you.