John F. Tanner's Bombshell
By Alla Drokina
"Bombshell in the Barrio," written by former Austin High School Principal John F. Tanner, details a scandal that unfolded in 2010, in El Paso Texas, when he and four other colleagues were accused of a series of allegations.
Having had a reputable reputation serving in the education system, Tanner was left blindsided and staring down a 60-year prison sentence or a plea deal.
The next several years, he and his colleagues were caught in the crosshairs of a power struggle with an unscrupulous politician, encounters with the FBI, and unsavory media coverage.
In this interview, he speaks about using his experience to elucidate the discrepancies in our justice system and to expose corruption. He warns the public about the dangers of being pitted against the system and speaks on finding resilience amidst it all, never having lost his integrity.
What led you to be passionate about education?
From the time I was in high school, I really wanted to be a high school principal. I got sidetracked from it, because my parents did not want that.
At that time, in the 1980s, it was about not going into education, because they didn't see it as a viable career financially. It took me a journey to get there, and part of that journey led me to being an engineer.
Then I went to Catholic seminary. When I left the seminary, I finally went into education and found out from the first day I taught that that's where I was supposed to be the whole time. It was just this passion for education and a belief in the public-school system of the U.S. education that it really is our great equalizer, our great level playing field, that gives everybody a chance at a piece of the American pie.
I just found a real passion for saying that this is where I work, this is how we make a difference in the world, or at least how I saw myself fitting into being that cog in the wheels to make a positive difference.
How has that challenged you?
I think the challenge with education is challenging the conventional wisdom of a culture ... We're a world that keeps on getting better and better, and yet we have a cultural mindset of things that keep on getting worse and worse, when they really don't.
When I was growing up, we didn't have anything such as cell phones in our hands where we can get instant information and kids know so much. Yet, we have this mindset that things get worse, and kids get worse.
I think one of the hardest things to fight is saying, no, that's not true at all. Our kids today are fantastic. There's a lot of hope for the future, and we can really get our kids to the next level. They're willing. They're able, and let's do this.
I think the challenge is just getting rid of people's preconceived notions of how kids can do and how our society is doing.
How does your story serve as a cautionary tale or eye-opener, so to speak, for others who may read it?
One of the things that we're looking at that's happening with education in our country right now is such an emphasis on charter schools, on private vouchers, anything that our politicians are doing to try and discredit the public schools that we have.
We're not allowed to have a narrative that says our public schools in the U.S. are about the best there are in the world. It's met with no, it's not; we don't do nearly as well as anybody else, when that necessarily isn't the truth. And when we're looking at what's happening with vouchers, what is happening with charter schools is a discredit and a dismantling of our public education system. When we're dismantling that we are creating segregation again.
We are creating a disparity again between the haves and have-nots, and we are not really looking at the treasure we have with public schools right now. Instead of dismantling them, we need to be looking at how we can strengthen them.
It sounds like the unfoldings of 2010 completely took you by surprise.
In no way am I going to try and tell you that I am a person who has just always been a goody-two-shoes person. I am a pretty average American, but when it comes to education, when it comes to those kids, and it came to my career, I was pretty squeaky clean. It was really about doing the right stuff.
I was very transparent with everything that I was doing, and it was the thrill of going into a school that had a bad reputation, even though I knew those kids were fantastic. And I knew this was a real good turn around school, and we could make something good out of this.
The hard work that we were all putting in, myself, the administrators, the students themselves, the teachers, it was really a community effort that led this turn around. As we're on this high, we're being told, no, this couldn't possibly be true. You all aren't good enough to do this. It was like entering the twilight zone.
Did you anticipate how many years post 2010 that you would have to work to fight what occurred?
No idea, in any way, whatsoever. I was so naive at that point. I went, the FBI is in here; they're going to clear this up really quickly, because there's nothing here. I could never have imagined where it was going to go. And we weren't the first school that this senator was targeting, and I wasn't the main person he was targeting.
He was actually targeting two completely different people. He was at first targeting the superintendent and the principal of another school. I never saw myself getting entangled in this.
Speaking of that, you do talk about a corrupt justice system in the summary of the book, and I was wondering if you could touch on the corruption you saw and experienced firsthand.
