Is the Green Bay School District Trying to Silence Teachers?
Former Green Bay Teacher Kerstin Westcott pulled back the curtain on severe disciplinary problems at Washington Middle School when she resigned to the School board last month. Now, someone claiming to be a Green Bay Teacher is accusing administration from trying to intimidate other staff members from speaking out on social media.
Green Bay school administrators initially engaged in damage control after Westcott, in sometimes graphic detail, described how students are essentially in control of Washington. The district later became more responsive with Superintendent Michelle Langnfeld apologizing for implying Westcott’s version of events wasn’t accurate and later holding meetings with parents – from which the media was barred.
This week Media Trackers received in the U.S. mail a letter from someone claiming to be a Green Bay teacher. From the letter:
The Green Bay Public Schools teachers really need your help. We basically have been given a gag-order. The administration hopes that all problems that our district has will simply go away and they can brush it all under the rug.
We really want to be vocal but we cannot. We need our jobs. We need to put food on the table. We need to pay our bills. We need health insurance. The abuse of power in this public sector institution is unreal. No one wants to work here anymore.
The writer then refers to an email staff received from the district Friday morning titled “District Social Media Guidelines.” The document is a list of what it calls “reminders” of the district’s social media policies:
- It is unwise to comment in social media when the topoic being discussed may be considered a crisis situation. Refer all social media activity around crisis topics to School and Community Relations…
- You should identify yourself as a Green Bay Area Public School District staff member if you are acting online in your capacity as a district employee, commenting on an issue about the district. You should not use a pseudonym or misrepresent who you are. All statements must be true and not misleading.
Also, please note that the U.S. Supreme Court has stated the following: “We hold that when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.” Accordingly, please be aware that employees of the Green Bay Area Public School District may be subject to discipline, up to and including discharge, for statements made pursuant to their official duties (emphasis in the original).
We reached out to school district spokesperson Lori Blakeslee for a response. She said the social media guidelines have been in use for years and are similar to those in other districts. And she said recent events did not prompt the district to send them out now:
The guidelines were not sent out in response to anything that has been posted. It is just a good reminder for staff, since staff is governed under laws such as FERPA.
Since my arrival in 2012 there has not been any employee who was disciplined for posting something on social media that was critical of the District.
So, according to Blakeslee, no motive at all for sending out the guidelines now. It just seemed like a good time for a reminder. As for the letter accompanying the guidelines, Blakeslee said:
Since the letter is anonymous it is hard to speak to the allegations, however, I do know that at the last Board meeting Dr. Langenfeld thanked staff who have come forward to share their concerns. District administration encourages staff to share their concerns in order to determine solutions to problems. In addition, we do an annual Staff Perception survey which is anonymous. We also have a staff feedback form, that allows staff to provide feedback anonymously or provide contact information if they wish someone to follow up.
I believe that our efforts regarding Washington Middle School have shown that we do not sweep issues under the rug. District administrators have met with Washington Middle School’s staff on multiple occasions, including on Monday with a third party/neutral facilitator. Actions were taken immediately to address the concerns raised in May regarding student behavior. The District held three parent meetings on Monday to also listen to parent concerns and suggestions.
But Blakeslee’s contention that the district was transparent on the Washington Middle School controversy is debatable; at best.
A video of Westcott’s impassioned June 5 plea for help at Washington went viral once Media Trackers reported on it June 26, three weeks after her appearance. In the 21 days in between the school district did nothing to let the public know of the issues at Washington (no media covered the school board meeting), and they seemed ill-prepared to respond once Media Trackers became aware of it.
Westcott initially sent an anonymous letter to administration in May, but later went public after she felt nothing had changed. She attended a school board meeting in July after she still felt the district’s response to the concerns at Washington Middle School had been inadequate. It was there that Superintendent Michelle Langenfeld apologized to Westcott for saying “there are two sides to every story” at a news conference after Westcott’s statement had been widely viewed.
Media Trackers also received another letter containing copies of two emails. One was from 2006 between a teacher and associate principle at Washington where the teacher was told he was overreacting to a situation. Another is from a teacher at Lombardi Middle School from April of this year to fellow staff members. That email includes the following:
Many of us share the same frustrations regarding the lack of respect and the escalation of behavioral issues, disrespectful comments, and defiant behaviors in and out of the classroom. In fact, many of you shared them with me, as I did with you, last night.
I leave this school DAILY, feeling verbally and emotionally ABUSED by some of our students and that pool seems to be getting larger by the day, and I know many of you feel the same way. Is it ME or are you experiencing the same?
I share this with you because this is our time, this is our moment to be truthful and honest about what we are up against DAILY in our classrooms…we can not be apathetic or complacent if we want things to change…we need to continue to write referrals, enforce classroom and school rules, and send kids out when they are disruptive. OUR futures in education depend on it…
On these two emails: Blakeslee said the one from 2006 predates most administrators now in place at Washington. As for the Lombardi Middle School email, Blakeslee said they’re aware of it and Langenfeld has spoken with the teacher.