Until Brian Betts mysteriously failed to appear at work Thursday morning, this is what his many admirers knew about him: He was the energetic new principal of a long-troubled urban school and, within a D.C. school system desperate for heroes, a superstar.
But by the end of that day, a group of worried colleagues had found him shot dead in his Silver Spring home, and the upbeat narrative of Betts’s two decades of work had become a tragic tale.
The celebrated educator is now at the improbable center of a murder mystery. His blue Nissan Xterra is missing, as is some property in his home. But there was no sign of forced entry into his two-story brick colonial, and it was not ransacked. A source close to the investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said police theorize that Betts was killed by somebody he let in.
Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said, “It’s still possible this was a random killing, but right now we don’t think so.”
Betts, 42, worked on the front lines of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s campaign to reform the D.C. schools. In only his second year on the job, he was emerging as one of the school system’s most innovative principals. Lured away in 2008 from the better-performing school system in the suburbs of Montgomery, Betts was given a new staff at a reconfigured school and unusual freedom to hire and fire, train and teach.
Betts hired a group of inexperienced teachers at Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson. He eliminated homeroom and recess, deeming them a waste of time, a bold pronouncement from a former physical education teacher. Students liked him so much that Rhee approved an unprecedented request for 100 of them to remain at his middle school for ninth grade.
“It’s unreal. It’s devastating,” said Carol Cienfuegos, the instructional coach at Shaw, who followed Betts to the school from Montgomery schools. D.C. schools were closed Friday for Emancipation Day, but as word of Betts’s death spread, students and staff members gathered at the school. A group of five teachers walked in, laden with boxes of tissues for mourners. Sobbing students clutched each other in front of the building. Some, including Rhee, wondered how Betts’s school would carry on without him.
“With him, potentially more than any other principal in this city, these children are going to be devastated because they have such an intense relationship with him,” she said. “I never talked to Brian at any point where he didn’t have kids with him.” Police said Betts was found dead of “at least one” gunshot wound Thursday night after co-workers, concerned over his absence, visited his house on Columbia Boulevard and found the door unlocked. Manger said the homicide investigation is “wide open.” The missing sport-utility vehicle could be important. “With the vehicle, I think they’ll find the person who did it,” said Delbert Betts, Brian’s father.