Back to School

By Jeannette Batz, The Riverfront Times



The U.S. District Court orders the reinstatement of teacher Cissy Lacks. The adults involved in the dispute between teacher Cissy Lacks and the Ferguson-Florissant School District have racked up about $140,000 in legal fees over a distinction made far more easily by one of Lacks' students: "I didn't realize if you express yourself, you could get in trouble for that," he shrugs. "But I realize that if you are using profanity and doing other things in the hallway or any place else in the school, that you could get in trouble."

Lacks was fired from Berkeley High School 17 months ago - without warning and despite tenure - for allowing students to use profanity in creative-writing assignments. She sued in federal court. The school district defended its action, saying Lacks "willfully or persistently violated board policy." Last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Catherine D. Perry found that charge "unsupported by competent and substantial evidence." She ordered the district to reinstate Lacks with back pay and pay all related legal fees.

"This just confirms what we've been saying all along," remarks Lacks, relieved but unsurprised. "It's a beginning, and it means I'll be back in the classroom again. But now we're back to the same question we started with: If the truth is so obvious, why did this all happen?"

Why, in other words, did administrators fire a successful, respected teacher who adhered to the disciplinary code, kept order in her classroom and had solid educational reasons to refrain from censoring first drafts of creative, experiential writing? Establishing adherence to policy has cleared her own personnel record, Lacks says, but what's still missing is enough explanation to set other teachers' minds at rest.

In her lawsuit, Lacks not only challenged the district's allegation of "willfulness or persistence," but said she did not receive a fair hearing, the decision was unauthorized by law, and it was arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable, given the district's own academic„freedom policy. Convinced by the first challenge, the judge didn't even bother to address the other arguments. In her ruling, Perry pointed out that there was no consensus in the district on policy about profanity in creative writing or literature.

Neither teacher nor student was punished for the statement "I'll blow your damn head off" in a student play, for example. Dr. John Wright, assistant superintendent of the district, testified that he did not know whether a student reading profanity aloud from another author's work could be punished; the chair of Berkeley's English department had testified that she was unaware of any rule requiring teachers to censor profanity in creative works; other teachers and administrators reported no knowledge of any policy about profanity in literary works. A student journal contained the words "honkey" and "chink" and in it the student threatened to kill a white or Jew if provoked „„ Berkeley principal Vernon Mitchell read it and didn't bat an eye.

The judge ruled only on the school board's decision to terminate; Lacks also claims discrimination and violation of her First Amendment rights and her academic freedom. "We believe the district interfered with Cissy's academic freedom," explained Sally Barker, an attorney at Schuchat, Cook & Werner, which is representing Lacks as co„counsel with Lisa Van Amburg. "In addition, we believe the district unfairly penalized Cissy for speech that she had no notice was in violation of any rules. We also believe the district treated Cissy Lacks more severely for what she did because of her race, white." Because those questions involve evidence, they will be resolved at a jury trial scheduled to begin on Nov. 4. If the jury finds in Lacks' favor, they will determine damages.

Meanwhile, Ferguson-Florissant will be paying the legal bills they've already accrued - $70,000 thus far, according to district spokesperson Donna Corno - and their share of Lacks' legal bills, which could add up to a similar amount.

Peggy Cochran, executive director of the Missouri National Education Association, says the union has been writing the checks for Lacks' case - and for good reason: "For 21 years you're a great teacher, then the next day you are fired for the reasons you were great before - we just can't have that. Even if the district's values, or the community's values, (recommend) a change in policy, it's the district's responsibility to warn the people who are carrying it out."

Stan Scheer, superintendent of schools for Ferguson-Florissant, said the board would decide whether to appeal the summary judgement after a special session with legal counsel this week. "We certainly want to take a good look at our options," Scheer adds. "Because we still have options, too. Fortunately, in this country, a summary decision doesn't mean it's the court of last resort."

Obviously, Lacks won't return to her classroom until the trial concludes. But after everything that's happened, does she want to go back to Berkeley? "Oh, yes," she says readily. "I think I'll be received very well by the students and teachers." And the administration? "I hope I'm safe," she says wryly.