quote:Are Outspoken, Black Teachers a Threat?
Teacher Alleges Abuse from School District
(NOTE: A version of this article appeared in the Dec. 8 Denver Weekly News)
AURORA, CO - The Aurora Public School (APS) System is guilty of harassment and discrimination according to a long-time teacher and a supportive representative of the Aurora NAACP. Jacqueline Sowell taught physical education at Central High School for 17 years before being forced to become the instructor of a health course this year. No longer allowed to guide students in course plans based on her area of specialty and in a gym setting, she now finds herself teaching in a former auto-mechanics garage where snow removal and other motor operated equipment are stored; "classrooms" are not separated by walls but curtains or medium-height partitions reinforced by inverted tables and desks; an ROTC drill team can be heard practicing a few feet away; students serving in-school suspension time meet nearby and cause further disruption; and near chaos reigns rather than an orderly and educationally conducive environment.
Sowell, who began teaching 23 years ago fresh out of the University of Northern Colorado, said her troubles began in 2000 but worsened to the point of her first suspension in 2003 stemming from a male student's accusation that she threatened him. The 45-year-old teacher maintains the allegation was false and also unreasonable considering the student was over six feet tall and on the school's basketball team. The athlete may have found little need to attend gym class because his instructor noticed his poor attendance and confronted him about it in front of a witness.
Sowell recalls that the young man cursed and threatened her before reporting the incident to the athletic director. As a veteran teacher, the physical education specialist was certain she had handled the situation professionally and with tact but was surprised when told she had broken the law by threatening the student, pulling him to the side and not informing administration of the issue. She was not allowed to defend herself or present the witness of the encounter. After five days being out of work, APS administrators issued a letter of reprimand and she was fined two days pay. She expressed her disagreement with the decision in, what she believes, was a professional, yet bold, manner and wonders if that caused administrators to be intimidated by her.
Meanwhile, the student began spreading rumors about Sowell's sexuality, which she found to be a form of sexual harassment that APS did nothing about despite her repeated complaints and requests that the student be reprimanded.
The following year, a female student began spreading similar rumors and accusing Sowell of a number of offenses which the instructor adamantly denied. Sowell said she repeatedly reported the student, as she had previously been told was the correct procedure, and requested the teen be removed from her class. The young student, Sowell claims, even took the rumors to an assistant vice principal who did nothing to address the inappropriate behavior and opted instead to take the student's side after which time, Sowell was again suspended, for not following a "directive" and was fined 10 days pay. Her suspension ran from March 2005 through the end of the school year.
Sowell said that after many exchanges with the assistant vice principal, she took her complaints to her teacher's union representative, then on to the human resource manager for the school district, then to the assistant superintendent, and finally all the way to the superintendent of schools, yet no one addressed her concerns about being sexually harassed and discriminated against.
In the fall of 2004, she had taken her grievance to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and later received approval to pursue a lawsuit against the district for discrimination and the sexual harassment charge. Her complaint alleged that she was being treated by a different set of rules than her White counterparts, some of whom she had witnessed cursing students, or physically handling them - things she said she never did - yet those teachers and administrators were never fined, reprimanded or suspended.
After her second suspension, she returned to the school for the start of the 2005-06 school year, prepared to make the best of being forced from her specialty into a subject she was unfamiliar with and had been denied training in. At the first teacher assembly, she recalled being marched out of that meeting - in front of all teaching staff - and being told to again leave the premises under suspension, this time for making "lewd" comments to an administrator, or allegedly calling the official a "coward." She was fined 15 days pay and only returned from the punishment in early October.
The dedicated educator is firm in her view that APS has never given justification for her repeated suspensions; has never shown that the "directives" she has been accused of violating are found in any district manuals, policies or even in her employment contract; and no one has been able to explain to her where the money deducted from her paychecks for fines has gone.
