School District under Fire

The Alameda Sun received reports last week from parents and teachers about a pair of incidents that involved the Alameda Unified School District (AUSD). The first involved a memorandum sent to teachers on the heels of the Feb. 11 gas leak at Encinal High School (EHS). The second concerned the behavior of a substitute teacher at Lincoln Middle School two days later.

The Sun did not receive a copy of the memo about the gas leak, but teachers who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that AUSD’s missive instructed them in all capital letters capped off with an exclamation point that "no one is to speak with any reporters."

Audrey Hyman serves as president of the Alameda Education Association, the union that represents Alameda’s teachers. She said that the district should not bar its teachers from speaking to the press "as long as it doesn’t harm students or teachers."

According to the teacher who spoke to the Sun, the district was hoping to control which version of the gas leak got to the press. However, the Alameda Sun has never received any press release about the gas leak from AUSD.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shares Hyman’s opinion. "Teachers do not forfeit the right to comment publicly on matters of public importance simply because they accept a public school teaching position," ACLU states in an article on its website.

"A teacher’s off-campus statements regarding the war or participation in an off-campus political demonstration are not acceptable bases for job discipline or termination."

The memo cautioned teachers not to speak to the media about something more mundane than war or political demonstrations — a gas leak at the school. According to AUSD spokesperson Susan Davis, the gas-leak caveat did not come from the district; it came from the principal.

Davis said that EHS administrators sent the memo, asking that teachers and staff not speak to the press. "As a general rule, we do ask that teachers let district administrators talk to the media about an urgent matter such as this one," Davis said. "(This concerned) public safety and we want(ed) to make sure that reporters, and by extension community members, get the most up-to-date and accurate information."

Two days after the gas leak "Mr. Dynamic" showed up on the East End at Lincoln Middle School as a substitute teacher. Concerned parents said that the teacher they were unable to identify asked the students to take out their Smart phones and log onto www.shitnobricks.com. In addition he told the students about his medical marijuana card.

Hyman pointed out that AUSD bears the responsibility for hiring substitute teachers. She said that the actions of substitute teachers impact the curriculum and lesson plans.

Lincoln Middle School’s principal, Michael Hans, wrote a letter to parents explaining the unnamed teacher’s behavior. Hyman, whose child attends Lincoln was surprised to hear about the incident from the Alameda Sun rather than from Hans.

"A substitute teacher arrived to fill in for fourth period and decided to share his website with the class," Hans told the parents. "He told them to take out their phones and type in a URL with profanity in the title."

According to Hans the website contained several references to marijuana and the substitute teacher went on to explain that he had a medical marijuana card.

Hans stated in the letter that a student reported the teacher’s behavior to the main office at the end of lunch. Hans asked the substitute teacher to leave campus shortly after the beginning of fifth period.

Hans assured the Lincoln Middle School community that the substitute teacher only interacted with about 30 students. "But I am sure that this story was shared with others during lunchtime," he stated.

He further assured parents that Feb. 13 was "the first day this substitute was employed at Lincoln Middle School and the district office is taking steps to ensure he will never be hired by AUSD again."

"Upon learning about the substitute’s actions, Lincoln Middle School administrators immediately had him removed from the site and district officials immediately followed up with the appropriate channels," Davis said. "Principal Hans sent a note only to the parents and guardians of the seventh-grade core class because those were the students and families directly impacted by the substitute’s actions."

"The district needs to do a better job screening candidates for substitute teachers," Hyman said.