Attorney: School violated teachers’ freedom of speech
NEW ORLEANS — Opposition to the recent firings of two L.B. Landry High School faculty members has grown from a student walkout and protest to plans to file a federal lawsuit against the state-run Recovery School District on their behalf.
A lawsuit filed in August concerning other changes at the school had been amended to deal with firing of academic interventionist and head football coach Derek “Skip’’ LaMothe and Master Teacher Zoe Brisco. But the RSD filed a motion to move the case to Baton Rouge, and attorney Willie Zanders Sr. removed the teachers in order to keep that lawsuit in New Orleans.
The two teachers received identical letters Sept. 26 with the subject line “Position Elimination,” informing them that their termination was effective Oct. 12 at close of business.
The first paragraph of the letter read: “Thank you for your service you have provided to the students of the Recovery School District. While we appreciate your dedication to our mission of raising the achievement levels of our student, due to district reorganization stemming from budget constraints, low student enrollment and changes in school configurations your position is being eliminated.”
News of the prospective firings prompted a large group of students to stand outside the Algiers school Oct. 9, refusing to go to class for the entire day. They held signs that said “No Skip, No School” and, joined by parents and alumni, spoke about LaMothe as a “father figure” and someone who made sure his students kept their grades up and stayed out of trouble. Football players bragged about team’s collective GPA increasing from 1.7 to 3.2 in the past year.
The next day, students marched on RSD offices in downtown New Orleans.
But the battle for what many in the Landry community see as an effort by the RSD to make deep-seated changes to the 74-year-old school has been raging for several years. Prior to the firings, Zanders filed a lawsuit against the RSD on behalf of the alumni group Friends of Landry, seeking to uphold the legal rights of Landry parents and the community in the face of the proposed consolidation of Landry and O. Perry Walker High School into a single yet-to-be-named school within the current Landry facilities.
The RSD refused to comment on the matter.
“The Recovery School District does not provide comment on pending litigation,” spokesman Barry Landry said on Tuesday.
Zanders said he based his initial litigation on a 2011 law that requires the RSD’s superintendent to develop a community outreach plan that will engage parents and community leaders in the successful operation and academic improvement of all schools under the RSD’s jurisdiction and “solicit input on any proposed changes in school governance regarding the establishment of any new school site.”
After the firings, the lawsuit was amended to add Brisco and LaMothe as plaintiffs, alleging that the firings did not comply with the RSD’s own handbook concerning termination of an employee due to position elimination.
Zanders said he amended the lawsuit because “we think the firings were a retaliation.” Zanders listed the pending lawsuit and the plaintiffs’ public outspokenness against RSD actions and proposed actions as the reason.
According to Vera Triplett, executive director of transition for the school, the decisions were made based on what administrators thought would be “academically least disruptive.” Triplett said the decisions were “purely economic.”
RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard released a statement Oct. 10 saying the firings were “due to lower than expected enrollment” and that “school leaders had to make tough choices to ensure a focus on increasing student achievement.”
LaMothe said that doesn’t make sense based on his and Brisco’s qualifications and proven track records. LaMothe said first and foremost, he is a classroom math teacher, with a record along with Brisco of high achievement. Brisco is certified in biology, chemistry and math and was quickly hired by another school, Zanders said. In addition, LaMothe said, Landry has teachers who are not certified.
LaMothe said he is weary of people saying, “It’s all about the kids.” Instead, LaMothe said he urges people to “Go ask my kids.” He described numerous text messages and calls he’s received from parents and students each day since his firing, some in tears, some from his team saying they won’t play without him.
Before the teachers were removed from the lawsuit, it contained assertions from Brisco and LaMothe on what they claim are the real reasons for their firings: LaMothe’s opposition to the proposed merger of L.B. Landry and O.P. Walker high schools and Brisco’s support for parents trying to enroll their children at Landry for the 2012-13 school year.
Dobard said previously that enrollment was frozen at Landry in the spring of 2012 in order to fill seats at higher-performing schools and to move toward the RSD’s Master Plan requirement for a unified school on the West Bank. All students who attended the previous year were given the opportunity to return, Dobard said.
Both plaintiffs claimed that their constitutional right to freedom of speech and association had been violated, and the lawsuit had been scheduled to be heard in federal court in New Orleans on Monday. But Zanders said the hearing was canceled because the state filed a motion to move the case to Baton Rouge, where the RSD is based.
To keep the case in New Orleans, Zanders said, he made the decision to voluntarily dismiss the amendment concerning the teachers. The original Aug. 22 lawsuit is pending and has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.
Now, Zanders is working on a new federal lawsuit for the teachers focusing on alleged violations of their First Amendment rights.
“This is America,” he said. “I don’t know where the RSD officials think they are. They control the political system, but this is why we have a legal system.”
Landry alum Ken Grooms said that when students ask him what they can do to continue to protest LaMothe and Brisco’s firings, he urges them to go to class, study hard, graduate and come back with a college degree. Then, Grooms told them, they can most effectively resume fighting for their school.
“Go to Landry and ask every single child if they want Coach Skip back,” LaMothe said. “I guarantee every one will say yes.
“They will say yes not just because I am well liked,” LaMothe said, adding that he is likely the most strict teacher.
Rather, it’s about the relationship and mutual respect they share.
“Stop saying it’s about the kids. It’s about the dollar,” LaMothe said. “I’ve been in this fight since day 1, and I’m not going anywhere.”