WOL Listen Live
WOL Featured Video


Montgomery County detectives are investigating the death of District middle school principal Brian Betts as a homicide, county Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said Friday afternoon.

“At this point we don’t believe he was a random victim,” Manger said. “We suspect it is a homicide. We are investigating it as such.”

Betts, 42, a much-lauded school administrator, was found dead Thursday night in his Silver Spring home. He failed to report to work at Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson at 10th and U streets NW on Thursday, prompting co-workers to visit his house.

An autopsy had not been completed as of 1 p.m. Manger said.

Manger stressed that the investigation is still “wide open” and could take new directions. “It’s still possible this was a random killing, but right now we don’t think so,” he said.

Betts was found dead in his home in the 9300 block of Columbia Boulevard after officers were called there at about 7:30 p.m., police said.

Montgomery County said they continue to search for the victim’s dark blue 2007 Nissan Xterra sport-utility vehicle.

Betts’s next-door neighbor, Dan Kelly, said on Friday that he had just returned home Thursday evening when Betts’s colleagues came to the Kelly house asking whether he had seen his neighbor. They all went over to the house together, Kelly said, and found the door unlocked.

Montgomery County police said one of the co-workers entered the house and found Betts dead.

Betts was wooed from Montgomery County as part of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s effort to improve the struggling D.C. system, becoming principal of Shaw in fall of 2008. Rhee said she felt a deep personal loss over Betts’s death, adding in a statement Friday that his death was “unspeakably tragic for his family” and colleagues, and praising his “courage to take on the leadership of a struggling, underachieving” school.

“He brought enthusiasm, love and high expectations for the 300 students” at Shaw, the chancellor said.

District schools were closed for Emancipation Day, a District holiday, but as word of Betts’s death spread, students and staff gathered.

“He was a good principal,” said Mary Stewart, an eighth-grader at Shaw who was headed there for soccer practice Friday morning. “He would get along with all the students and everybody.”

Rhee said school staff told her that on Wednesday night, Betts was texting with one of his teachers about plans to get T-shirts for students to build momentum before standardized testing scheduled for next week. Rhee said she plans to reschedule Shaw’s tests in the wake of Betts’s death.

Betts came to the D.C. system from Loiederman Middle School in Silver Spring, where he had been an assistant principal for three years.

When Rhee hired Betts, she gave him unusual latitude to select the teachers he wanted and change rules he felt were not helping students learn. Betts visited scores of students and parents before the 2008-2009 school year started, introducing himself and asking, among other things, how they felt about a white man running a school where all of the students were black or Hispanic. He eliminated homeroom periods and recess, which he considered wastes of time, and boosted teacher training significantly.

Rhee recalled Betts as “an inspirational leader for the teachers and for the students, and that leadership was bringing results. He knew what the children under his care were capable of, and he was determined to show them how to get there.”

Last spring, a group of eighth-graders successfully lobbied Rhee to let them remain at Betts’s school for ninth grade, instead of entering high school, because they considered the high schools too foreboding or poorly organized.

The chancellor said the unusual request demonstrated the students’ enthusiasm for the changes Betts had wrought. More than 100 ninth graders elected to stay at Shaw for another year.

Tresean Wilkins-Bey, one of the ninth-graders who stayed on, likened Betts to a family member. Before Betts came to the school, Tresean said, “I was a little immature. He straightened me out. He kept in my hair about everything when I did something wrong. . . . There’s going to be a lot of kids crying.”

“You couldn’t ask for a better principal,” said Tresean’s mother, Tanya Bey. “I don’t think God has made one as good as Mr. Betts.”

Betts’s work with students extended outside of school, Rhee said. “For a lot of the young men in that current ninth-grade class he is the closest thing to a father they’ve had,” said Rhee, who recalled the principal bringing some students to a barbecue at her home last summer.

In Montgomery County, where Betts had previously taught, he started a Wednesday night dinner and study club for students who were struggling academically. Before long, said Felicia Davis, a media specialist at Neelsville Middle School in Germantown who worked with Betts, good students clamored to join.

Betts was a “pied piper,” said Davis. “He could walk into a gym full of 800 students and everybody would just quiet down right away.”

For middle school students, Betts told The Washington Post in 2008, “nothing that I have ever seen trumps personal relationships. . . . The kids in this building who can be absolutely horrible in one person’s class can be angelic in another because they have formed a relationship with that teacher.”

Although test scores were slow to change, attendance and parental participation improved dramatically. Betts’s supporters said he raised expectations for students, recruited strong teachers and fired those who were not performing well.

“Imagine,” Rhee said in an interview with The Post’s editorial board, “13-year-olds so excited about going to school that they are telling me they love waking up in the morning.”

A neighbor who lives across the street from the school at 10th and U streets NW said Betts tried to reach out to the entire area.

“He came over and personally introduced himself when we moved in” in spring of last year, said Lynsay Belshe. He knew everybody by name, she said, and “was always out there with the kids.”

Alison Serino, principal of Loiederman Middle School, said Betts was a pillar of their community.

“He was larger than life,” Serino said. “He consistently conveyed messages of hope to parents and students alike. Parents adored him, and it’s just like a big hole in our community’s heart.”

From 1996 to 2004 , Betts worked as a teacher at Neelsville and he later became a magnet coordinator for Loiederman, Montgomery County spokesman Dana Tofig said.

At Neelsville he helped develop new programs to encourage good study habits and launching a cheerleading team, Principal Dollye McClain said. He left the Montgomery schools in May of 2008.

“He was well liked, a very creative individual. My staff have been devastated,” McClain said.

The two-story red brick house where Betts lived has a separate tragic history. It is the same house where 9-year-old Erika Smith and her father, Greg Russell, were brutally murdered by an intruder in 2002.

The house had been empty since the double killing and Betts was not aware of its past, Kelly recalled. Betts bought it in 2003, property records show.

“When he found out, we talked about what happened,” Kelly said. Later, Betts invited friends over for “a sort of blessing of the house.” Kelly said Betts was “a great guy” who often entertained friends and co-workers and always took time to greet or play with Kelly’s young triplets. “The friendliest guy in the world,” Kelly said.

Anyone with information about Betts’s death is asked to call Montgomery County homicide detectives at 240-773-5070. Betts’s SUV had a Maryland license plate with the number 562M222 on it, police said.