Teaching Profession

Louisiana Teacher’s Arrest Wasn’t the Only Time School Boards Tried to Block Free Speech

By Kate Stoltzfus — January 11, 2018 5 min read
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The aftermath of a Louisiana teacher’s arrest at a school board meeting this week continues to play out after video footage capturing the incident went viral. Deyshia Hargrave, an English teacher at Rene A. Rost Middle School in Abbeville, La., was handcuffed and arrested after publicly challenging the Vermilion district school board’s 5-3 decision to give the superintendent a roughly $30,000 raise, according to the Sacramento Bee. Hargrave pointed out that teachers have not gotten raises despite their class sizes having increased over the years.

Since Monday night, the video has pulled in more than 2.5 million views and spurred an online petition of support for Hargrave with more than 20,000 signatures. On Tuesday, the school board’s office went into lockdown mode after receiving death threats from the United States and abroad, CBS News reported. Louisiana’s governor called the incident “regrettable,” and two of the district’s board members have voiced their general concerns about how the board treats women who speak up at meetings.

The school board has since stated they did not want to press any charges against Hargrave, with the superintendent saying he called police after the meeting to make the board’s wishes clear. However, Anthony Fontana, the board’s president, told a local TV station that the officer who arrested Hargrave did nothing wrong. “This is not about the board, it’s about the teacher and everybody wants to side on the poor little woman who got thrown out,” Fontana said to WAFB-TV. “She could have walked out and nothing would have happened.” (Hargrave did walk out of the meeting when asked. By the time the videographer made it to the hallway, she was already on the ground being handcuffed.)

“I was always taught that what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong and when you see something, you should say it’s wrong, even though it doesn’t involve you,” Hargrave said in a video response posted by the Louisiana Association of Educators. “This particular issue directly involved me, directly involved my students, my fellow educators, support staff ... so I chose to speak out. ... Please don’t let the conversation end with me.”

The Fallout of Speaking Out

This latest incident and its wave of public outcry is not an isolated one, bringing up larger questions around the complexities of disagreements between school boards and public meeting attendees, such as educators and parents. While it’s not common for dialogue at school board meetings to result in arrest, the Student Press Law Center reports, there is an increasing track record of school districts restricting public comments during board meetings—an action that, in most cases, goes against the First Amendment. But situations aren’t always black and white.

Here’s a look at other times school boards clashed with the public over free speech:

In some cases, districts want to keep personalized criticisms quiet.

At least two school districts in Kansas employ policies that limit direct public complaints about district employees. In Topeka, Kan., negative comments about the superintendent and employees are not allowed at board meetings, while Wichita Public Schools rules out maligning the “integrity, character, or competency” of any district employee or student. Comments may be made in writing or private meetings.

Boards have restricted meeting access around claims of individuals threatening public safety.

In Vermont, a federal court overturned a no-trespassing order for a parent who was not allowed at school board meetings. The school supervisory union said they had received a tip that the parent might be dangerous to school employees, but would not give further details.

And a court ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania man over his right to free speech after the Panther Valley School District banned him from coming to school meetings and events. The school board said that in one exchange over a district contract, the man mentioned some of his friends have guns, and in another exchange, he said, “Don’t laugh. I may have to come after all of yous.”

Whether it’s a parent or a school board candidate, input is sometimes heated.

A parent in New Hampshire faced charges of disorderly conduct in 2014 after a terse exchange with school board members over a dispute about a book with graphic sexual content. The man was protesting the district’s reading requirement of Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, and a police officer asked him to leave.

“You are going to arrest me because I violated the [meeting’s] two-minute [speaking] rule?” the man says in captured video footage. “I guess you are going to have to arrest me.”

And in 2016, a Brevard County, Fla., school board candidate made what the board’s chairman called “inappropriate remarks” at a meeting concerning a non-discrimination policy for LGBTQ people, according to Florida Today. The candidate was arrested for resisting an officer who asked him to leave after the school board chairman requested he step away from the microphone.

What about when recording is involved?

In 2014, a Wisconsin reporter who was asked by the Gibraltar, Wisc., school board’s attorney to turn off her recorder at a board meeting continued to tape the session, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

“The board can make a decision down the road if the board would like to tape sessions and that may be something that you’d like to have the board consider, but this is a reporter, and at this point I’m just going to ask that she please remove that from the table,” the attorney said.

Others in the audience backed up the reporter’s right to record.

And in Huntsville, Ala., in 2016, a security official asked a woman livestreaming the district’s school board meeting on Facebook to first sit down and, when she refused, to leave. The school’s spokesperson told AL.com that he was asking the woman to sit down, not to stop recording. This followed a similar incident in 2012 where a school security officer prevented a parent from recording a video.

In a response earlier this week, Education Week Teacher opinion blogger Christina Torres added her two cents about Hargrave’s arrest: “The real purpose of education is not about making any [of] us comfortable, compliant, or silent,” she wrote. “If administrators and policymakers want educators to teach ‘critical thinking skills’ to our students, shouldn’t we, as teachers, also be able to critically think and question the system as well?”

Librarian Holly Peele contributed to this story.

Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.