Teacher Awaits Day in Court

Teacher Awaits Day in Court
By Matthew Rothschild

January 25, 2006

Deb Mayer was a teacher of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders at Clear Creek Elementary School in Bloomington, Indiana, during the 2002-2003 school year.

On January 10, 2003, she was leading a class discussion on an issue of “Time for Kids”—Time magazine’s school-age version, which the class usually discussed on Fridays and which is part of Clear Creek’s approved curriculum.

There were several articles in the magazine that discussed topics relating to the imminent war against Iraq, and one that mentioned a peace march.

According to Mayer, a student asked her if she would ever participate in such a march.

And Mayer said, “When I drive past the courthouse square and the demonstrators are picketing, I honk my horn for peace because their signs say, ‘Honk for peace.’ ” She added that she thought “it was important for people to seek out peaceful solutions to problems before going to war and that we train kids to be mediators on the playground so that they can seek out peaceful solutions to their own problems.”

Mayer claims in a pending federal lawsuit that the school chilled her First Amendment rights because of this one conversation in class, which she says took all of about five minutes, and that the school district refused to renew her contract because of it. (The quotes above are taken from court documents.)

I spoke with Mayer on January 24—more than three years after this incident took place.

“It didn’t dawn on me that people would object to me saying peace was an option to war,” she says. “I didn’t even think it was controversial.”

But it sure turned out to be.

“One student went home to tell her parents that I was encouraging people to protest the Iraq War,” she says. “The parents called the principal and demanded to have a conference. The dad was complaining that I was unpatriotic. He was very agitated. He kept raising out of his chair and pointing his finger at me and yelling, ‘What if you had a child in the service?’ I said, ‘I do have a child in the service.’ ”

At the time, one of Mayer’s sons was a naval nuclear engineer aboard the USS Nebraska, she says, adding that he’s now an officer in Afghanistan.

She told the parent, Mark Hahn, that her son also “doesn’t preclude peace as an option to war,” she recalls. “And that made him even angrier.”

At the end of the meeting, Hahn insisted that the principal, Victoria Rogers, make Mayer refrain from talking about peace again in the classroom. “I think she can do that,” Principal Rogers responded, according to Mayer’s deposition. “I think she can not mention peace in her class again.”

“I was just floored,” Mayer says, “but I said OK because we had a parent out of control, and I didn’t want to be insubordinate. I thought that would be the end of it.”

It wasn’t.

At the end of that day, Principal Rogers circulated a memo, entitled “Peace at Clear Creek,” that said: “We absolutely do not, as a school, promote any particular view on foreign policy related to the situation in Iraq.” And she cancelled the annual “peace month” that the school had been holding.

On February 7, 2003, Rogers also sent Mayer a letter telling her to “refrain from presenting your political views.”

Mayer and her lawyer, Michael Schultz, contend that this illegally infringed on Mayer’s First Amendment rights.

At the end of the spring semester, the school district did not renew Mayer’s contract, and she and Schultz allege that this was in retaliation for her political expression.

“This is a classic First Amendment free speech case,” says Schultz. “It involves, for the first time as far as I can tell, the right of a teacher to express an opinion in a classroom while teaching approved curriculum.”

The school district, the Monroe County Community School Corp., takes a different view.

While neither Principal Rogers nor anyone at the school district would respond to my phone calls because the case is pending, the district is mounting an aggressive legal defense. Represented by the law firm of Locke Reynolds in Indianapolis, the district is seeking summary judgment, asking the judge to throw out the case.

I called Heather Wilson, one of the Locke Reynolds attorneys on the case, but she would not comment, suggesting only that I examine the court documents.

“Ms. Mayer’s one-year contract was non-renewed after ongoing parent complaints about her and her teaching style, and five students being transferred out of Ms. Mayer’s classroom at the parents’ request,” says the brief for the school district. And it summons affidavits from parents finding fault with Mayer’s teaching style.

The brief does not deny the Iraq War discussion took place, or that the Hahns got upset by it. In fact, it acknowledges that Mayer was instructed to refrain from discussing her opinions on the war. But the brief says that during the parent conference on the subject, “according to Principal Rogers, Ms. Mayer was borderline unprofessional.” And it states further that the Hahns alleged that Mayer continued to talk about the war in class, a charge she denies.

The gist of the district’s case, as outlined in its brief, is this: “Ms. Mayer’s speech on the war was not the reason for her ultimate termination. Instead . . . the motivating factor for her termination was her poor classroom performance, the ongoing parental dissatisfaction, and the allegations of harassment and threats towards students.”

Schultz, in his court filing in response to the request for summary judgment, rebuts this argument. He says the affidavits about poor performance are pretexts. They “were signed in the summer of 2005, more than two years after Plaintiff’s termination. . . . Those alleged complaints about Ms. Mayer were not and could not have been relied on by Principal Rogers in making her decision to terminate Plaintiff’s contract with the school.” He also cites an evaluation that Mayer received that had praised her effusively.

Schultz says that Mayer deserves her day in court not only because of what he calls the “wrongful termination” but also because her First Amendment rights were violated.

Mayer says at one time the school district did offer to settle—for $2,500. She had already spent ten times that amount, so she refused it, she says. Plus, she wants to defend the free speech rights of teachers. “If the school prevails on this, teachers have no protected speech at school and can be fired for saying anything,” she says.

The case has cost Mayer dearly, she says. “I have lost my house, my income, my health insurance, my life savings, and my prospects for employment.”

If the judge does not grant summary judgment, the case will begin on March 6.