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July 7, 2015

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The Turnaround:

Part custodian, part mentor

Former military man teaches students outside the classroom at Chaparral

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Leila Navidi

Custodian Sam White listens to his radio while on duty at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011.

This is another in a yearlong series of stories tracking Clark County School District's efforts to turn around five failing schools.

Sam White - Chap HS Janitor

Chaparral custodian Sam White surveys the quad for trash left by students at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011. Launch slideshow »

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The high school senior pounded the wall with his right fist, then head-butted a steel window covering, in anger and self-loathing. He had gone to pick up his date for the big dance, but the young lady’s father would have no part of an unfamiliar teen dressed in sagging pants and a loose-fitting shirt.

So there he was on a recent Saturday night, taking out his frustration on an exterior wall of Chaparral High School. Onlookers grimaced with each swing that bloodied the youth’s knuckles. Principal Dave Wilson turned to a staff member.

“Go find Sam,” he said. An assistant principal moved quickly.

The angry student continued to pace around the outside of the high school gym, shouting, cursing, throwing jabs, mostly in the air but connecting a few times with the wall. The student’s classmates were inside for the homecoming dance, oblivious to what was happening. A teacher’s husband, an undercover law enforcement agent, heard the disturbance and offered help. Wilson thanked him but declined the offer. The kid needed a different style of assistance. “Where’s Sam?” the principal asked via two-way radio.

This wasn’t the first time the teenager had acted out, and dealing with him had proved difficult for others.

But Sam — 59-year-old Samuel White — seemed to have the magic. He was good with the kids, like a counselor.

Never mind that he is the school’s assistant custodian.

On this night, Sam is a homecoming dance chaperon, looking sharp in a powder gray suit, a pink shirt and tie, a burgundy hat and pinkie rings serving as exclamation marks to meaty hands.

Wilson wanted Sam now because, in the few weeks since the beginning of the school year, Sam had become the young man’s friend, confidante and father figure. They were a memorable pair, the troubled high school student and the former Army drill sergeant and construction worker.

The two were brought together by an observant school staff that was stretched thin on counselors.

A year ago, Sam was the custodian at Tomiyasu Elementary School, which is attended by the children of Dave Trupp, the chief custodian at Chaparral. “I’d see Sam doing his job and always treating the kids like an asset rather than a liability or a problem, always treating the kids with respect,” said Trupp (pronounced troop). “I think it’s just Sam’s character. That’s who he is. I’ve never seen Sam be rude or malicious.” He persuaded Sam to join him at Chaparral. “I knew coming into a high school, you can’t treat the kids without respect.”

Trupp spoke with Chaparral’s dean of students, Scott Littlefield, who watched the recently hired day custodian interact with students. They would listen as the older gentleman offered words of encouragement, spoke of the need to dress well, speak in a clear voice, focus on schoolwork and respect others, especially women. Littlefield reached out to the lead school counselor. Meantime, the troubled young man gravitated toward Sam, drawn to his demeanor and athletic appearance. A relationship was born. The two now can be spotted riding side-by-side most afternoons on Sam’s motorized work cart, picking up trash, performing some quick landscaping.

The mentor shared his personal story of fathering his first child at the age of 17 and joining the Army to pay the bills. He talked of the need for education — and how he returned to school as a 52-year-old to earn his high school diploma. “I’m trying to instill this in the young man and let him know that it’s never too late,” Sam says.

He stressed to the teenager the importance of personal grooming. “I tell him I don’t look like what I do. I come here clean,” Sam says. They talk of what it means to live a moral and responsible life. Sam, on his $35,000-a-year paycheck, has bought the teen and some of his classmates shorts, T-shirts and socks.

Sam isn’t certain, especially after what happened on the night of the homecoming dance, what influence he is having on the teen’s life. But he chooses to be optimistic about the long-term prospects for his young friend. He sees potential where others do not. “I believe without a shadow of a doubt on any given day a change will come, and the change will be for the good,” he said. “A teacher might say he’s autistic, handicapped, disabled. I say he’s another man. He can do just about anything he wants to do, just like anybody else.”

That night, when the young man lost his cool at the school dance, Sam took him for a brief walk on a trail leading to the school’s football field. They sat on the lawn, away from any passers-by. They could be seen chatting softly, the anger gone from the young man’s fists. The teen was in pain because his date had fallen apart. He spoke of angry voices in his head.

Sam offered some advice: “Don’t tell me about any voices. You’re the only one in there. You have to stop and think.”

The two sat, talked and within 30 minutes the teen’s anger was gone, fists unclenched, a smile replacing a glare.

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