More than 70 protesters from the Social Justice Education Movement yelled “shame on you” at Richfield school board members Monday after they voted to fire a bilingual outreach worker at the district’s STEM elementary school.
The protesters say the worker, Jessi Martinez, was let go for planning to wear a Black Lives Matter T-shirt at a demonstration in January.
The group says the district has a history of disciplining staff members who speak out, which board members said is inaccurate.
“No members of staff have been disciplined formally or informally for advocacy related to Black Lives Matter, social justice or any other advocacy of our students or families,” Richfield Superintendent Steven Unowsky said in a statement.
According to Unowsky, a small group of staff from Richfield STEM met with administrators to ask if they could wear Black Lives Matter shirts to work to support their students around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. District officials discouraged the idea because some employees were excluded from the invitation to join in.
The Social Justice Education Movement said district officials tried to intimidate the staff. “It is not just this one issue, it’s part of a pattern of retaliation against staff who speak out,” said Sadie Cox, spokeswoman for the group.
Protesters held up bright yellow signs with “Rehire Jessi now” and booed at board members in the meeting. Several parents and students spoke out in support of Martinez, who sat in the front row at the meeting and wiped away tears. She had worked for the district for about five years.
Before the vote to fire Martinez, Unowsky read a statement about district efforts to promote equity and social justice. “We have a long road to go and we are up to the challenge,” he said.
Richfield STEM is made up of about 62 percent students of color. The district has about 72 percent students of color.
Before Monday’s meeting, the Social Justice Education Movement released its account of the events leading to Martinez’s termination. The group said that after January, Martinez met with a human resources officer who relayed concerns about her work performance.
In March, Martinez injured her arm and did not properly notify the administration about her need for help to cover her duties. Martinez also failed to alert the principal that she was taking two days off to visit family, which she took as sick time. Martinez was then suspended in April for two days. Martinez showed up for work on those days and was suspended again, according to the report.
Protesters became so disruptive during Monday night’s meeting following the board’s vote that the board moved to recess twice. At one point, protesters circled the board members at the dais, yelling at them. The board members retreated behind closed doors, and the protesters began filtering out, chanting, “We’ll be back.”
With protesters out, the board returned and formally ended the meeting. Board members were escorted to the cars by two police officers.
“Having asked many questions and spoken with multiple people to understand what has taken place, I do believe the recommendation before us is justified even as I understand and truly hear how deeply others disagree,” Crystal Brakke, school board vice chairwoman, said on Facebook.