Lillian White knew she was taking a risk by reporting for the start of a new school year wearing one of the several Black Lives Matter face masks she’d made after attending a protest over the summer. But it was a risk worth taking, the art teacher reasoned, given the cultural recalibration that was now underway. As she settled back into work for what would be her ninth year of teaching, however, she began to let her guard down, reassured by compliments she received from some colleagues. (No students saw her masks, as classes weren’t scheduled to start until August; in the meantime, teachers and other staff had returned in July to undergo training and set up their classrooms.)
As it turned out, it was a false sense of security. After about a week and a half of being back on campus at Great Hearts Western Hills, a public charter school in San Antonio, Texas, White was told her mask was against school policy. While Great Hearts did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment, co-founder and superintendent Daniel Scoggin told CNN that its schools had “enacted, in this unprecedented pandemic environment, a policy that face coverings have no external messages.”
Scoggin added, “We stand with the Black community and all who are suffering. Great Hearts deplores bigotry and its crushing effects on all those subjected to it. Great Hearts is committed to an America where racism, violence, and injustice do not happen, because such acts find no home in the hearts of a great people.”
White disputes this policy regarding masks, claiming that other staff members wore coverings with sports team logos and other messages. She maintains that no guidance regarding masks was given in a meeting going over faculty dress code, and was only raised in response to her show of support for Black Lives Matter.
“They didn’t change anything until I told them I wouldn’t stop,” she tells Yahoo Life. Despite push-back from administrators, she refused to stop wearing her masks.
“I didn’t feel like it was even an option for me,” she says. “I thought about it, but if I compromise I’m not actually doing anything.”
After weeks of back-and-forth over the issue, White was fired — on a Saturday, and over email. On Sept. 5, she went out for a run and came back to find an email — “sent to my personal account, because they’d already locked me out of my school account before even telling me anything,” she says — notifying her of her termination.
In between interviews for new teaching jobs, White is now channeling her activism into demanding that Great Hearts Academies implement a charter-wide anti-racism curriculum and employee training; a petition she’s started has so far received more than 5,300 signatures. According to White, she’s received support from a few of her former students’ parents, some of whom she says have pulled their children from the school in frustration.
Not everyone agrees with her, however; White says she’s also received Facebook messages from “some parents saying, ‘Get away, you Marxist terrorist, stay off our campus and away from our kids.’” She remains undeterred.
“I’m not working there anymore, but they still need to change their curriculum,” she says. “They still need to be held accountable for getting some kind of diversity on campus and in their curriculum.”
While the National Education Association’s EdJustice initiative lists resources for introducing anti-racism curriculum to the classroom and cites several schools across the country who are committing to taking action, White isn’t the only teacher who has faced repercussions for showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement this school year.
Just last week, algebra teacher Nadine Cutler — who did not respond to an interview request — spoke out about being forced to resign from her job teaching at North Broward Preparatory School (NBPS) in Coconut Creek, Fla., over a Black Lives Matter flag hanging up in her classroom.
In a statement to parents, school administrators said, “We work diligently to create space and opportunity for dialogue around social, political and economic issues; however, we do not permit our teachers to promote their own political or social activist views in the classroom. When we engage with topics of this nature as a school, it is with the aim of providing students with the proper context and perspectives so they can critically analyze all sides and develop their individual positions.”
Some alumni from the middle school have rejected that stance, issuing a statement that reads: “We condemn that NBPS posits Black Lives Matter as a ‘side’ of a ‘debate,’ where ‘all sides’ should be ‘critically analyze[d].”’Does this mean that students are being presented with the other side — racism, including brutality at the hands of agents of the state — as a valid perspective to hold? Are students being taught both sides of the ‘debate’ over slavery? Both sides of the Civil Rights Movement? Human rights and respect for others should never be seen as a political issue.”
Several other incidents have made similar headlines, from a Georgia teacher receiving complaints about her virtual classroom’s Black Lives Matter poster to a New Hampshire substitute teacher fired last month for showing students what the principal called “very one-sided and very vulgar” clips from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver addressing police reform and Black Lives Matter. (“We’re certainly going to talk about controversial issues, but it needs to be presented in a very unbiased way,” Principal Justin Roy told a local news outlet.)
In some cases, the fallout has stemmed from parents and the public at large. In August, an English teacher at El Camino Real Charter High School in Los Angeles received threats and had to leave her home after a student’s father went public with his objections to the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt during an online class. Teachers showed their support for her by marching in protest and wearing their own Black Lives Matter shirts.
And in Oak Lawn, Ill., Richards High School teacher Rahaf Otham received abusive messages on social media after she posted a photo of the Black Lives Matter banner she planned to have as her background for classes over Zoom. Othman tells Yahoo Life that her school district “was extremely supportive throughout all of” the outcry. In a statement issued on the matter, Ty Harting, superintendent of schools for Community High School District 218, noted that, while a newly adopted policy insisted upon neutral or school logo backgrounds only, the district defended Otham’s right to share her views.
“We support our teacher and her support of the statement Black Lives Matter,” Harting wrote. “We are not referencing the BLM organization and we are not attaching ourselves to any political organization with our views. We are simply acknowledging that systemic racism exists in our world and that we will stand against it. Any threats toward this teacher or any staff member is wrong and will not be tolerated.”
The very first part of my classroom set up was my new flag, which will be my background for the Zoom sessions. pic.twitter.com/vGYlwipXlK— Ms. Othman (@mrsothman1) August 10, 2020
It was a Black Lives Matter poster hanging up in ninth-grade Advanced English teacher Taylor Lifka’s Bitmoji virtual classroom graphics that resulted in the Roma, Texas educator being placed on leave. Lifka tells Yahoo Life that the classroom graphics, which also feature Spanish-language and LGBTQ-supporting images, caught the attention of Marian Knowlton, a Republican candidate for the Texas House of Representatives. In an August Facebook post which has since been deleted, Knowlton blasted the image as an example of “leftist indoctrination” containing “propaganda promoting radical Marxist movements” — at which point, on Aug. 22, Lifka says she was told by her assistant principal at Roma High School to take the posters down because their small border town “wasn’t ready for these ideas.” When Lifka refused, she was placed on administrative leave.
“The posters in the classroom allow all students to feel welcome, safe and affirmed,” she tells Yahoo Life of her refusal to remove the images. “This isn’t political; it’s morally right, and if our mission statement says we believe in the identity and safety of all students, then affirming them in our classroom space should not be controversial, but rather required.”
Lifka’s punishment sparked outcry in her community and beyond. After a petition calling for her to be reinstated drew more than 44,000 signatures, she was allowed to resume teaching and says her Google Classroom background, and the posters it features, will stay put for the rest of the year. All told, she was on leave for a week and took a second week as personal leave to “navigate the aftermath” of the high-profile situation.
Though she admits at times feeling “alone in this fight,” Lifka is drawing inspiration from the students who had her back. She’s also hopeful that Roma Independent School District will follow through on its pledge to create an anti-racism policy and implement guidelines for students and staff that support tolerance and inclusivity.
“As always, I believe that Black Lives Matter,” she says. “I believe in safe and affirming spaces for my LGBTQ+ students. I believe that no woman should ever apologize for being loud and strong. I believe in the lives of my undocumented students, and there is no room for compromise on validating our individual identities for what they are worth: everything.”
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