She’s No Rebel

Teacher at Center of Profanity Controversy Sees herself as Conformist
November, 24, 1996, by Tim Bryant, Post Dispatch

Cissy Lacks is tired of being called the “Profanity Queen.”


She is not some rebel bent on radically changing the way children learn. She is not trying to overthrow any school boards or even make any grand gestures.

Instead, Lacks’ supporters and family members say, she is a conformist at heart, who is more prone to uphold the rules than to break them.

Oh, and by the way, Lacks says she avoids profanity.

“It’s just not part of my language structure,” she said last week.

Profanity was at the heart of a lawsuit Lacks won against the Ferguson-Florissant School District, which employed her until last year as an English and journalism teacher at Berkeley High School.

A jury awarded Lacks $750,000 in damages related to her firing, her free-speech rights and her claim of race discrimination.

Her suit against the school district boiled down to this:

Berkeley High administrators seized upon a profanity-laced writing project by Lacks’ students to hustle her out of her job.

Berkeley’s principal, Vernon Mitchell, who is black, was upset that Lacks’ black students were allowed to “act a fool” while videotaping performances of their skits about gangs and street life. That whites videotaped the skits only made matters worse.

And the school district fired Lacks because it said that allowing students to use profanity in an assignment violates the student behavior code.

“I Thought I Was Respected”

Lacks, who is white, said in interviews last week that the ordeal took her by surprise.

“I thought that I was respected and people approved of what I was doing,” said the 25-year veteran teacher. “I thought people understood that my students were succeeding.”

Lacks said too much emphasis has been put on the student skits and its raw language and not enough attention went to her students’ progress.

“I didn’t believe it was ever about language,” Lacks said. “I think it was more about students making choices. I think it’s about . . . them not being allowed to control their lives.”