Families & the Community

AWOL

By Julie Blair — April 02, 2003 10 min read
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Jailed for her protests against U.S. foreign policy, Janice Sevre-Dusynska then lost her teaching job for being AWOL.

The trial. The arrest. Three months in federal prison with its noise and drudgery and strip searches. She can talk about these indignities with controlled emotion now. Her voice rattles with anger, though, when she recalls being escorted out of her classroom and off campus grounds by a security guard last fall, her students left confused and crying.

“I am beloved by my kids and by their parents,” says Janice Sevre-Duszynska, her small frame tucked into a corner of a camel-back sofa, her eyes round and sad. “To be treated like that. ... I was just shocked.”

The 53-year-old teacher shakes her head in disbelief.

Sevre-Duszynska, who teaches English as a second language at Henry Clay High School here in Lexington, was suspended from her job with pay for 20 days last August and subsequently fired following a three-month stint in federal prison.

The longtime political activist was one of 86 people arrested—and later found guilty of trespassing—while peacefully protesting U.S. foreign policy at a military base in November 2001.

Local residents immediately raised questions about the teacher’s right to free speech: Was the 32,700-student Fayette County school district violating the First Amendment?

Not at all, says interim Superintendent Duane L. Tennant, who took the disciplinary measures against her. The dismissal was appropriate, in his view, because she was absent without leave for three months.

For the time being, however, his decisions have been overridden by the Kentucky attorney general, who ordered the district to return Sevre-Duszynska to the classroom in December.

But the district hasn’t finished with her yet. The school board has taken the case to circuit court. And there in the judicial world, the lawyers will argue the case not on lofty free-speech principles, nor even on breach-of-contract claims. Instead, they will debate whether Kentucky’s superintendents have the power to deny an educator’s request for a leave of absence.

“If the board were to allow [the teacher’s reinstatement] to stand, what effect would it have on the remaining 6,000 employees in the school district?” muses Kathy G. Lousignont, the president of the Fayette County school board and a 6th grade teacher at a Christian elementary school in Lexington.

Bending the state law for a teacher who was arrested for civil disobedience, she argues, could open the floodgates to other employees who want leniency for any other transgression.

Still, many people here in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Country, known for its breeding of thoroughbred horses, wonder why a good teacher would be let go for holding true to her beliefs.

“It is totally unfair,” says Sevin Sucurovic, a former student of Sevre-Duszynska’s whose father was arrested for civil disobedience in Kosovo. “If she had sexually abused a student or gotten a DUI [conviction], that would be one thing, but she didn’t set a bad example.”

Janice Sevre-Duszynska is the kind of teacher adored by students.

“Madame Sevre,” as they call her, engages her classes at Henry Clay High in drama and song to help them learn to read and write English. Often, the hyped-up poet, playwright, and one-time journalist participates alongside them.

Discussions frequently turn to life experiences, which for many of her students include themes of war and peace. A majority of the students, Sevre-Duszynska explains, are lost puppies when they come to her, having emigrated from war-torn or otherwise troubled nations including the Congo, Iran, Pakistan, and Yugoslavia. Some have witnessed the murders of their fathers, brothers, friends. Many haven’t been to school in years. They feel isolated in an American school and are unable to commuicate their needs and wants, explains Brad Boyd-Kennedy, who also teaches English as a second language at the 1,700-student school.

Sevre-Duszynska lavishes a ferocious maternal love on her students that binds teacher and student for decades. She attends her students’ weddings, their babies’ baptisms, and family celebrations. At least once, the feisty redhead served as an official sponsor for a former student who wanted to bring her fiancé to the United States.

She seems to see herself as their guardian angel—a view they share.

Growing up in Milwaukee, the oldest of four children among an extended family of Polish immigrants, Sevre-Duszynska was taught she was part of a global community and obligated to have compassion for all. From an early age, she saw inequities and wanted to force change, yearning for both a newspaper route and a turn an an acolyte, though neither were deemed appropriate for a young girl.

The educator majored in journalism, English, and secondary education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She later completed a master’s degree in drama at the University of Kentucky-Lexington Campus and earned a coveted fellowship in the subject at Yale University. In between, she wrote and taught at a private school in Kentucky.

Military ‘reservists can come back to their jobs. Why couldn't someone who otherwise cares about their country.’

Her career at Henry Clay High School began 12 years ago, after the death of her youngest son. “I was saved by giving my heart to these children,” says Sevre-Duszynska, now sitting cross-legged on the floor of her modest Cape Cod amid books and the glow of candlelight. “These kids need joy and hope.”

As a teacher of children affected by war and a devout Roman Catholic, she was drawn to join the protest at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, in Fort Benning, Ga.

Since 1990, protesters from around the nation have gathered at the institute, formerly called the U.S. Army School of the Americas, to carry out acts of civil disobedience. The institute provides military training for Latin American and Caribbean soldiers; many believe its graduates have committed severe human-rights abuses, including the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero, four missionaries, and six Jesuit priests in El Salvador.

On Nov. 18, 2001, Sevre-Duszynska chose to cross a yellow chalk line delineating the start of federal property. Such an action is a federal misdemeanor; all 86 demonstrators were arrested.

