Looking for an Encore
Bonner’s students made this poster to show their appreciation of the band director.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Fans say a “witch hunt” brought down Dunbar’s popular band director.
By BETTY BRINK
In four years Adrain Bonner has, by all accounts, turned the Dunbar High School marching band into a class act. When he was hired as its director by the Fort Worth school district in 2001, the band had only nine students. By 2004, Bonner had built the program into an 80-member unit that won the statewide high school Battle of the Bands at the State Fair of Texas.
“Dunbar’s band was nothing when he took over. Now we’re one of the best in the state,” said this year’s drum major, senior Rashonda McDonald, 18. “Students [from throughout the school district] transfer here just to be in his band. He’s a very outstanding teacher and talented musician who instills his love of music into his students.”
That very success may have led to his undoing, some of his Dunbar supporters say.
Bonner was released from his position in October in what has become a he-said/he-said controversy following a series of events stemming from a confrontation between Bonner and Grambling band French horn player Rosalyn Wheatley at the State Fair Classic football game at the Cotton Bowl on Oct. 1. Bonner said his personal and professional reputation has been irreparably damaged by what he calls false information and unfounded allegations given out by the district and reported in the news media — including an old charge of drug use from which he was exonerated, although that was left out of what district officials told reporters.
Consuela Torrez-Hall calls the band director’s troubles a “witch hunt.” She’s the mother of one of Bonner’s former students, now a freshman member of the famed Grambling State University band of which Bonner himself is an alumnus, and one of many parents who have rallied to Bonner’s defense.
The allegations reported in the Fort Worth Star Telegram and on local tv news, if true, are troubling: That Bonner cussed out and threatened to kill Wheatley. That he was high or drunk or both that night. That he had to be escorted from the football game by police. That he admitted his behavior was “unacceptable.” That pornography had been found on his school computer. And that he quit his job after refusing to take a drug test that he knew he couldn’t pass.
They are all untrue, Bonner said — except for the pornography being found on his school computer. He says, and the district concurs, that that consisted of pictures sent to him in unsolicited e-mails by two other teachers and that Bonner didn’t print them out or forward them to anyone else.
Bonner and his attorney, Mike Ware, have provided affidavits from those who were with Bonner that day, testifying that he was not drinking or taking drugs, that he was not escorted out of the game, nor did he threaten to kill anyone. No witness has come forward to back up Wheatley’s story. Larry Pannell, the director of the Grambling band, wrote a letter to the district repeating some of the student’s accusations but admitted he was not an eyewitness to the argument. Neither the student nor her band director returned calls from Fort Worth Weekly.
What’s more, many of the allegations repeated by Bobby Whiteside, director of the school district’s office of special investigations, to the Star-Telegram apparently came from third- and fourth-hand sources and are unconfirmed.
“This is an outrage. It’s hearsay of hearsay,” Ware said.
On Oct. 4, the day he was called to Whiteside’s office and told of the allegations, Bonner said he didn’t refuse to take a drug test (“I asked to call my lawyer first, which Mr. Whiteside ignored”), didn’t say he couldn’t pass such a test, and didn’t resign. The only paper Bonner said he signed was one agreeing to be put on 48-hour leave while Whiteside continued the investigation. When he saw the paper again it showed a check mark on a box labeled “resignation.”
“I never checked that box,” he said. The band director said he only realized he’d lost his job when he later found himself locked out of his office.
There was no witness to the conversation between Bonner and Whiteside, and it wasn’t recorded, although Whiteside told Ware in a recent hearing that he usually does record such interviews. The hearing before James Damm, the district’s interim chief of staff, was part of Bonner’s petition to get his job back. Damm turned him down based on the resignation letter. The petition goes to the school board in late January.
After Bonner’s dismissal, about 40 parents of Dunbar students packed into a school board meeting to express their support for him. They told school trustees about his impact on the low-income Stop Six neighborhood of Fort Worth — how he has helped numerous band students who otherwise would have never made it to college get music scholarships, especially to his alma mater. He also volunteers every summer at Grambling’s band camp, taking Dunbar students with him.
Bonner was a standout at Grambling — “an A-number-one student and a very talented young man with no blemish on his record,” according to Charles Lacy, the Louisiana college’s assistant band director. Since his graduation, Bonner has maintained a close relationship with the school.
