School board reports death threats after teacher's arrest

Louisiana school board reports death threats after teacher's arrest

Teachers will hold a rally Thursday afternoon in support of Deyshia Hargrave, the Louisiana teacher who was arrested Monday after speaking out at a school board meeting to vote on Superintendent Jerome Puyau’s new contract.

The board approved the new contract, 5-3, which includes a $38,000 raise for Puyau.

The rally is at 3:45 p.m. in Magdalen Square in Abbeville. All educators, parents and community members are invited, the Vermilion Association of Educators said on its official Facebook page in announcing the event.

“It is every citizen’s right to speak up for their beliefs," the statement said. "Any action that infringes upon this right is unlawful and unacceptable. Please join us as we stand together for our educators (teachers and support personnel) and our students!”

In a Wednesday morning KPEL radio interview, school board president Anthony Fontana repeated that Hargrave — who was 2015-16 teacher of the year at Rene A. Rost Middle School — was at fault.

“She’s a schoolteacher," Fontana said. "If a child gets up in her classroom and starts talking in the middle of class and she tells the child to sit down and the child doesn’t sit down, what does she do? She removes the child from the classroom and sends them to the principal’s office."

The comments are similar to ones Fontana made to The Daily Advertiser Tuesday evening.

“We have rules to follow,” Fontana continued in the KPEL interview. “We have to have orderly meetings, and if she can’t do that, she needs to be removed … She expects to have order in her classroom. If she comes to a board meeting, she has to expect to have order in the board meeting … All she had to do was sit down.”

Fontana added that he felt he allowed Hargrave to speak for more than the allotted three minutes, and only stopped her because she was discussing topics that he felt were not pertinent to the sole agenda item.

The Vermilion Parish School Board offices were temporarily locked down Tuesday amid death threats from across the world, Fontana said.

Fontana said the threats have come from as far away as South America, Australia and England, as well as other U.S. states. They have been reported to Vermilion Parish law enforcement and the FBI, Fontana said.

Fontana stands by the actions of an Abbeville City Marshal who first asked Hargrave to leave the meeting. Video shows the marshal escorting Hargrave from the meeting room. Hargrave is later seen on the hallway floor in handcuffs and being removed from the building by the marshal.

The marshal first approached Hargrave after Fontana banged his gavel and said her comments did not pertain to anything on the agenda. Shortly after, Puyau began speaking to Hargrave, but was cut off. The marshal then told Hargrave she needed to get her things and leave.

Hargrave, and others in the crowded meeting room, are heard asking why she is being taken away. On the floor, Hargrave is heard asking why she is being detained. The marshal then takes Hargrave outside in handcuffs. An Abbeville Police Department vehicle arrives a short time later, and Hargrave was placed in the vehicle.

In her comments, Hargrave disagreed with the board’s decision to give Puyau a raise, saying teachers and other employees have not received raises in several years.

Hargrave was booked into the Abbeville City Jail on charges of resisting an officer and remaining after being forbidden. She was later released on bond.

Abbeville city prosecutor Isaac Funderburk said Tuesday that he will not press charges against Hargrave.

“In response to the numerous requests for the teacher’s booking information, the Abbeville Police Department is cooperating as directed by law. The Abbeville Police Department did not arrest the teacher,” Funderburk said. “Due to the location of her arrest and the arresting agency’s jurisdiction, which includes the city limits of Abbeville, she was booked in and bonded from the local police department.”

City Marshal Jeremiah Bolden did not respond to multiple phone messages left Tuesday.

Fontana told The Daily Advertiser that the marshal acted appropriately and that he stands by him “100 percent.”

“His job is to make sure we have an orderly meeting,” Fontana said. “He knows what the law is. He knows what our policy is … The officer did exactly what he is supposed to do.”

The American Civil Liberties Union condemned Hargrave’s arrest.

“Deyshia Hargrave’s expulsion from a public meeting and subsequent arrest are unacceptable and raise serious constitutional concerns,” the ACLU said in a statement. “The Constitution prohibits the government from punishing or retaliating against people for expressing their views, and the fact that a schoolteacher was arrested at a public meeting of the school board is especially troubling.

“The ACLU of Louisiana will continue to investigate this incident and defend the constitutional rights of all Louisianans. We urge anyone whose rights have been violated to contact us.”

At least two board members claimed the board treats women unfairly.

Women have several times been told to leave meetings, while men who speak out have not been removed, board member Laura LeBeouf told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“When she realized she had to get out, she picked up her purse and walked out,” LeBeouf said. “Women in this parish are not getting the same treatment.”

