Principals strike back, file federal suit alleging “conspiracy” to silence critics of “One Newark”

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Dorothy Handfield, H. Grady James and Tony Motley speak Jan. 15. Photo by Black Snow
Dorothy Handfield, H. Grady James and Tony Motley speak Jan. 15. Photo by Black Snow

The five Newark school principals and one parent leader punished by state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson for speaking out against her plan for closing public schools have filed suit against her and the school district in federal court, contending their First Amendment rights were violated and they were subjected to “public ridicule and scorn.”

“By their action in suspending the Plaintiffs from their respective school principal positions with the District, the Defendants have launched a concerted effort to undermine, intimidate and coerce employees of the District, including the Plaintiffs, and members of the public…into agreeing with them on all issues related to any proposed organization plan of the school district,” reads the complaint filed Friday in federal court in Newark.

Daryn Martin at the front door of Ivy Hill--but he can't come in
Daryn Martin at the front door of Ivy Hill–but he can’t come in

West Orange attorney Robert Pickett, the former counsel to the Newark school board, filed the suit in behalf of H. Grady James, principal of Hawthorne Avenue School; Tony Motley, Bragaw Avenue School;  Dorothy Handfield, Belmont-Runyon School; Deneen Washington, Maple Avenue School and Lisa Brown, Ivy Hill School.

The complaint also asks the court to lift the ban imposed on Daryn Martin, the president of the Ivy Hill PTO, who has been forbidden to enter the school attended by his two children and all other Newark school facilities. The ban was imposed after he tried to stop central office administrators Tiffany Hardrick and Gary Beidleman from tearing down notices of a PTO meeting at the school.  Brown was suspended for supporting Martin.

Dorothy Handfield
Dorothy Handfield

The actions of Anderson and the school district, the suit alleges, “were maliciously and intentionally designed to deprive Plaintiffs Martin and Brown of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and to expose them to public ridicule and scorn and injure their reputation and character.”

While the lawsuit asks for money damages for the plaintiffs, it also seeks a “declaratory” judgment that Anderson’s actions were unconstitutional because they violated the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of her critics. It wants the suspensions reversed and their personnel records cleared.

“It’s important to send a message to the state school administration that it cannot suppress the First Amendment rights of their employees if they responsibly raise questions about  matters of great public concern,’’ said Pickett after filing the lawsuit.

“It also is important to send a message to school employees that they should not be afraid to speak out—they have a right to express their opinions about public issues like ‘One Newark.’”

Tony Motley
Tony Motley

James, Motley, Handfield, and Washington were suspended from their jobs barely 36 hours after they spoke at a community forum at Hopewell Baptist Church called to discuss the implications of the “One Newark” plan that would close, transfer to charters, or otherwise “repurpose” more than a third of the city’s public schools.

The letters they received contended they were under “investigation” for an their involvement in an “incident” that occurred Jan. 15, 2014—which happens to be Rev. Martin Luther King’s Birthday. The only “incident” occurring that day involving the four was the community forum. The incident involving Martin also occurred that day.

Despite the obvious connection to the forum, the district denied the suspensions had anything to do with their criticism of the “One Newark” plan. The district’s spokesman would not specify why the principals were suspended, citing confidentiality of personnel matters.

Lisa Brown
Lisa Brown

After a hurried “investigation”—that involved central office administrators talking to small numbers of teachers and parents—all five principals were told Thursday night they had been taken off suspension.  Brown and Washington were reassigned to central office but the three others were returned to their schools.

The five were notified of their reinstatement just hours before Pickett was scheduled to file their lawsuit, leading to speculation that Anderson was trying to end the crisis she caused before the principals could get to court. Pickett said he originally sought to have the court restore the principals’ jobs but had to modify the law suit after they were reinstated.

The rushed nature of the alleged investigation also could account for why, in the midst of a snow emergency, Anderson kept Newark’s public schools open  last Wednesday despite the closing of all other schools in Essex and neighboring counties, including Newark’s charter schools. Central office administrators would not have been able to interview teachers until they were in school.

Deneen Washington
Deneen Washington

The principals’ suit calls Anderson’s actions “totally arbitrary and capricious” and the result of “conspiratorial activities of the Defendants who were and are intent on silencing the Plaintiffs, other district employees, parents and students and ordinary citizens and residents of the District, from speaking out on issues of public concern and importance.”

The litigation also notes that the letter suspending the educators  suggested they “had done something wrong based on an unnamed or unidentified ‘incident.’”  Anderson’s behavior, the complaint argued, caused “emotional distress and embarrassment,” entitling the plaintiffs to “compensation.’’

A seventh person caught up in the effort to silence critics of the “One Newark” plan has not yet joined the lawsuit. Jacqueline Bostic, a central office clerk,  was suspended after she allegedly criticized the plan on a cell phone during a bathroom break.

 

22 comments

  1. joe smith

    i love foreshadowing..
    “It also is important to send a message to school employees that they should not be afraid to speak out—they have a right to express their opinions about public issues like ‘One Newark.’”

  2. Josephine Paige

    I am sooooooo hapy that they took this action. Although I am a resident of Jersey City I know that without some legal action JC superintendent all these Christie/Cerf superintendents will follow suit. Good luck to the Newark 7!