There reportedly is bad blood between Bonner and Grambling band director Larry Pannell — one of those now accusing Bonner. Those who know both men say the problem dates to Bonner’s years at college, when he was head drum major of the school’s famed Mighty Tiger Marching Band and wrote or arranged much of the music that the band still plays. They clashed often, friends say, over the direction the band should take and its leadership. The tension between the two men has not lessened over the years.
Fellow Grambling band alumnus Coleone Taylor, who knows both men, said the only motivation she can see for Pannell to support the student’s story against Bonner is their stormy past. Christopher Johnson, a fraternity brother of Bonner’s and a former band member, said he believes the charges are a “personal vendetta” from Pannell against Bonner.
Anthony Garcia, another former Grambling head drum major who’s now on the college faculty, said that it’s a tradition for alumni to critique the current band’s performances. The band “is a close-knit family. [Alumni] follow the band and give constructive criticism wherever it’s playing,” he said. He was at the Grambling-Prairie View game and sat with Bonner, his long-time friend and fraternity brother. “We both thought the band was at a higher level [in the past] than it was this year,” he said.
When Bonner gave his critique to the band at the end of the game, the words apparently offended Wheatley, the French horn player, whom Bonner said was visibly upset. “We started jarring back and forth,” Bonner said of her reaction. “I didn’t say anything derogatory.”
Garcia told the Weekly that he was with Bonner during the entire evening and witnessed the verbal exchange. “He said things like he didn’t want them playing his music if they couldn’t do better. At no time did I hear him threaten or verbally abuse anyone.”
Afterward, however, Wheatley called the Fort Worth district to complain that Bonner had cursed her and said he’d kill her, and that he “seemed intoxicated.” She followed up with an e-mail detailing the charges. Pannell then sent a statement supporting the student’s version. School documents show that the allegation that Bonner was escorted out of the stadium by police came from Pannell in a telephone conversation with Chris Walk, the district’s interim director of instrumental music,. Bonner’s lawyer said a check with the Dallas Police Department shows no report of such an incident that night.
Bonner acknowledged a verbal exchange with Wheatley, but said he never told Whiteside that his behavior was unacceptable. “I was simply criticizing the band, which everyone was doing that night,” he said.
The drug-related allegations are also in controversy. Neither Wheatley’s nor Pannell’s written statements about the evening refers to drugs, and Pannell’s refers neither to drinking nor drugs.
Eyewitnesses such as Garcia, Taylor, Johnson and Torrez-Hall, all of whom were with him for part or all of the time, said Bonner was stone-cold sober the whole evening.
Johnson said that Bonner was not the only one critiquing the band and that “he did not use profanity or threaten anyone.”
“The way the media portrayed it, like he was a terrorist, is just flat-out wrong,” Garcia said. “He wasn’t escorted out by police, he wasn’t loud. I walked out with him.”
The charge of drug use is another third-hand accusation. In an e-mail to Whiteside, Walk wrote that Pannell made the accusation in a phone conversation, passing along what he said he’d heard from the head of security at the Dallas hotel where Bonner was alleged to have been seen “rolling a joint” by a couple of guards as he sat in his car in the parking lot. Whiteside’s documents show that he asked the hotel for written statements from the security guards in question, but to date none has been provided. Calls to the hotel security office by the Weekly have not been returned.
This is the second time Bonner has faced drug charges that he says were manufactured. In 2003, O. D. Wyatt band director Michelle Benson reported that she’d overheard a student saying that Bonner “drinks and dopes” with his students. Whiteside investigated and released reports to the Star-Telegram saying that he could find “no identified students ... to interview” who could either support or refute the allegation.
Documents released to the Weekly, however, show that Whiteside interviewed the student and that the boy recanted, saying he “has no personal knowledge of the rumors he was spreading about Mr. Bonner.” Whiteside and Walk did not return calls seeking comment.
T. A. Sims, the only board member who would speak to the Weekly about the affair, was disturbed that there were no witnesses in Whiteside’s office when Bonner was questioned in a case that could mean career life or death for him. “There should always be a witness, or a tape recording of the interviews, to protect the district as well as the employee,” he said. “This doesn’t seem to be fair to anyone.”
Dunbar band parents, meanwhile, are continuing their campaign in support of Bonner. Some — such as Greta Moss, secretary of the Dunbar Band Parent Association, and Torrez-Hall — think Bonner’s sin has been his successful band program. “There are a lot of jealousies [from other band directors] over what Mr. Bonner has done for Dunbar,” she said, “especially now that our band is beating all the others in the district.”
Torrez-Hall agrees. “This is the very sort of teacher this school district should be fighting to keep,” she said.
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