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Richmond School Board approves free speech resolution as teachers call for more protections
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Richmond School Board approves free speech resolution as teachers call for more protections

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Superintendent Jason Kamras talks before Governor Ralph Northam signs education legislation focused on school suspensions on Friday June 1, 2018, at Henderson Middle School.

Some local teachers’ request for more free speech protections for those speaking out about school issues has official support.

The Richmond School Board on Monday unanimously approved a resolution supporting free speech among its more than 4,000 employees after a small group of teachers pushed for a board declaration, saying educators don’t always feel comfortable speaking up about problems.

“It should be very simple: When a teacher feels something needs to be said for the benefit of their students, they should feel nothing but confidence that what they say will be investigated honestly, acted on appropriately and done so without consequence to the reporter,” said Emma Clark, a former Richmond Public Schools teacher who left the district and now teaches in Chesterfield County, during a news conference last week. “Unfortunately that is not the reality at this moment.”

Before the vote, multiple members of the board and some community members criticized what they characterized as a climate of fear within RPS for teachers who bring issues from inside schools to board members’ attention.

“Teachers are afraid,” Tom Hartman, a community member who regularly attends board meetings, said during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting. “It’s a culture of not speaking out.”

It is not uncommon for teachers to contact journalists about issues inside the schools where they teach but request that their names not be used for fear of retribution.

For example, a group of Armstrong High School teachers, some of whom spoke up about testing and facilities problems at the East End school to School Board members, resigned this spring after they felt they were wrongfully recommended for nonrenewal. In telling the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the situation, they asked that their names not be used.

“The culture that people are talking about has been here for some time,” said School Board member Kenya Gibson, who represents the 3rd District. “We can’t fix these schools if we don’t know what’s wrong with them.”

Gibson joined a group of current and former Richmond teachers at last week’s news conference calling for the resolution the board eventually passed, but also more actual policy surrounding free speech.

“In order to bring about change, it can only grow up from the classroom and not trickle down,” said Josh Bearman, a teacher at Franklin Military Academy.

Current RPS policy says district employees “have the right to express opinions to state or local elected officials, including the School Board, on matters of public concern,” like evidence of corruption, and says those employees won’t be retaliated against.

Clark, the former RPS teacher, said the school system’s policy doesn’t include clear enough language to protect staff members from retaliation. She added that specific whistleblower protections and an anonymous teacher tip line are needed.

“A teacher’s free speech resolution will not magically erase this fear or unease, but School Board support of this resolution will hopefully signal to educators that their voices are necessary in conversations about public education and empower educators to act,” said Brionna Nomi, a member of Richmond Teachers for Social Justice.

The resolution was passed by all eight members of the School Board present for Monday’s meeting. Felicia Cosby, who represents the 6th District, was absent.

The resolution states: “The School Board of the City of Richmond recognizes the importance of participation by school employees in public debate over local, state and national school policy, commends our staff for its past advocacy, and encourages school staff to continue speaking out for public school students and public education in a way that is consistent with their duties as educators.”

Superintendent Jason Kamras voiced support for the resolution before the vote.

“Teachers’ voices not only matter, but are essential to us being the pre-eminent school system in Virginia,” he said.

The School Board also unanimously passed a proclamation supporting a teacher-led campaign for more education funding.

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

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