The School Murder That Shocked D.C.
Brian Betts wasn’t just a good principal in a tough school. He was the figurehead for D.C.'s ambitious school reform program—until he was found shot to death. Benjamin Sarlin reports.
Until he was found shot to death in his home last month, Brian Betts was, as one former student put it, “the kind of teacher they make movies about.”
Handpicked by Washington D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee in 2008 to serve as principal of Shaw Middle School, one of the city’s toughest assignments, Betts brought in a team of young teachers and new tactics that turned the institution around within a year and made national news in the process. More than just a successful principal, his school quickly became the model for Rhee’s ambitious reform plan, which emphasized increased control over hiring by principals and greater teacher accountability.
To Trevon Brown, Betts was “the father I never had, because my real father was always in and out of my life.”
“It was truly amazing,” Rhee told mourners at a memorial for Betts in Maryland on Saturday. “We would often take the press and other visitors to see the transformation.”
He was so popular that students begged Rhee to add a 9th grade to the school so that they could stay longer, a request she granted. She even agreed to a proposal by Betts to one day create a school covering grades 6 through 12, a highly unusual arrangement, based on the strength of his work there.
Betts was found in his Silver Spring, Maryland, home the evening of April 15, dead of a gunshot wound, after he missed work earlier that day. Police say there was no sign of forced entry, which suggests he may have known his attacker. Betts’ SUV was missing at the time his body was discovered, only to be found abandoned some 14 miles away on April 17. According to police, a witness saw two people leaving the car, indicating there may be more than one suspect in the case.
But the investigation has progressed at a maddeningly slow pace since then, with little indication as to who might have been responsible and why. According to Captain Paul Starks of the Montgomery County Police Department, authorities are afraid to leak much more information for fear of compromising their leads.
“We released everything we can up to this point,” he said, describing the case as the department’s top priority. “We've looked at his computer, his cell phone, talked with neighbors, co-workers, family, and friends—if we didn’t do all these things in an investigation we'd be derelict. But the specific information that we received from those sources we can’t release, as it would harm the integrity of the investigation.”
Many at the memorial, which came just two days after Betts’ 43rd birthday, commented on his good-natured enthusiasm, but also a combination of blunt honesty and high expectations that inspired fierce loyalty. Tearful former students used the same phrases to describe him over and over again: “a father figure,” “a father to me,” “like a father.” To Trevon Brown, one of the 9th graders at Shaw who had asked to stay an extra year, Betts was “the father I never had, because my real father was always in and out of my life.”
Students described Betts picking them up for school at 5:30 a.m. every day, paying out of pocket to send poor children on field trips to New York, or donating furniture years after they graduated to outfit their first college dorm. Kids would frequently call him on his cell phone with their problems, school-related or otherwise. He kept in close contact with parents as well, meeting with many of them the summer before he began his job at Shaw to sound out his plans.
“He’d do anything for anyone,” a friend from Betts' college days at UNC-Greensboro, Alex Postpischil, told The Daily Beast. “To have someone take that away is just a huge shock.”
Stories of Betts’ availability to his students, many of who came from difficult backgrounds, may take on an ominous tone for some observers in the wake of cases like New York teacher Jonathan Levin, the son of Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin, who was murdered in 1997 by a former student in a botched robbery. The same week as Betts’ murder, a D.C. teacher was abducted by one of her students and his 25-year-old uncle in a carjacking attempt (police later determined their choice of target was accidental). But according to The Washington Post, detectives have not unearthed any connection between Betts’ murder and either his students or their family members.
In a bizarre coincidence, Betts’ house was the site of a shocking homicide in 2002, in which George Russell and his 9-year-old daughter, Erika Smith, were killed by robber and convicted rapist Anthony Quintin Kelly. A childhood friend of Smith’s posted a comment on one of the tribute pages on Facebook that have been created to honor Betts.
“I hope his family, friends, co-workers, and students find the solace they need somehow,” she wrote, “solace I know is not easy to find, solace I still have not found.”
In the meantime, Betts’ friends and family are left waiting for justice. Recently they set up a foundation through the D.C. Public Education Fund to award money in his name to causes he supported in his lifetime.
Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.