Second Chance

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School Principal Exonerated

School Principal Exonerated


He had been Westbury High School’s principal for 18 years, enjoying a reputation as a hands-on administrator who had an easy relationship with students. But eight months before he was to retire capping a stellar 34-year career Pless Dickerson’s world fell apart when he was arrested on of charges possession of crack cocaine and faced 21/3 to 7 years in prison.

Instead, he was offered the chance to get into Nassau’s Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison Program, in which non­violent drug offenders enter a re­habilitation program instead of jail. If they complete the pro­gram, charges are dropped. Yesterday, in Nassau County Court in Mineola, Judge Frank Gulotta dismissed all charges against Dickerson in an emotion­al proceeding that ended with spontaneous applause in the courtroom. “Everybody speaks very high­ly of you. You are entering a new phase now and I’m sure, you will do as well as you did before,” Gulotta told Dicker­son, who withdrew his guilty plea. “Charges are dismissed, and congratulations!'”

Dickerson completed 81/2 months of inpatient drug treat­ment at Phoenix House in Hauppauge, followed by outpa­tient care. He had been “so diligent and so motivated,” that the agency offered him a job as a vocation­al education counselor; which he has accepted, said Ann Marie LaPlaca, head of the Long Island Treatment Against Street Crime unit. “This indi­vidual has been an inspiration to the program,” she said. Prosecutor Jill Fisher supported the dismissal of the charges because Dickerson had “fulfilled all of the terms and obligations” of the program.

Dickerson’s attorney, William Petrillo of Rockville Centre, said Dickerson had endured a “personal hardship later in life” and had “ad­dressed the issue head-on.” Afterward, the onetime principal reflected on the events of the past two years, saying the arrest had been “something that created a chain of events in my life which taught me to realize that I needed to do some self-help”.

“I was not dealing with certain things and it was time. It was a second opportunity, a second chance and I am very grateful for it,” he said. Orin Naughton, 47, whose daughter is a junior at Westbury High School, said he approved of Dickerson’s treatment “because jail is not the way to deal with a person who has a drug problem, People do deserve second chances,” Naughton said.

In his new job, Dickerson, 56, of Westbury, will help Phoenix House residents with job training and with education. Dickerson’s teaching license was not affected by the charges because they were dismissed. Dickerson was nearing retirement after working as a teacher, guidance counselor and finally principal at Westbury High School for 18 years, he said he misses education. “I’ve been teaching since I was 21 and I still have a love for the kids.”

L.I. School Principal charged with possession of crack cocaine

Westbury, N.Y., April 17 — The principal of a Long Island high school was arrested Wednesday night after police officers found half a gram of crack cocaine inside his car, the authorities said today.

The principal, Pless M. Dickerson, has been principal of Westbury High School for 18 years and before that was a popular social studies teacher here, and his arrest shocked many in this central Nassau County community. He was taken into custody just a few hours after the Westbury Schools had closed for an extended spring break.

According to the Nassau County police, Mr. Dickerson, 54, was arrested at 10:05 pm by officers who had stopped his car on Rockland Street, near his home here, after police received a tip from an informer.

Detective Lt. John Wolff said a plastic bag containing the crack was found on the front passenger seat of the BMW sport utility vehicle that Mr. Dickerson was driving. The police said the drugs had a street value of about $300.

Mr. Dickerson pleaded not guilty this morning during his arraignment in First District Court in Hempstead, and was released on his own recognizance. He is charged with fifth-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. His next court appearance is scheduled for April 28.

The Westbury schools superintendant, Constance R. Clark, said in a statement that she would recommend that the Board of Education name the school’s assistant principal, Manuel Arias, acting principal. “As always, our highest priority is the safety and welfare of our students,” the statement said. “The district is investigating the matter thoroughly and will continue to take all actions it deems appropriate.”

The statement did not say whether Mr. Dickerson would be suspended or placed on leave, and Dr. Clark did not return calls seeking comment. There was no immediate response to a message left with the school board president, Floyd Ewing.

The schools were closed today in observance of the Passover and Easter holidays, and with spring break next week, they will not reopen until April 28.

Mr. Dickerson’s lawyer, William Petrillo said late today that his client had not been contacted by school district officials. “He is loved by his teachers and his students, and we have already received dozens of calls from supporters,” Mr. Petrillo said. “We plan to mount a vigorous defense to these allegations.”

Mr. Dickerson has a reputation as a creative administrator and an advocate for students, especially the Haitian and Hispanic immigrants who make up much of the student body. Several people said the relative lack of turmoil in a school with so many different ethnic groups was a credit to Mr. Dickerson’s steady hand.

Residents reacted with varying degrees of surprise today as news spread through this working-class, largely immigrant community. The Rev. Lionel Harvey of the First Baptist Church speculated that Mr. Dickerson confiscated cocaine from a student.

“We have to wait to hear his side of the story,” Mr. Harvey said. “It’s unfortunate because immediately we rush to judgement. The nature of his business dictates that he could have confiscated it.”

Standing a few doors away from Mr. Dickerson’s single story ranch house here, two brothers — one a Westbury High student and one about to become one in the fall — said the arrest did not fit with their image of the principal.

“He’s always very friendly, interactive with the kids,” said Garry Cameron, 18, a senior. “You see him and feel like you can talk to him.” Garry’s brother Ronnie, 13, added, “I was hoping he’d be my principal.”

Mr. Dickerson is on the board of Westbury Rising, a nonprofit educational foundation formed by business, community and educational leaders to aid Westbury students. The group raises money from private sources to supplement school district funds.

Mr. Dickerson, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University and received a distinguished alumni award from that school a year ago, has been a leader in the Corner school reform project, a joint effort of the Westbury schools, C.W. Post and Yale.

Corner school reform, named for a Yale professor and used in many school districts, strives to increase the involvement of parents and the community in schools and create links between schools and community institutions.

The Westbury district has made some academic gains in recent years but continues to struggle. Fewer than half its students received a Regents diploma last year, according to the most recent state report, but the percentage has been steadily rising for three years. More than 20 percent of Westbury High’s 963 students are studying English as a second language, and nearly half are eligible for the free lunch program.

“His reputation has been tarnished,” Mr. Harvey said of the principal. “It hurts in a community that’s trying to do so much.”

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