(Update: teachers rally in protest)
A Louisiana teacher handcuffed and arrested after questioning school board members about the superintendent’s raise will not be prosecuted, but she demanded an apology Thursday, saying her First Amendment rights had been violated. The episode, which drew national attention, has led to death threats against the district school chief and “cast a negative light” on the state, the governor lamented.
Deyshia Hargrave, a fifth- and sixth-grade English language-arts teacher at Rene Rost Middle School in Kaplan, La., was taken into custody Monday night at a meeting of the Vermilion Parish School Board after she asked why Superintendent Jerome Puyau was getting a nearly $40,000 raise when teachers had not received a pay increase in years.
A video of the meeting by a crew from KATC-TV shows a city marshal ordering Hargrave to leave — at one point putting his hands on her — and then, in the hallway, handcuffing her while she was on the ground. He arrested her and put her into a police vehicle, the video shows. She was booked into jail but released, and authorities said she will not be prosecuted.
But that isn’t the end of the incident, which was seen around the globe after the video went viral on social and mainstream media.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said on his statewide radio show that he doesn’t believe Hargrave should have been arrested and that he was alerted to the arrest by his wife, Donna Edwards, who was a music teacher. The governor said his wife told him she was “personally offended.” He also said:
“I know there is going to be an investigation, but that was terribly unfortunate. It should not have happened and it cast a negative light on our state and, you know, it’s very regrettable.”
Puyau told the Daily Advertiser newspaper that he, his family and others in the school system had received death threats. School board offices were closed briefly a day after the meeting.
The Louisiana Association of Educators and Vermilion Association of Educators called a protest march Thursday, at which hundreds of teachers turned up, many of them wearing black. The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana said the episode raised serious constitutional questions and that it was investigating.
In a video posted by the Louisiana Association of Educators on its Facebook page (you can watch it above, where I posted it with permission from the association), Hargrave said in part:
“My voice was silenced. By silencing my voice they have also taken away — or tried to take away — my First Amendment rights to speak and I am appalled at this and you should be, too.
“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. This particular issue directly involved me, directly involved my students, my fellow educators, support staff, cafeteria workers, citizens outside of the school system even. So I chose to speak out.
“I’m hoping that you choose to speak out after seeing what happened to me and you don’t let it become an intimidation to you. . . . So please don’t let the conversation end with me. Go to your school board meetings. . . . Be vocal.”
Hargrave told NBC News she is owed an apology from the marshal who arrested her and from the superintendent. “I was seriously panicked,” she said. “I’ve never been handcuffed in my life.”
Hargrave has been working with an attorney from the Louisiana Association of Educators on possible legal action. The ACLU issued a statement from Jane Johnson, the interim executive director, who said Hargrave’s expulsion and arrest “are unacceptable and raise serious constitutional concerns.”
“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,” she said. “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.”
During Monday’s meeting, at which the board was voting on the superintendent’s raise, Hargrave was called on to speak by the board’s president, Anthony Fontana. She asked board members why they were raising the superintendent’s pay — which was about $110,000 before the raise was approved at the meeting — when teachers had not received a raise for years. She said:
“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. . . . It’s a sad, sad day to be a teacher in Vermilion Parish.”
Her comments about the raise were ruled out of order by Fontana, who said Hargrave could not ask questions and expect answers during the public comment period. She sat down and the meeting went forward.
Hargrave was called upon a second time for comment. Again, she asked board members how they could raise the superintendent’s salary when teachers and students did the work in the classroom and teachers were not getting pay increases.
Then, a security officer from the marshal’s office in Abbeville, La., walked up and asked Hargrave repeatedly to leave. They argued and at one point, the officer put his hand on Hargrave’s arm. She pulled back and soon left.
The video does not show what happened immediately after the two got into the hallway, but Hargrave can be seen on the floor, being handcuffed. Fontana said in an interview he saw Hargrave start a scuffle with the marshal. Asked how he saw that, he said he had left his seat at the front of the room to see what happened.
Hargrave was then arrested, and, according to KATC, booked into the city jail on charges that included resisting an officer. She paid bond and left, and was back in school teaching the next day.