Attacked for Speaking Up
As a young boy welcomed me into the home of Alfred Ramirez, a black Labrador sized me up before scampering away. Ramirez, speaking from his kitchen, offered me a cup of coffee.
“Try the honey,” he suggested, adding that he substitutes refined sugar when possible on account of his chronic diabetes.
Ramirez, a professional chef by training and retired Marine, guided me toward a back room where a large pile of documents and more than two hours of conversing awaited. In March, Ramirez was notified by Fort Worth school district administrators that, after three years of teaching culinary skills at O.D. Wyatt High School, he was recommended for termination. One misstep, and Ramirez would be fired.
“I got the message,” Ramirez said.
After two years of filing complaints and trying to hold school officials and two campus officers responsible for what he said was a failure to protect students from taunting, threats, and harassment, Ramirez was not surprised that school leadership had begun taking steps to fire him. He was told the termination was for poor performance. Ramirez said it was payback for whistleblowing.
Ramirez said retaliation and threats from school administrators and Fort Worth police officers eventually forced him to move to Hillsboro. His current home, which he says offers a semblance of security, is surrounded by fields that are home to a dozen cattle and not much else. The incidents of the past two years stirred up in him bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he said. The former Marine served in Iraq in 1998 during Operation Desert Fox and later returned as a private contractor in 2003, when he was caught in the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad that year.
As the longtime chef prepares for his next venture, the restaurant Fat People Eat First, he still does what he can to raise awareness of what he said was misconduct by O.D. Wyatt leadership. One YouTube video describing his experiences that he recently uploaded has been viewed more than 20,000 times.
Longtime Fort Worth school district teacher Rhonda Jennings said Ramirez’ firing was typical of a school district that she believes is corrupt. Jennings has fought her own battles with school leadership over resource allocation for her special education class.
The handling of bullying at O.D. Wyatt “is pretty typical,” she said. “The culture [in this school district] is [to] treat the teachers like garbage. Administrators have no accountability.”
Multiple individuals who have intimate knowledge of the inner workings at O.D. Wyatt spoke to us on condition of anonymity to protect their privacy. According to the sources, the high school lacks competent leadership. Poor teacher performance is overlooked in some quarters of the school while other individuals are targeted for retaliation, depending on the personal biases of the school’s current principal and certain vice principals.
One year before Ramirez began working at O.D. Wyatt, doctors had told the husband and father of four that he may never walk again. Complications related to his undertreated diabetes had led to a week-long coma followed by paralysis after regaining consciousness.
“I was basically crippled,” he recalled.
Early into his recovery, Ramirez learned that O.D. Wyatt had an opening at its culinary institute. The job and prospect of having his student loans forgiven by teaching at an underserved public school interested Ramirez. Recovering from the coma and regaining the ability to walk were arduous.
The doctors “told me I was going to be a cripple and in a wheelchair,” he said. “I told myself, ‘No way.’ I started relearning how to walk from the bed to the bathroom by myself. My wife helped me at first. I could barely use my legs. I had to relearn how to talk. A wheelchair was ordered but never came, so my wife helped me walk from the couch. Then I learned to walk from my bedroom to the living room, then to the mailbox and back. Finally, I started walking in the neighborhood.”
Following his recovery, Ramirez applied for the high school position and began teaching in August of 2016. The culinary institute was more than an elective course. The lessons taught by Ramirez prepared students for careers in the food industry. One goal the new teacher had for his pupils was to prep them to pass the ServeSafe certification program, which trains food-service candidates about state and city food safety regulations.
“One of my things was to teach the kids how to cook mass production,” Ramirez recalled. “When you can cook really fast, you get better at what you are doing.”
The new teacher offered opportunities outside of class, including volunteering at a ministry that fed the homeless and competing in barbecue contests. That first year, Ramirez said, his class won first place in the school spirit category. That first year at O.D. Wyatt also came with challenges. Student behavior was an issue, but Ramirez (“Chef” to his students) said he loved working with the teenagers. His second year of teaching would take a stark turn for the worse.
When asked about Ramirez’ forced retirement, one school administrator who asked not to be named said Ramirez’ job performance was not the reason for the administrative action.
The following account is based on interviews between Ramirez and me, emails shared by Ramirez, and multiple corroborating conversations with Fort Worth school district teachers and one former elected official. The names of the students, who were minors at the time, are pseudonyms.
In early November 2017, Ramirez was teaching culinary skills when Sara slapped the shoulder of Joe. The boy had dug through Sara’s purse looking for a piece of gum. After being slapped, Joe said something that caused Sara to become visibly disturbed.
“ ‘You’re going to be like that, then I’m going to show that video,’ ” Ramirez recalled Joe saying. “It couldn’t have been good. My teacher instinct kicked in, and I pulled her aside.”