"If you are taking thousands of dollars, it better be written somewhere, "she said recently at the local NAACP office located a few blocks from the school. John Marshall, State Legal Redress Chair for the organization, was by her side and said it is undeniable that she has been the victim of unjust treatment and in his investigation, said he had interviewed 15 of her co-workers, none of whom condone the way she has been treated by APS officials. "We know she is being treated differently," he said. "It is our belief that she is being discriminated against."
Encounter with Dishonest Activist
Sowell sought assistance from the civil rights group in late September when she was at her wits end and after having spent thousands of dollars on consultation fees for various lawyers none of whom felt her case was worth the time or money she would have had to invest. In her vulnerability, she also paid over $1000 to a Denver civil rights activist a friend referred to her but who did little to help her cause. She signed a contract to retain the outspoken activist's services after he convincingly told her of his "expertise." Unfortunately, she had to terminate the contract after two weeks when friends informed her the activist's own legal troubles were the subject of newspaper articles and newscasts.
"He was not honest with me, he never told me about his legal issues" she said. "What he did was wrong. He made a lot of promises that he could not keep because he was in jail or court." She described the man as "headstrong" and said he became very upset when she informed him that she was terminating the contract.
After the experience, in addition to the series of other discouraging events, Sowell had thoughts of giving up completely but decided that she would not allow negative forces to break her spirit. She said APS made it clear how they felt about her in seemingly wanting to put the "Negro in the garage, demean her, take her professional dignity and break her spirit." She asserts that she was used as an example for other teachers as to what would happen if they got out of line with administration. Apparently the tactic is working because she finds that teachers who used to be friendly with her now barely acknowledge her presence or speak to her.
Loved By her Students
Sowell proudly boasts that 99% of her students have a favorable view of her, enjoy her classes and have great respect for her which may be another reason some view her as a threat.
"My rapport with students is to be reckoned with and that could be another reason why administration has a problem with me," she said. "I am able to do what they cannot do with students, in a proper way. They have to yell and scream [but] I can speak to them and get them to do what is right and acceptable."
She is confident that she is a positive and necessary role model for the demographic of students at the school and credits prayer and her Christian faith for helping her be able to withstand all that has occurred over the past few years.
One of her students voiced strong support for his favorite teacher.
"She's a wonderful [physical education] teacher and that's what she does best," the junior said. "She is the best teacher I have had at Central [because of] her teaching skills. She is kind with kids and pushes them to their max so they can do their best and achieve their goals."
The 17-year-old started a petition to get her back into her specialty and has thus far obtained over 100 signatures and plans to continue the effort until Sowell is reinstated to what he believes is her rightful place in the physical education class. He is slated to take that course next year but says he will not if Sowell is not going to be the instructor.
The Struggle Continues
Sowell plans to continue the fight but said she still goes to work every day with a smile on her face and giving her best professionally. She has spent many hours, especially during her last suspension, contemplating what motivates others to work in opposition to her.
"I spent sleepless nights trying to figure out how so-called human beings could treat another as cruelly and inhumanely as they have treated me and for no reason," she said. "I think [APS administrators] systematically made an attempt to destroy my career, professional dignity and my life and that is really sick."
In response, APS spokesperson, Georgia Duran, said she was not at liberty to discuss Sowell's specific personnel matters but added that the district maintains the instructor has been treated equitably.
"When we have employees who express any type of concern about treatment, we look into it fully and believe we respond fairly," she said. She went on to say that because of the over enrollment at Central High and the resulting large student body, "nearly all" teachers at the school are teaching in areas for which they "are not qualified." She said other teachers trained in physical education are teaching health courses as Sowell is and that they do meet state requirements in regards to appropriate training.
The converted auto mechanics garage is a building other teachers, from various specialties, have used in past years, Duran said, while adding that she did not know why Sowell was transferred from her area of expertise but suggested it was to fill a teaching need. "Our perspective is that we have teachers in the appropriate place. They are qualified to be teaching in those particular subject matters," she said.
- Adeeba Folami -