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Just before they stripped him of his drum team, Hawthorne High School administrators offered him a deal that Flaherty declined: He’d get his drum-line classes back, but only under close scrutiny while he produced a marching band with the addition of brass and woodwinds for football games.
“They’ll say it’s all about my ego,” Flaherty says of resisting the bureaucrats at Hawthorne High, “but I say I opened the door for these kids to walk through.” Although reluctant to tell his story for many weeks, he recently said, “When you attack the program, you’re attacking my kids — and they’re busting their asses day in and day out to do the right thing when doing the right thing isn’t easy. They’re attacking these kids and their accomplishments.”
Former principal Dolce says Flaherty did everything he asked of him: When Dolce wanted a marching band, the teacher showed up with kids who then won several band review championships in Southern California. He was a “24/7” teacher, putting in almost every weekend without pay. And Flaherty and his own parents wrote checks for thousands of dollars to help the program.
“I found Don to be extremely easy to work with,” says Dolce. “However, he had a streak in him. If he thought something would hurt the kids, he would get in your face about it. Maybe he got in someone’s face.”
Dolce found Flaherty amenable to ironing out problems that the current administration is blaming the teacher for: If kids loitered around his room, Dolce sent security to resolve the issue; if Flaherty needed to leave class on a drum-line matter, he got someone to cover for him. “I believed in him that thoroughly. The proof is, go to the superintendent’s office and you’ll see the trophies. Those are things you showcase, you hold up and say, ‘Look what we’ve got.’ ”
Centinela Valley Union district officials are citing “confidential personnel matters” in refusing to explain their actions. Bob Cox, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, tells the Weekly he can’t talk about Flaherty, saying only that the music man called in sick on the first two days of the school year, then notified the district that he was taking stress leave.
“For the protection of the district and myself, I can’t answer” the Weekly’s questions,” Cox says.
Joe Malone is a professional Las Vegas drummer who saw the animosity toward Flaherty growing among pencil pushers in the Centinela district — a school system that, like most troubled urban school districts in Southern California, rarely pushes out even blatantly incompetent teachers because of the costs and legal battles involved.
But as Malone notes, the Flaherty controversy has nothing to do with incompetence, and everything to do with the administration’s “political game” — apparently of appeasing a small number of bureaucrats and parents who want a traditional band marching on the playing field during football season.
Malone says Flaherty is a transformational presence in his students’ lives. “The biggest change I could see — and I don’t know if this is P.C. or not — is they lost the identification with the ghetto mentality. A lot of those kids had never been out of [Lennox] and Hawthorne. He was expanding their horizon to see a whole world out there.”
Since 2000, Flaherty has paid Malone to help write music and choreograph shows for the drum line and the separate bugle corps. But along the way, Malone says, Flaherty “pissed off” the wrong people. “I feel he could have kowtowed and saved his job, but he would have had to compromise his beliefs and what he believes to be right and true.”
Flaherty pushed back last spring against a demand by Hawthorne High’s administrators that he divert more of his time to forming a marching band that would perform at the losing Cougars’ upcoming football games this past September. He said he was willing to create the band, but needed guarantees from the school’s principals that the music students he needed would be properly assigned to his classes right away — not weeks into the season, as happened previously.
Flaherty’s supporters say Hawthorne High administrators, faced with a deteriorating budget and layoffs, didn’t want to hear Flaherty talk about a “world-class” drum line and drum-and-bugle-corps program. He heard back that he wasn’t a “team player.”
Some administrators, including the now-departed Dragone, put their complaints in writing, accusing Flaherty of technical-discipline and time-management breaches, such as not fingerprinting some drum-line volunteers — Flaherty says they were former students and parents — and not properly supervising some students. This, at a school where adult supervision, particularly outside Flaherty’s drum-line class, is often iffy.