The Teacher’s Nightmare: Getting Fired for Good Teaching
from the English Journal, February 1997
Dr. Cissy Lacks is a highly praised and award-winning language arts teacher who taught at Berkeley High School in the Ferguson-Florissant School district in St. Louis County, Missouri. She has taught for almost 30 years, 25 in Ferguson-Florissant.
In October 1994, Lacks’ eleventh-grade language arts students wrote and videotaped a drama exercise which included street language. Three months later, the principal of Berkeley High School heard about the exercise. The next day Lacks was suspended by the school district. After a public hearing in March 1995, she was fired by the Ferguson-Florissant School Board.
Lacks appealed. In September 1996, Judge Catherine Perry in the federal district court of St. Louis reversed the decision of the Ferguson-Florissant School Board and ordered Lacks reinstated with restitution of back pay and legal fees. In addition, Lacks filed suit against the school district for abridgement of her First Amendment rights and for discrimination. In testimony at her trial, NCTE Executive Director Miles Meyers appeared as an expert witness.
In 1996 Lacks was given the $25,000 PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award. After receiving this award, an editorial in the St. Louis Post Dispatch praised Lacks and noted that her court fight “should also give other teachers the courage to battle censorship, and rein in school officials who fear the power of words” (April 26, 1996).
At the conclusion of Lacks’ trial on November 21, 1996, the jury ruled in her favor and awarded her a total of $750,000. The $250,000 award was for her discrimination claim, finding that white Lacks had used standard and acceptable teaching methods with her African American students and that other African American teachers used similar teaching methods without punishment. The $500,000 award was made for Lacks’ constitutional and academic freedom claim that her First Amendment rights were violated. Judge Perry also awarded Lacks approximately $76,000, representing back pay from the date Lacks was fired through the end of her trial.
Cissy Lacks’ case, however is not over: claiming an imperative “to protect the children,” the Ferguson-Florissant School District announced in mid-December 1996 that it will appeal both the verdict and the monetary award. Accordingly, Lacks’ job status and award are still pending.
I told my attorney the legacy you create for me and for all teachers must be the right one. I don’t want my name to be associated with the case that struck fear in the hearts and minds of every teacher. And certainly, I don’t want self-censorship to take place because teachers do it themselves out of fear. I want a strong statement to be made for academic freedom and teachers’ rights to teach because those practices make for good education.