A committed teacher loses out to the system

Published March 28, 1999|Updated Sept. 29, 2005

One of the reasons floated as to why some African-American students aren't motivated in school is because the curriculum doesn't speak to them or their community. But when an award-winning white teacher in a nearly all-black school in St. Louis attempted to inspire her students by allowing them to bring their own voices and life experiences into the classroom, the administration retaliated by getting rid of her.

The story of what happened to teacher Cecilia Lacks is one of censorship, reverse discrimination and the denial of due process and academic freedom. But most important, it's an object lesson for caring, committed, innovative teachers that says: Don't be.

Lacks spent most of her 25 years as an English, social studies, journalism and photography teacher in a majority-white St. Louis-area public school. After finishing a doctorate in American studies, she was transferred to the 98-percent black Berkeley High School in 1992.

Lacks admits that her first year at the school was rocky. She didn't feel she was connecting with her students, so she looked for ways to change her curriculum to reflect the African-American experience. So, in addition to Hamlet and other usual classics, she introduced Fences, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by African-American author August Wilson, and the movies Mississippi Burning and Boyz 'N the Hood.

From the accounts of past students, Lacks was one of those once-in-a-lifetime teachers who inspire their students to reach beyond the limits of their environment. Her Berkeley students especially adored her and likened her to a "mother" because of her concern for their education and welfare. When she came to Berkeley, she noted that the students had no way to express themselves creatively. There was no student newspaper, so she started one, as well as a literary journal.

But it was Lacks' interest in getting her students to write about what they know and have witnessed that got her into trouble.

As part of a creative writing lesson about dramatic dialogue, Lacks assigned her students to write a script and "use dialogue natural to the characters you're creating." It was an exercise she had used throughout her teaching career. The results at Berkeley were plays performed in class about drugs, sexuality and gangs, using street language peppered with profanities. The scenes mirrored the tough, ghettoized lives of the students who wrote them. Lacks explained why such creative freedom was necessary in Education Week: "If I censor their first (work), then I don't get to that last good one."

After viewing a video of the performances, Lacks' principal, Vernon Mitchell, who is black and according to some accounts had a distaste for white teachers, suspended her for allowing students to break a rule against using profanity. Although no student was punished, Mitchell berated one student for "acting a fool" and letting white people tape it.

Until Lacks, no one could remember a time when the profanity rule had been enforced against a teacher. In fact, a few years earlier, Sharita Kyles, a black teacher at Berkeley, had produced a student play titled How You Living that included many of the sexual and violent themes and some of the language used by Lacks' students, only more graphically presented. Principal Mitchell had responded very differently to Kyles, publicly thanking her and her students for the production.

After a five-day hearing on Lacks, the School Board voted to fire her even though she was less than four years away from a full pension. To salvage her career, Lacks sued and won. A federal judge ruled that she had not been given sufficient notice that vulgarities in student projects violated district policy, and ordered her reinstated. A jury awarded her $500,000 because her First Amendment rights were violated and another $250,000 because she was discriminated against on the basis of race. The jury said that Lacks would not have been fired if she hadn't been white, and it found Lacks had a legitimate pedagogic reason for allowing profanity to be used in creative writing.

When she got to the appeals court, however, something went terribly wrong.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit reversed her victory. The court said that the district could summarily fire Lacks for violating the profanity policy, implying that both her tenure and academic freedom were meaningless.

Lacks' case is a tragedy on so many levels. She was one of those concerned, enthusiastic, engaging teachers that inner-city schools need desperately, yet the administration was too racist, rigid and parochial to care. As for academic freedom, it seems there isn't any anymore. When Lacks appealed to the Supreme Court, with the support of more than a dozen free speech organizations, the court turned the case away without comment this month.

In recent years, the court has steered clear of cases that pit the innovations of schoolteachers against the closed minds of administrators. No longer is the Supreme Court willing to stand up for the "breathing room" teachers need to encourage classroom discussions and the exploration of ideas. The court won't even go so far as to ensure veteran teachers are given notice of potentially problematic classroom techniques.

A dissenting 8th Circuit judge warned of the consequences of such court deference to school administrations: "When good educators are scared away or driven from our schools because they cannot trust the system to treat them honestly and fairly, we are all affected, most especially our children."