In 2019, Angelica Weatherhead was working in the fashion industry in New York, living her high school dreams and looking toward a bright future.

Then, in 2020, she was laid off along with millions of other workers at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. That started her down a path that would eventually lead her back to San Antonio, where her elderly parents live, and, last spring, to the mortuary science program at San Antonio College. She thought she had found her calling. 

But now she is worried that calling may be in jeopardy after watching the program enter a state of crisis over the last several weeks. Two professors were placed on administrative leave and another quit just weeks before the end of the semester. The shakeup has left the program in turmoil, students in a state of distress and the future of the program uncertain to some.

“A program that I’m very passionate about and that I love, and I feel strongly about, is deteriorating before my eyes,” Weatherhead said. “And it’s heartbreaking.”

Her sense of commitment to her community and to the industry began to give way to anxiety and concern shortly after she began, when a guidance counselor routed students into the wrong courses, she said, and disallowed students from courses they needed, disregarding concerns from a growing number of students along the way.

SAC’s nationally recognized program is one of the few in the nation that works with actual cadavers — bodies donated to science — as part of the coursework, and for 10 years has been a licensed funeral home.

The program normally has at least four full-time professors and between two and four adjunct professors. As of the end of April, the program had only two full-time staff in the classroom and three adjuncts.

With finals next week, graduating students are scrambling to prepare for those tests and board exams, which must be completed in order to practice in funeral homes in the state of Texas.

The program has about 200 students and is one of four in Texas. Administrators and professors say the program is integral to the supply of funeral directors and embalmers in all of South Texas, a profession with an aging workforce that needs new personnel.

On March 31, one beloved professor, Catherine Smithpeter, was placed on leave for reasons the college did not disclose, even to her, she said. Students said they didn’t hear for weeks what the next steps would be for their ongoing classwork or who would teach Smithpeter’s classes for the remainder of the year.

In response, students spent the last several weeks taking their concerns to the Alamo Colleges District’s board of trustees, SAC’s interim Vice President Francisco Solis and SAC’s new president, Naydeen González-De Jesús, who met with 30 students for 90 minutes. In that meeting, she promised changes and committed to rebuilding trust with the students.

“It is very clear to me that there have been some issues occurring for some time,” she said in the meeting, which was recorded by students in attendance. “For something to get to this point … it doesn’t occur overnight.”

College commits to get students to graduation

College officials say that the program, which is slated to become the first in the nation to operate a full funeral home that provides services next month, is not in any danger, and that steps have been taken to address the staffing shortfall and other student concerns. A new advisor also has been assigned to the students.

Those steps are working, in part, with the original rage felt by students subsiding into a cautious optimism.

A SAC spokesman noted that 140 students have registered for classes in the fall semester, “which means we are right on course.”

Smithpeter, however, said the problems with the program are systemic and won’t be easy to fix.

Students, who were learning anatomy and how to embalm cadavers went weeks without being able to reenter labs, Smithpeter said, after she was put on leave.

Sylvia Villarreal, a third semester student, brought this up during comments at the Alamo Colleges District’s April board meeting.

“In my anatomy lab, we are assigned a cadaver for this semester,” Villarreal said. “We have not touched that cadaver. That cadaver costs tax dollars and you need to be aware of that. That is very alarming.”

Smithpeter said that students pay an extra special tuition in order to work with the bodies, which are donated for science. 

Other programs that use the cadavers for demonstrations have also been impacted, according to a professor at the college in a different program, causing instructors to rework their syllabi. 

The students who missed several weeks of lab time after Smithpeter’s departure also missed several weeks at the beginning of the semester due to miscommunication over the delivery of the cadavers, according to Smithpeter.

Officials from the college told The Report that despite recent personnel issues, which they declined to comment on, the program is in good hands and has a stable future.

“Our adjunct has often stepped up and taken on more than one class … and then our full-time instructors are also taking on more,” Solis told The Report. “If you think about it in terms of immediate and then long-term needs, the immediate needs are to help these students get to graduation and then to the national board, and then we’ll start looking at our fall semester.” 

Solis, who started in the mortuary science program, has also stepped back into the classroom to help with the workload, and extra study materials have been purchased to help students. He also served as interim president of the college until three months ago.

The grading scale has changed in order to not punish students for the human resources matter, according to emails and interviews with students and administration in recent weeks. 

But the shakeup is just the latest issue with the program that students worry puts its future reputation and existence at risk. 

A question of security

Smithpeter, the first professor to be placed on leave, has taken issue with the way the administration handled several matters going back at least a year. 

The matters included a student who allegedly threatened her and her students in class and unauthorized access to the cadaver lab by workers, which is a breach of strict regulations around the sensitive process of working with remains donated to science. 

In December of 2022, an HVAC worker accessed the secure lab where the cadavers are kept without anyone from the college present. A limited number of staff are supposed to have access to keys, and Smithpeter said she was not aware that the facilities staff had one.

Solis confirmed the incident, and said the college followed standard protocols to report it to the Texas State Anatomical Board.

