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JUSTICE FOR DEYSHIA: Court says local school board violated open meeting laws when it forcibly removed a teacher from a meeting for speaking during public debate


November 19, 2018
 

A victory for LAE union sisters and brothers in Vermilion Parish after Lafayette-area Judge David Smith ruled that the parish school board violated the state’s Open Meetings Law when members of the board removed and forcibly arrested Deyshia Hargrave for asking questions during a routine a school board meeting. VAE President Suzanne Breaux said the members of the association applaud the ruling, as it sends a powerful message.
 
“Every citizen has right to speak up for their beliefs,” Breaux said. “While Deyshia’s treatment was, of course, extremely unwelcomed, it sparked a welcomed conversation: it’s time our leaders start listening to the voices of the professionals in the field fighting for the best interests of children.”
 
Most remember the starling video of Hargrave being silenced, forced out of a meeting, pushed to the ground, and placed into handcuffs. Over the course of just 24 hours, more than a million people viewed the incident. Words of encouragement and messages of hope poured in from across the world, but most significant (and not surprising) were the stories of shared experiences. One comment on facebook read:
 
Too many of us have been reprimanded verbally or simply in the way we are treated to shape our minds, if you will, as to not stand up for ourselves. After seeing her courage and resilience, I am empowered to take a stand, along with fellow educators, against simply taking whatever crumbs we can get, and instead, fight for what we are worth; what we deserve.
 
Hargrave stands behind her decision to stand up to the board with tough questions.
 
“I chose to speak out. I hope you choose to speak out, too,” she said. “Don’t let what happened to me intimidate to you. Instead, let it become your strength because it’s slowly becoming mine.”
 
And Hargrave has the law on her side. In disposing of the issues raised in a lawsuit against the school board, the Court found that the board violated La. R.S. 42:15 (the state’s Open Meetings Law) by “not opening  comments  prior  to  each  agenda  item.” Additionally, the Court held that Hargrave’s “comments were most certainly germane to the agenda item ‘Audience Concerns for the Superintendent’” and that  it  was  "clear  that  the  Vermilion Parish School Board violated the law by not allowing Hargrave to publicly comment on the agenda item ‘Public Concerns for the Superintendent.’” The Court exercised its “wide discretion to remedy this injustice” by granting sweeping relief to VAE, including (1) an injunction to the Board “to strictly adhere to and abide by the Open Meetings Law and Board policy with respect to public comment at future meetings of the Board,” (2) declaring all action taken at the meeting (the only action taken was the approval of the superintendent’s new contract) “null, void, and without legal effect” and (3) awarding “reasonable attorney fees and other costs of the litigation from the Vermilion Parish School Board to the Vermilion Board of Educators upon presentation and review of itemized expenses and affidavits by the Vermilion Board of Educators.”
 
VAE Vice President Shelly Byron praised the ruling and tied it to the power of the union.
 
“As an association advocating for school employee’s rights, members of the VAE were adamant about getting justice, not just for Deyshia, but for every single school employee in our district who has felt (or will feel) compelled to speak up on behalf of their students,” Byron said. “We continue to encourage every educator to take an interest in, and ultimately stand up for, the best interests of our schools.
 
Hargrave, Breaux, and Byron all agree: the time has come for school members to rethink their priorities, and renew their commitment to the most important focus – the students of Vermilion Parish. Association leaders say they look forward to a productive, collaborative relationship with board members in 2019.


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