The principal and other staff members at South Oak Cliff High School were supposed to be breaking up fights. Instead, they sent troubled students into a steel utility cage in an athletic locker room to battle it out with bare fists and no head protection, records show.
Documents obtained by The Dallas Morning News say the "cage fights" took place between 2003 and 2005. The records don't say how many fights may have taken place.
Donald Moten, who was principal at South Oak Cliff High at the time, denied any wrongdoing when contacted Wednesday.
District investigators learned of the fights as part of an investigation into grade-changing for student athletes that ultimately cost the school its 2006 boys state basketball championship.
Internal district reports obtained by The News describe a culture of sanctioned violence in which school employees and even the principal relied on "the cage" to settle disputes and bring unruly students under control.
Moten, along with security monitors and other employees, "knew of the practice, allowed it to go on for a time, and failed to report it," investigators for the DISD's Office of Professional Responsibility wrote in a confidential 2008 report.
Despite investigators' assertions that the staff's conduct "may constitute a criminal violation," charges were never filed against Moten or the hall monitors accused of organizing the fights. Many of those employees were still working on campus at the beginning of this school year.
"It was gladiator-style entertainment for the staff," said Frank Hammond, a middle school counselor in Cedar Hill who was fired from South Oak Cliff High School and has filed a whistleblower lawsuit. "They were taking these boys downstairs to fight. And it was sanctioned by the principal and security."
'It never did happen'
Moten, who resigned from the DISD in 2008 after the grade-changing investigation, said that no cage fights took place while he was principal.
"That's barbaric. You can't do that at a high school. You can't do that anywhere," Moten said. "Ain't nothing to comment on. It never did happen. I never put a stop to anything because it never happened."
DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, however, confirmed that there were "some things that happened inside of a cage" and said that the fights were "unacceptable." He said that criminal charges were not filed but that "there was discipline taken."
South Oak Cliff's new principal "cleaned up that whole school, and a lot of that stuff went away," Hinojosa said.
DISD trustee Lew Blackburn, whose district includes South Oak Cliff High School, said mere disciplinary action isn't enough. District administrators never informed the school board of the fights, Blackburn said. He found out from a reporter Wednesday, and he questioned why no one pursued criminal charges.
"Adults encouraging kids to fight and there was no criminal action?" Blackburn asked. "We should have at least let the [district attorney] look into it."
The district report on cage fighting, dated March 17, 2008, was just one part of an investigation into wrongdoing at South Oak Cliff High School. The report also focused on allegations of grade-changing for athletes and unauthorized fundraising.
Investigators found that security monitors routinely used "the cage" – a section of the boys basketball locker room barricaded by wire mesh and metal lockers – to force problem students to fight out their disputes.
In one incident documented by investigators, a security monitor tried to fight a student in the cage, but Moten intervened and broke it up. In another incident, the report said, Moten told security staff to put two fighting students "in the cage and let 'em duke it out." According to the report, students told their teachers that they were "gonna be in the cage" over arguments with their peers.
Asked about these charges, Moten said: "I don't even know what you're talking about." But Hammond said the cage fights were common knowledge at the high school.
Moten and Hammond have a complicated relationship. In 2006, Moten accused Hammond of changing a student's grade, and the district placed the teacher on administrative leave. An appeals judge reinstated him, but the DISD fired him after Moten was accused of changing athletes' grades to keep them eligible to play basketball.
Hammond said the culture at South Oak Cliff High, where many teachers are alums and have relatives in their classrooms, kept anyone from speaking out.
"It's the South Oak Cliff mentality; it's all about preserving that school atmosphere," said Hammond, now a counselor at Bessie Coleman Middle School in Cedar Hill. "How else could Moten do this for years and years and nothing has happened to him?"
D.W. Rutledge, executive director of the Texas High School Coaches Association, said that in all the years he's coached, he's never heard of using staged fights to settle disputes.
"Obviously, that's extremely unacceptable," he said.
It's not immediately clear why the DISD never pursued criminal charges, or whether it reported the allegations to its own police department or to the Dallas County district attorney's office. A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office said she could never confirm or deny whether a case had been filed. DISD police could not be reached for comment.
DeEtta Culbertson, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said that school employees who suspect child abuse are required to report it to law enforcement authorities but that other types of crime are not under the agency's jurisdiction.
"The TEA strongly encourages anyone at a school or school district that knows of possible ongoing criminal activities to contact their local law enforcement agencies," she said.