Nearly 6 years later, whistle-blower returning to Camden district

Joseph Carruth goes through stored things from his office when he was a principal at Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden. Carruth was terminated in 2006 but has been reinstated by the school district.
Joseph Carruth goes through stored things from his office when he was a principal at Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden. Carruth was terminated in 2006 but has been reinstated by the school district. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff)
Posted: May 28, 2012

At 3:30 p.m., Joseph D. Carruth jumps up from the couch at his Townsend, Del., home and heads to the garage. He speeds off on a Razor scooter with another scooter in tow.

Just down the block, 8-year-old Brianna Carruth hops out of a yellow school bus.

"Daddy!" the Brick Mills Elementary third grader in pink pants and curly pigtails yells as he greets her with open arms. The pair then race back home.

"I win," Brianna says, as she heads inside for a snack.

The after-school race has been a routine since Brianna started school. But by next school year, Carruth won't be at the bus stop to pick up his daughter. The reason why is a good thing, he says.

Carruth - unemployed for nearly six years since the Camden City school board terminated him as principal of Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School - is set to return to the district July 1.

Carruth, 44, sued as a whistle-blower under the state's Conscientious Employee Protection Act, alleging that district officials fired him for publicly reporting in 2005 that he had been asked to tamper with the scores.

The drawn-out court process came to an end last year when Carruth was awarded an $860,000 settlement. In March, an arbitrator ruled that the school district should reinstate him as a principal by July 1, 2013, and the school board recently voted to reinstate him for the school year beginning in September.

District officials said they haven't decided his new assignment yet. But the soft-spoken Carruth is excited to be returning to Camden.

"Now it's the time to make it better," he said during a two-hour interview at his home. The district needs good people who genuinely care, he says. "I think I'm one of the good guys."

Carruth never received the badge of honor from the district, though.

A district-hired investigator, former Camden County Prosecutor Edward F. Borden Jr., concluded that the school's state standardized test scores for the 2004-05 school year were rigged and blamed a director of guidance, who denied any wrongdoing.

Borden's investigation, however, did not exalt Carruth. His report deemed Carruth's allegations about being pressured to cheat untrue, described him as a "mediocre" principal, and said the board was justified in terminating him.

"That was disheartening," Carruth said about Borden's conclusions, noting that the investigator was working for the district.

Even six years later, some district staff say privately that they don't know what or whom to believe. Carruth continues to stand by his word.

The bookshelves and walls in Carruth's spacious home are lined with baby portraits.

Carruth and his wife, Danielle, 36, now have three daughters - Brianna, 8; Sarah, 3; and Priscilla, 3 months. They eat dinner together and go to church together. His personal growth during his years of adversity, he says, will make him a more effective leader.

"Six, five years later, I'm a different person," he said. "Now I'm focused on what can we do to educate these students here in Camden."

Carruth's quiet demeanor is a trait that at least one former colleague says works in a rough district like Camden.

"The calmness, the quietness. There was no need for him to raise his voice," said David Steadman, a sixth-grade teacher who retired from the Camden district in 2001 and was Carruth's mentor.

"There is so much dishonesty, with kids telling stories, and truancy, and he had the ability to cut through that," Steadman said. "Kids respected that."

Though he grew up in Lawnside, Carruth started his teaching career in Camden, met his wife at a Camden school, and held his first principal job in Camden.

After graduating from Rutgers University in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in economics, Carruth decided to give teaching a try.

"You always hear how you need black male role models," he recalled.

He was hired as a substitute teacher for the district, teaching nearly every grade at nearly every school. After two years of subbing, he landed a job at Yorkship Elementary School, teaching sixth grade math, science, and spelling. While he was teaching there, the principal at the school encouraged him to pursue a career in administration.

A few years later, he graduated from Cheyney University with a master's degree in education administration and landed a vice principal's job at Palmyra High School and then at Highland Regional High School in Blackwood.

In 2004, he was hired to be principal at Brimm Medical Arts, a magnet school focused on health care.

"The first two weeks, maybe, were bliss, but after first two weeks, I noticed problems," he recalled.

Students graduated who weren't supposed to graduate. Transcripts were inaccurate. And then came the "snowball" effect of allegedly being asked to change standardized test scores.

No reason was cited for his May 2006 firing, but officials later said it was due to poor job performance.

Carruth and his family went through a roller coaster of emotions and adjustments. Perfect strangers reached out to help and kept them afloat, even as their family grew and was confronting a serious illness that afflicted Brianna.

"Strangers would send $5 in the mail with a note saying, 'Keep strong,' " wife Danielle recalled.

Joseph Carruth Sr., a retired operator at the former Sun Oil refinery, used his retirement savings to pay his son's mortgage and expenses until his situation was resolved. Months after being hired at Brimm, Carruth had purchased a large, two-story home on 1½ acres.

Using much of his life savings to support his son "was worth it to see him vindicated," Carruth Sr. said. Now that Carruth Jr. will be back to work, he plans to repay his father.

The fired principal never thought it would take so long to get his job back, though.

"I thought it was going to be an 18-month process," he said. But as time dragged on, Carruth grew even more stressed.

He drove to dozens of interviews, as far away as North Jersey, yet got no callbacks.

"People associated Carruth, Camden, and cheating, but they didn't really know the intricacies of what happened," he said. "I was dealing with that burden."

Sundays were the worst, his wife recalled. After attending service at Love of Christ Church, he would go up to their bedroom and sit on a sofa with his laptop and search for jobs for hours.

It wasn't until he felt he hit rock-bottom that things started to change.

"On the way home, I broke down and I said, 'God, I just can't deal with this anymore; I need your help,' and this calmness came over," Carruth said.

The firing and unemployment period was a blessing in disguise, said Danielle, who stayed home to care for Brianna.

"He was married to his profession. He was married to his persona, Joe Carruth the principal."

If he had not changed, she said, she is certain the couple would have ended up in divorce.

But now her happiness as a wife and mother is palpable. She giggles when she tells stories of their past. The time they went skydiving before they had any children (a photo still hangs near their first-floor bathroom). Their first home in Erial. The initial dreaded move to Delaware.

But now, with Carruth expecting tenure a year after his return, he and his wife are starting to think about moving back to New Jersey, and particularly closer to Camden.

Camden schools "is where I'll be until I retire," Carruth said confidently.

After getting the call that he would be returning to the Camden district this year, Carruth went into the garage and pulled out the box that contained his desk items, all untouched since his firing.

A steno notepad was still open to the last page used. It was dated Dec. 14, 2005, and right away he recognized the letter in the handwriting of a student. It was a conflict in a Brimm chemistry class he was trying to mediate.

"I always had students write down their problems," he explained, because not only was writing therapeutic for students but then he also would have a record to compare stories before determining any disciplinary action.

As Carruth went through his old box, he found his name plate, looked at the polished letters on it, and glanced up at his wife.

"I'll be able to use this again," he said with a smile.


Contact Claudia Vargas

at 267-815-1953 or cvargas@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," on www.philly.com/ philly/blogs/camden_flow/

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