“We immediately alerted the state anatomical board that there had been a violation and somebody had been in the space. We conducted an interview … we did an immediate search [and] we put in some modifications to the program. Now all of the tanks in which the anatomical specimens are housed have a lock on it,” he said. “We also have posted reminders as you’re going through the doors that you must be accompanied by one of the faculty members.”

After raising concerns about a student who allegedly threatened her and her students in class and unauthorized access to the cadaver lab by workers, Catherine Smithpeter was placed on administrative leave for reasons the San Antonio College did not disclose.
After raising concerns about a student who allegedly threatened her and her students in class and unauthorized access to the cadaver lab by workers, Catherine Smithpeter was placed on administrative leave for reasons the San Antonio College did not disclose. Credit: Brenda Bazán / San Antonio Report

Smithpeter disputed that in a recent interview and in a letter to the state anatomical board three days after the incident.  

“Although my leadership continues to say that they are sure that there were no breaches of confidentiality, I, unfortunately, cannot be certain of this because no one who was qualified to state this was present with the workers,” she said in the letter.

Smithpeter said in the interview that she was asked not to notify the board about the breach at all.

“I got told not to notify the state anatomical board that we had unauthorized people in a room where I was holding the decedents for a funeral home and seven cadavers in the middle of the night,” she said. “They effectively told me you don’t need to notify them, nothing happened.”

The issue raises questions about the college’s security measures and its ability to keep the cadavers safe, she said, adding that the episode left her feeling uneasy, and could be part of why she was eventually placed on leave.

Three professors down

Mary Martin, an adjunct professor who had been in the program for 27 years, quit in solidarity after Smithpeter was put on leave. Another professor was placed on administrative leave a week later for reasons that were not disclosed by SAC.

Martin said that she made the choice to step down since she saw the leave of Smithpeter as administrative politics and part of a downward trend in the program.

“Somebody’s ego was more important than my students,” she said. “I realized coming in to help is not going to help anything. [Leaving] may hurt my students a little bit but … stuff is gonna just continue because now I’m supporting a decision that was made based on an ego and not what was best for the students. And there was only five weeks left in the semester. The ego could have waited five weeks.”

With the departures of several professors, students say they are not receiving proper guidance and support.

Maygan Rosas, who spoke at the board meeting, said that the program was responsible for more than just graduating students. 

“We have lost essential instructors,” she said. “This program needs to continue educating us on a level that will prepare us for not just graduation, but the board exams that follow and beyond that.”

“Our voices are not being heard,” she added.

Another student, Moncheire Bedford, told trustees that she moved from Austin to take part in the program and gave up an opportunity to participate in a doctoral program at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Currently there is great confusion and I have great concern,” she said. “We have been having nothing but speeches in our classrooms for the past couple of weeks. It has disrupted my studying and it has affected me and my health.” 

A path forward

Since the meeting with the president, regular weekly meetings have taken place with a select group of students and Solis to rebuild trust and find solutions to the problems that have cropped up.  

The college has also purchased study guides and organized a four-day workshop for students, although Smithpeter said those options have been provided in years past.

“We’ve provided them with a test simulator that’s in our open lab and posted on some 32 computers that they can go in and test as often as they want to get familiar with the exam as often as they want,” Solis said. “And then we’ve also provided them with some study materials. If you want to take home a book, we’ve provided them each with a book. We’ve also purchased vouchers for them so they can take the practice national board and actually sit for it.”

Professors from other departments are filling in vacancies on a temporary basis, according to students, and administrators said they are working to have the openings filled by next semester. Smithpeter was given a notice of nonrenewal the same day she was put on leave, meaning her contract will end this summer. It is unclear whether the other professor on leave will return.

While administrators say the program is not in danger of closing or losing accreditation, Smithpeter and some students aren’t so sure.

González-De Jesús, the president, said that she is committed to meeting with students moving forward, and creating an atmosphere of transparency. That’s the message she told the Report she has for students and the community.

“I know that we need to build our trust again,” she said. “And for that, I need to partner with you but I also need you to partner with me. I don’t have all the answers that you seek right now. But with your assistance, with your help, together we’ll continue to explore options to ensure that you have the resources that you need to complete the courses within these last three weeks that you have left, and at the end of the day, be able to take … the board exam”

Weatherhead, who remembers the shock of losing her older sister, has a deep and emotional understanding of people going through their most difficult times, as do many in the funeral services field.

“It’s not just something that you do once, like … you bury someone and then you’re done,” she said. “It’s something that you develop a relationship [with the bereaved], and you’re helping someone through the worst time in their life. And a lot of times those end up being bonds that are long-lasting.”

Weatherhead said that the rollercoaster ride of the last month has been difficult, but she has hope that speaking out along with other students will lead to meaningful change.

“The whole point is to shine a light on it, because I just don’t understand how a program that’s been here for 60-plus years, could go downhill so fast” she said. “And I would love there to be … a future because this is a very important program not just in San Antonio, but in Texas.”

“And it would be devastating if it wasn’t able to rebound from all of this.”