“I believe my action was for a higher cause, and I’m not ashamed of it,” Sevre-Duszynska says. “I know what we are all capable of in fear, when we don’t open our mouths, and we let other priorities rule us besides our human goodness.”

While a majority of first-time protestors at the military base routinely receive letters barring them from returning, only a handful are ever prosecuted. But authorities chose to prosecute Sevre-Duszynska, though it was her first offense at Ft. Benning. Last May, the teacher was tried and found guilty by a judge. She was fined $500 and sentenced to 90 days in the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, a minimum-security prison.

In mid-August, the educator learned she was to surrender at the facility on Sept. 10. Immediately, Sevre-Duszynska notified her principal of her departure date. Soon after, she penned a letter asking the superintendent to consider providing her a leave of absence during her coming incarceration.

That request was met with a letter from Tennant, dated Sept. 5. Extended absences can be taken only for “educational” and “professional” purposes, according to Kentucky law, the letter said. Such privileges do not extend to those who are incarcerated.

The Fayette County school district would initiate a probe, the letter further stated.

“We didn’t know what was happening,” Superintendent Tennant recalls, noting all he had was sketchy information from Sevre-Duszynska’s principal and her letter. “We went on a fact-finding mission.”

The teacher was hurt and frustrated.

"[Military] reservists can come back to their jobs,” Sevre-Duszynska points out. “Why couldn’t someone who otherwise cares about their country? Why couldn’t they just allow it?”

Sevre-Duszynska had only days to take in the superintendent’s decision: She was consumed with readying for prison.

No matter, says Mary W. Ruble, a lawyer for Sevre-Duszynska retained by the Kentucky Education Association, who charges that the superintendent had failed to follow procedure. According to Ruble’s interpretation of the law, only school boards have the authority to grant or deny leaves of absence.

Tennant acknowledges he did not pass the letter along to the school board, but adds that he alone has the power over personnel issues. If the teacher disagreed with his decision, she could have appealed to the school board directly or used the board’s grievance procedure to contest his actions. She did not do so.

On Sept. 10, as ordered, Sevre-Duszynska reported to prison. There she was forced to trade her Bible and civilian clothes for an itchy yellow prison uniform. She was assigned to the “bus stop,” a cellblock about the size of her living room where she bunked with up to 10 other women.

She remembers the merciless heat of early fall in Kentucky, interrupted sleep, and the tears of other women crying out for their children. She found herself reaching out to those cellmates and learned some were functionally illiterate. Soon, she was badgering the warden to allow her teach in the prison.

‘I defend the right to protest—that's part of the American way—but you don't have the right to break the law.’

Halfway into her three-month sentence, officials allowed it, and Sevre- Duszynska began, working four hours each day with up to six prisoners. The teacher relied on materials shared with her by a prison-employed educator and gobbled up books designated for the trash.

Outside the barricaded walls, dissent about her incarceration was growing.

Sevre-Duszynska received about 500 letters while in jail, some from as far away as Ireland and Spain, most of which expressed support. The volume was so large, in fact, prison officials assigned the teacher a special mailbox to hold it all.

Meanwhile, her colleagues and students at Henry Clay High were talking about the case, too. For some, she was a role model, backing her convictions with action. It was horrible, they said, that Superintendent Tennant had denied such a good woman a leave of absence.

“Someone who is willing to take action on her convictions requiring great personal sacrifice is to be admired,” says Boyd-Kennedy.

Others, though, said she had broken the rules and was aptly punished. “It is a nice sentiment, … but it was irresponsible for her to take such actions if she knew it would jeopardize her career,” says Henry Smith, a junior.

At the very least, the teacher’s action was inconsiderate, adds Jean Ellen Cowgill, a fellow 11th grader. Sevre-Duszynska “should have told [the school] before she left to discuss possibilities just as a practical matter, because they might have needed a long-term substitute,” Cowgill says.

Neither Smith nor Cowgill has taken a class with Sevre-Duszynska.

Sevre-Duszynska had not been home from prison 24 hours when she found a letter in her mailbox notifying her that her contract had been terminated because she had not appeared at school during her period of incarceration to teach. It also stated that such actions were violations of her responsibilities under the state school calendar and the state ethics code.

To Tennant, the case is black and white.

“I defend the right to protest—that’s part of the American way—but you don’t have the right to break the law,” the superintendent says. “That put [Sevre- Duszynska] in a position where she couldn’t fulfill her contract. In order to operate an organization, the contract people sign should be binding on both parties.”

Sevre-Duszynska immediately filed a request for a hearing in which to appeal the decision, which by state law requires the state attorney general to set up a three-member panel to investigate. She insists that Tennant violated school board policy, which she interprets as requiring all leaves of absence be submitted to that body for approval.

The tribunal found Sevre-Duszynska had indeed breached her contract, but that Tennant had interfered with the teacher’s right to petition the school board. She was not in violation of the code of ethics, because she had requested the leave promptly.

“Based upon our thorough review of the case … we felt we had no option but to support an appeal,” says Lousignont, the school board president.

Let them try to fight it, Sevre-Duszynska says.

For now, she is thrilled to be sleeping in her own bed, teaching “her kids” English, and attending local peace vigils.

“I regard all of this,” says the educator, true to her nature, “as a teaching opportunity for the community.”

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