  3. Jeff Ballin

    This entire incident stems from the trickle down bully effect emanating form the Governor’s office on down.

  4. Irene Sterling

    Do they need help with legal costs? They should not have to bear the expense of this by themselves.

    Bob Braun: Good question. I’ll try to find out.

  5. Nik

    Maybe we need to call in some more help like Al Sharpton and the social action network. The whole city protesting can’t be silenced.

    • Tony

      Sharpton and other black groups have dropped the ball. They should have mobilized a long time ago. (California, Arizona, new Orleans, Chicago) The charter movement as well as the reform movement has long been nothing shirt of racist policy whose effects will be felt in the coming generations.
      School closures affects black students and black teachers disproportionately. However sharpton and other minority leaders have been parading with republicans advocating for a change which meant charter. As a Latino I am angered to see so many of our people making a choice to affect change rather than make money by becoming teachers. Unfortunately, Even as we succeed a well funded political machine attacks our efforts in what a time when it is really our turn to educated our people. Every group has had their Chance to educate their children and those in poverty. How funny though when blacks and Latinos begin to teach and push through the administrative ceiling we lack the expertise, and are asked to leave. Moreover, now that I finally see some gains like parity like smaller class size there is a push for charters which eliminate our students rights. I’m just wondering where all these rich people were when I as so many were in newark schools when there were no teachers, racism, no books, delinquency ? ? ?

  6. Tamob

    What’s happening in Newark definitely needs national attention. It is the privatizing of public schools, which won’t stop in Newark if it is allowed to continue. Here is a video that was produced to get the message out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vsm0Jccwb_U&feature=youtube_gdata_player
    It’s time the Newark community bands together and stops allowing outsiders to dictate what happens to their schools and letting corporate interests destroy their neighborhoods.

  7. connie

    It is thuggery on the executive level. Shame on them and shame on us for letting Anderson and her cronies intimidate us like she has, and will continue to do, if we do stop them. I love my kids… I look at their faces every Monday through Friday and say, “You are my saving Grace”, because they are the only reason I still come in every morning, other than the fact that I need to work. But I could do something else, however I don’t want to. I love teaching. This the only job I had that lasted more than two years, besides my volunteer job (that happens to be a teaching position also).

    I just don’t get it. They fired Sup. Campbell for misappropriation and not having the children of Newark interest in mind. Brought in Beverly Hall all she did was put toilet paper in the buildings and send yellow buses to the school to see what we were doing. She is now facing a prison sentence for fudging test score. Then we had a little light with Marion Bolden, a teacher’s Sup. But the state didn’t like her. So they forced her into retirement and entered Janie, the sup. who’s claim to fame is that he was fired from the last two sup. positions he had and he introduce Newark to Read 180. He was a joke so bye bye and now Cami Anderson, Corey’s campaign manager. (He lost that election, but hire her to run the largest school district in New Jersey). When is enough, enough. Pack in up State Control…give Newark Public Schools back to Newark. Sorry for going on so… just had to vent.

  8. Kelly

    I applaud the administrators for speaking up in the midst of fear and uncertainty. They are true educational leaders who are not afraid to go against the status quo and ask the questions that need answers. This sets a precedent for many NPS employees to speak up when it comes to the welfare of our students and our city. It doesn’t matter which ward you come from or work in, we are one district, we are united and we will save our schools.

  9. Becca Field

    In Los Angeles there is a lawsuit being ‘brought by students’ (funded and pushed by millionaire deformers) claiming tenure and other parts of the contract inhibit getting rid of bad teachers easily enough and therefore harm their education.

    As these Newark educators stand up for their rights, they are defending public education. They need to know we support them as do the teachers in Los Angeles.

  10. Tina

    It all leads back to Kipp and Teach for America. Every city that is being pushed into charter schools has superintendants or directors that are associated with Teach for America. Cami Anderson is tge former executive director of Teach for America. The person handling Newark’s donatiin from Mark Zuckerberg is a former national director of Teach for America. That money was suppose to go to public schools but where is it? They are holding onto it so Newark public schools can not succeed so they can be shut down and replaced by charter schools. And which charter schools will have first dibs on opening? KIPP. Why? Because Teach for America has very close ties with KIPP. Kipp hires mostly graduates of Teach for America.

  11. Tamob

    It’s only happening in poor, urban districts. The suburban districts carry too much political weight for the corporate interests to start invading their school districts. Power to the People!!! Continue speaking up Newark!

  12. Harold Hooper

    We who live in the urban cities expect someone else to teach our children. We also are relying on traitors (al sharpton) to come to our aid. We have to teach our gangs to make honest money. Get Marva Collins and others to train our teachers. Have high expectation for our children and a dress code. If this situation do not cause us to unify then God have Mercy on our souls.

  13. Kimi Wei

    This is a great move. Congratulations to the suit filers for acting to protect their constitutional rights. I’m inspired and full of hope for their success!

  14. Nick Michelli

    Wonderfull!!! We have seen what the absence of free speech can do in France. Congratulations and more power to all of you. You are the hope for education in this country to fulfill our obligation in a democracy.

  15. Having my say

    Camden and Newark teachers, parents and community should join together and fight closing public schools in order to redistribute public funds to the political elite and their freinds.

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