LACKS WINS $750,000 AWARD IN JURY TRIAL
November 21, 1996
(This jury decision was overturned by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.)
Dr. Cissy Lacks, an award-winning veteran teacher of cross-cultural education and creative writing in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, has won a second-round court victory in her legal fight to regain her tenured teaching position at Berkeley High School.
After almost six hours of deliberation, a jury in federal district court ruled on November 18 that Lacks' First Amendment rights had been violated and that her termination was motivated by unlawful racial considerations. The jury made the following findings:
1. That Cissy Lacks did not have reasonable notice that allowing students to use profanity in their creative writing was prohibited.
2. That the Ferguson-Florissant School District did not have a legitimate academic interest in prohibiting profanity by students in their in-class creative writing, regardless of other competing interests; and
3. That race was a motivating factor in the school district's decision to terminate Lacks.
The jury awarded Lacks $500,000 on her First Amendment claim and $250,000 on her racial discrimination claim. Lisa Van Amburg and MNEA General Counsel Charles A. Werner represented Cissy in her court case. Her attorney's fees have been covered by MNEA's legal services program.
Lacks was fired in March of 1995 after a highly publicized school board hearing on charges that she, the teacher, had violated the student discipline code by allowing students in her English III class to read aloud in the classroom the plays they wrote in a drama unit and then to see themselves reading the scripts on videotape. After the students viewed various films and read Pulitzer prize-winning playwright August Wilson's Fences, they heard Wilson tell them, by video, that when they write dialogue, they should be sure it is natural to the characters they create for their plays.
Lacks gave the students an assignment to write their own plays about something important to them. She instructed the students to make sure the dialogue was natural to the characters they included in their plays. She allowed the students to read the dialogue they wrote aloud to the class, and did not censor the contents of the dialogue which included street language.
During her twenty-five years of teaching, Lacks has consistently and successfully encouraged writing fluency by informing the students that their creative writings would not be censored in the classroom and that she and her students would jointly decide whether their creative works would be published or shared with audiences outside the classroom. As her performance reviews over twenty-five years reflect, she has been commended by administrators for the supportive atmosphere she provides students. Yet suddenly, without warning, Lacks was terminated for allowing "profanity" in the classroom.
Earlier this year, on August 15, 1996, United States District Judge Catherine Perry ruled that the termination violated the Missouri Teacher Tenure Act because the Board of Education's decision that Lacks "willfully or persistently' violated [the student discipline code was] unsupported by competent and substantial evidence." The Judge ordered the school district to reinstate Cissy; to remove from her record any reference to the termination, and to pay her full back wages, lost retirement benefits and credits as well as attorneys' fees.
The Ferguson-Florissant school district sought and received a stay of the order of reinstatement pending its decision on whether to appeal. The district has not yet announced whether it would appeal the latest ruling against it.