The video, Ramirez was told, showed explicit sexual content between Sara and another boy, Billy. Sara said she did not know the video existed, and now Billy, Joe, and other students were widely distributing it. In Texas, knowingly or intentionally possessing visual material that depicts a child younger than 18 engaging in sexual conduct is illegal. The state law does not make exceptions for individuals in possession of illicit images or videos who are themselves under the age of 18.
Knowing that he had witnessed potentially felonious actions, Ramirez told Sara to speak with the vice principal, Corey Shepard. Sara returned to class and allegedly told Ramirez that Shepard said he would “take care of it,” which she later learned simply meant that Shepard had told Billy to delete the video off his phone.
Ramirez believed that Shepard would follow Texas Education Agency (TEA) guidelines by immediately calling Child Protective Services (CPS).
“Any teacher who hears something about a student, they have to notify CPS immediately,” Ramirez said, referring to common teacher protocols. “Every teacher knows that. They would rather you call and be wrong than not call and that child is dead.”
The Fort Worth school district did not respond to questions about Shepard.
Ramirez then told Sara to speak to O.D. Wyatt’s two campus officers who work for the Fort Worth police department.
“I told [Sara] to go to the police officers and to make a report,” Ramirez said. “That was child porn. You can’t have it passing around to students. I don’t play around with that.”
Sara was allegedly told by the officers that Shepard had spoken to them.
“I’m thinking [the officers] are doing the right thing and making a report,” Ramirez said. Follow-ups with Shepard and the campus officers revealed that CPS had not been called and a police report had not been made. Meanwhile, Ramirez witnessed Sara continue to be harassed and verbally taunted by Billy, Joe, and other classmates. Ramirez believed that school leadership and the campus officers were not going to address the possible proliferation of child pornography, which he feared would soon end up in the hands of non-minors. After calling then-police chief Joel Fitzgerald, complaining to the Fort Worth police about his interaction with campus police, and filing reports to CPS, Ramirez believes the school district retaliated against him. In mid-November, Ramirez alleged the officers entered his office and confronted him in a threatening manner.
“Both the officers came with their hands on their guns and said, ‘Why the fuck are you calling downtown?’ ” Ramirez said.
The teacher replied that if the officers did their “fucking job,” there wouldn’t have been a need to take the issue above them.
“I’ve been to war,” the retired Marine said. “I’ve been trained to deal with having a gun put in my face. I was in the Baghdad hotel when it was bombed with 50 missiles. I carried a lady who had her arm blown off down from the fourth floor. Her arm was dangling by a tendon. The police behavior just angered me.”
Fort Worth police department did not respond to numerous questions for comment. Ramirez said the incident of what he described as police intimidation was captured on one officer’s bodycam. I have requested, and have so far been denied, access to that recording.
When fellow teacher Jennings learned from Ramirez about the lack of protection afforded Sara, she called CPS to report the incident. The special education teacher at Morningside Middle School did not reach out to Fort Worth police, but she said an officer called her shortly after she called CPS.
“I was worried that the child abuse never got reported,” Jennings said. “Out of the blue, one month after COVID started, I get this phone call. The officer said he was with Fort Worth police.”
The officer allegedly told her that the police department had looked into the case and was satisfied with the results of their investigation.
“It showed [the officer’s personal] phone number,” Jennings said. “Why didn’t he have some sort of identification? I think they were trying to get me to back off.”
On Feb. 12, 2018, Ramirez spoke before the Fort Worth school board. After using around a minute to introduce himself and to praise his students’ accomplishments, Ramirez addressed the incidents of bullying and one instance of child pornography at O.D. Wyatt. He was quickly hushed away by school board members, based on a video posted on the district’s website.
In attendance was Stephanie Bordingham, a former Forest Hill city councilmember whom Ramirez had contacted for help weeks earlier. The then-councilmember recalled being surprised to hear about the retaliatory responses by school administrators and police.
“I was not shocked that something like [what happened to Sara] would happen in this day and time with social media, but I was shocked how the school and the security guards handled it,” Bordingham said. “The guards really went after chef instead of handling the student issue. That alarmed me.
“He was treated like an outcast,” she continued. “He felt like no one was listening to him. He was reaching out to anyone in the audience or the school board who would listen.”
Bordingham did what she could to address the situation. After reaching out to several Fort Worth elected officials, she ran into the same roadblocks that Ramirez did, and she thinks she knows why.
“From my experience, there are a lot of ‘good old boy’ situations happening in Fort Worth,” she said. “There are cliques, and people are afraid to lose their positions. That’s how our system is. They are scared to get involved because they don’t want to be outcasted from the clique.”
In late 2018, Ramirez alleged school leadership again failed to protect students from exploitation. This time, a teenage girl had logged onto her YouTube account on a school computer, and when Ramirez accessed the computer later that same day, the girl’s explicit videos and photos (including images of other O.D. Wyatt students) appeared. Ramirez found a colleague to watch his class while he notified the vice principal, principal, and the same campus officers who allegedly neglected to help him the first time.