Sure, one of the things that I discovered during the process... [is] if you are a target of the FBI and the Department of Justice, you are not innocent until proven guilty, you are guilty until proven innocent. Your rights, your everything can be taken away from you, pretty much immediately.
When we're looking at the DOJ, they have an overall 98.2 percent conviction rate of all crimes that they go after or that they're alleging have happened, and there is no allegation that they don't go for.
They go for all allegations, and it's really less about, let's find out the truth about what's happening here, and it's more about, if we're going for this, we've already determined what the truth is.
Everybody's story that comes with this needs to verify our narrative, because if it doesn't verify our narrative, we're going to call these people liars, and we're going to target them, as well.
It's kind of a fascinating thing. Three of the people who got indicted with me... they were all my assistant principals. The only reason they got indicted was they would not give the story the FBI wanted them to give. They would not lie about what was happening, and they were told clearly, if you don't comply with us, you're going to see what happens to you.
I've said it before, the Catholic church isn't the only entity in the world that has a doctrine of infallibility. We have a federal system that says they are never wrong on anything they are doing, and they coerce people into plea deals.
For example, we were offered plea deals, and all of us had gotten to a point where we would rather serve time than say we did something we didn't do.
It seems like average citizens may feel very powerless when pitted against the powers that be. How can people fight to dismantle what is a corrupt system?
I think things like getting the word out is the beginning part of it. We are so taught to believe that our justice system is one of the best in the world, that we do believe it. All of our TV shows or CSI shows, Law and Order shows, and what have you, make us believe that we have this great system.
When you look at them, over 90 percent of time on those TV shows, the government is always right. It's almost like brainwashing. These people don't make mistakes.
But when we take a look at one of the cases, I think it's called When They See Us - it's a Netflix series that looks at the Central Park five, the five young black men who were accused of a terrible rape and assault in Central Park back in the 1980s - these five guys went through hell. And they didn't do one bit of it. It took 30 years for them to get their full exoneration, but it was after their lives were destroyed.
I think a series like that, Netflix getting the education out, getting the public to first start seeing that this is what's happening, and then maybe try and go through legislation. It's going to be a long process for us to get to this point. It's not overnight where we're going to start having this great system. We have a lot of people who are going to fight it.
I just look at how many cases we have of people who are behind bars where there is no solid evidence that they did the crime they were accused of committing, and we could solve a whole lot of it, by just allowing DNA testing on a lot of kits.
Instead of allowing that science that we have that's so easy to get done, we have prosecutors going and saying, no, the case is closed. There's no reason to have science reopen this case. You're going, why not? Why can't we find out for sure?
What do you hope your book will accomplish?
I hope it spreads awareness of the justice system and the press. You know the press, how we have compromised the press so much since 1987, when during the Reagan Administration the Fairness Doctrine was taken away. So you have a press where it doesn't matter if the press leans left or the press leans right, it's about getting one story and one side of the story only.
In our case, I do believe that the press was so heavily influenced by the DOJ and by what I call the El Paso oligarchy, that they were not allowed to actually write anything about us that was in a positive light or any type of alternative.
For example, right at the trial when they were picking the jury one of the defense attorneys asked the pool there, how many of you have heard of the EPISD cheating scandal, and every hand went up. This was a story that had been going on in the paper for years, and the paper had done over 700 columns on the EPISD cheating scandal. Of course, everybody's hand went up.
Then she asked, how many of you have heard the side of the defendants. Not one hand went up. There had never been anything on our side of the story... there's lessons there with the press, of what we're doing with the press. There are lessons to look at, what are we doing with education in our country? And what are we doing with our justice system? I think those are three takeaways from the book.
And the takeaway of clichés, we understand that we fought a good fight, and we stayed in there. I'm not going to say we won, but we didn't lose as badly as we could have.
We all do have our freedom, and we don't have a criminal record. We get to somewhat pick up the pieces and move on with our lives, but it's about getting rid of the clichés: truth will set you free, just hang in there, and all is going to come out fine. Well, not always, but it doesn't mean that you don't hold your integrity.
I think I speak for all of us who remain the defendant; they could take away our dignity, they could take away our jobs, they could take away our reputations, our names, our money, they could take all of that away, but the only thing they could not take away from us without our permission was our integrity. And, for at least the five of us, that was more than gold.
For further information, visit: ParrhesiaPress.com.
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