The board’s other woman member expressed similar sentiments.

“No reason for anyone to be treated this way. So far in three years, only women have been removed from board room meetings,” Sara Duplechain wrote in an emailed response to AP’s questions.

Board President Fontana disagreed.

Fontana said he could recall two other times when a person was removed from a board meeting. One of the people is the husband of a board member, he said.

“This is not a women’s issue,” he said.

The Louisiana Association of Educators confirmed via its official Facebook page that Hargrave is a member of the group. LAE attorney Brian Blackwell is working closely with Hargrave.

“As an organization that advocates for the dedicated school employees of Louisiana, we firmly denounce the mistreatment of Ms. Hargrave, a loving parent and dedicated teacher serving the students of Vermilion Parish. It is every citizen’s right to speak up for their beliefs. Any action that infringes upon this right is unlawful and unacceptable,” the LAE said on its Facebook page. “We will continue to support the right of every single school employee to take an interest in, and ultimately stand up for, the best interests of their schools and their students.”

Hargrave teaches English Language Arts at Rene Rost Middle School in Kaplan. She was the school’s teacher of the year for the 2015-16 academic year.

According to the Louisiana Department of Education, Vermilion Parish teachers made an average of $47,041 per year in 2015-16. The Louisiana average for teachers was $48,462.

Puyau said Tuesday that his new contract pays him an annual salary of $148,811, which he said would put him at No. 32 out of 69 superintendents in Louisiana in terms of salary.

His previous salary was $110,130, Puyau said. He added that he had not received a raise since being named the permanent superintendent in January 2013.

“I have a serious issue with a superintendent or any person in a position of leadership getting any type of raise,” Hargrave said, according to video of the meeting. “I feel like it’s a slap in the face to all the teachers, cafeteria workers, any other support staff we have.

“We work very hard with very little to maintain the salaries that we have, and as I’ve been teaching the last few years, I’ve seen class sizes grow enormously … I just want to say, I don’t care if the performance targets were met. You’re making our jobs even more difficult and we’re jumping through hoops and we’re continuously meeting those goals.”

Puyau acknowledged that it has been several years since the parish’s teachers or other employees received a raise.

He plans to propose some changes to the school board in the coming months, however.

“We’re going to be presenting to the board a proposal on how we can increase the salary that we want to provide our teachers, but it’s going to take our community to support it,” Puyau said. “We have shown that we have taken the right steps. Our schools do very well, and our board agreed that I’m doing a good job. We have that stability, so now we have to move forward and increase the salary for our teachers.”

Longstanding divisions on the eight-member board preceded the meeting, according to LeBeouf and board member Kibbie Pillette. Pillette said he wouldn’t be surprised if teachers decide to walk out to protest Hargrave’s treatment, although they were at work Tuesday.

Other board members either declined comment or did not respond to queries Tuesday.

Despite the board divisions, Vermilion Parish has consistently been one of Louisiana’s top-rated public school districts. Last fall, the Louisiana Department of Education awarded it an ‘A’ grade and an overall score of 106.3, signaling high academic test scores among many of its students and schools. Twelve of its schools earned ‘A’ grades as well.

However, Puyau’s time as superintendent has not been without question. In May 2016, some board members publicly expressed concern about his management style, staffing, financial decisions and strategic planning.

Others, including Fontana, supported Puyau and claimed negative feedback about him was politically motivated.

MORE: Louisiana No. 40 in ranking of best states for teachers

Hargrave was not available for comment Tuesday. But on social media, several people expressed support for her and her comments.

“We don’t know each other, but you are an amazing young lady and its teachers like you who get things done AND hopefully changed,” one person wrote on Hargrave’s Facebook page.

Another person thanked Hargrave for speaking up in such a public way.

“Thank you for being the voice of all Louisiana teachers!,” the comment read. “Wish more teachers would be brave enough to voice their opinions! You are a blessing to your students and school.”

A petition started online Tuesday had garnered about 1,100 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.

In her comments before the board approved Puyau’s contract, Hargrave said many teachers had similar concerns, but were afraid to speak out because of Louisiana’s Act One law, which gives superintendents broad authority over personnel decisions.

“I feel like I’m speaking on behalf of more than just myself, more than just Kaplan teachers. I’m speaking as a group,” she said. “It’s, again, I’m going to use the word, absurd, that we’re even considering giving someone a raise when these teachers are working this hard and not getting a dime.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report

 

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2018. All Rights Reserved


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