Fort Worth police did not respond to questions that I asked about the campus officers.
Several days later, Ramirez alleged, one of the officers finally spoke to two student witnesses of the explicit YouTube content. Afterward, Ramirez alleged the witnesses returned to warn Ramirez that the officers were “out to get him.”
Fort Worth police eventually sent the computer to a crime lab for investigation, Ramirez said. During the three months it allegedly took to examine the hard drive, Ramirez was placed on administrative leave.
Soon after, the teacher said his PTSD flared up. Long-suppressed combat memories disturbed his sleep. One recurring nightmare involved the officers breaking into his home and murdering him as he lay in bed. Aware of his war-induced trauma, Ramirez’ wife had forbidden her husband from owning a firearm. The actions of the two peace officers and school leadership finally convinced his wife to allow Ramirez to buy a firearm for self-defense.
After the police investigation of the hard drive cleared Ramirez of any wrongdoing, meaning he was not found to have generated or saved any of the child pornography, Ramirez returned to work early this year. School leadership was continually critical of his job performance, he said, although the chef maintains that he worked exhaustively to educate his students and prepare them for important certification tests.
“I knew that [Ramirez] was telling the truth,” Bordingham said. “When someone is willing to put everything that they have worked on the line to protect someone, you know that person is telling the truth. People don’t just destroy their whole lives trying to help someone. Chef was so adamant about helping this family, and everyone turned their backs on him. He did everything he was supposed to do, but the system completely failed him.”
During Spring Break 2020, as COVID-19 dominated the news, Ramirez received a not unexpected email.
“The principal said he needed to have a special Zoom meeting with me,” Ramirez recalled.
The meeting was organized by the principal and two administrators, including one staffer from the school district’s human resources department. The message was simple. Due to COVID, school leaders could not outright fire Ramirez for poor performance because terminations of employee contracts can be completed only during school board meetings, which were all canceled due to the pandemic. Instead, the teacher was informed that he would be recommended for termination.
School district spokesperson Clint Bond said in an email that Mr. Ramirez “resigned and was not fired. The district investigated Mr. Ramirez’ allegations, and appropriate actions were taken regarding students and staff. The district has also responded to Mr. Ramirez’ complaints and allegations to outside agencies and has shared Mr. Ramirez’ concerns with the Fort Worth police department. The district is not aware of any allegations that warranted a report to CPS in this matter.”
One individual who worked at O.D. Wyatt at the time of these events said Ramirez’ treatment by school leadership appeared to be whistleblower retaliation. If job performance was really the issue, there were many employees — especially among the coaching staff — who should have been fired long before Ramirez, the anonymous source said.
Another confidential source said the chef’s experience was just part of a broader problematic culture at the high school which persists to this day. She said she observed O.D. Wyatt students being left inside of classrooms without teacher supervision for long periods of times. Coaches regularly ask teachers to change student grades, she alleges, and students with failing grades are commonly allowed to participate in sports, a violation of University Interscholastic League (UIL) rules.
After taking steps to protect children from having explicit photos and videos of themselves being freely spread among students and elsewhere, Ramirez remains astonished that he was punished for his actions. The propagation of the video made Sara the unfair target of bullying, Ramirez said. The former teacher said vice principal Shepard should have been terminated for not protecting his students. Fellow teacher Jennings echoes much of Ramirez’ frustrations.
Sara was being bullied and abused, Jennings said. “The principal and assistant principal should have brought everything at a standstill and addressed the problem. I would have gathered the facts and then called Mom. I’m a parent, too. If they knew that had happened and didn’t tell me, I would have been so mad.”
Children need to feel protected, she continued.
Sara needed to be helped “from a place of helping and kindness. Any adult who was a part of that should have been put on unpaid leave. When you find out that they are guilty, fire their ass. There are no second chances with child abuse. Those boys should have gotten in trouble. Whoever filmed it could possibly have gone to jail.”
By allowing the same boys who were tormenting Sara to remain in class with her was itself a form of child abuse, Jennings said.
Even after his experience with the two campus officers, Ramirez said police officers are still needed on certain public school campuses, especially ones that have a history of students bringing firearms into classrooms and committing other dangerous and potentially deadly acts.
After the interview, Ramirez and one of his sons took me out to a backfield to feed around a dozen young cows and bulls. The longtime chef recounted stories of preparing meals for President George W. Bush and Gen. Colin Powell. His training in the Marines and deep Christian faith guided him to report what he believes were criminal acts and child endangerment.
“It was their job to protect these kids,” Ramirez said. “I’m not afraid of cops. The only one I have to be worried about is God, and I know what I did was right.”