Chants of “Shame on you, shame on you,” rained on the Richfield School Board May 15 as a crowd of protesters converged at district headquarters.
As the demonstrators took over the regularly scheduled meeting and approached the front of the room where board members and Superintendent Steve Unowsky sat, the meeting was cut short amid the din of hisses, boos and chants – but not before board members unanimously approved the termination of Jessi Martinez, an outreach worker at Richfield STEM School and a Richfield High School graduate.
An organization called the Social Justice Education Movement, or SJEM, organized the raucous demonstration while alleging Martinez, 24, was being fired for supporting a plan to wear Black Lives Matter T-shirts in January.
Martinez and her advocates claim months of harassment and intimidation occurred following their scuttled plan to wear the T-shirts. In a blog post, SJEM provided an alleged timeline of the events that led to her termination – an account that Martinez, who attended the chaotic May 15 board meeting, says is accurate.
According to SJEM, Martinez was terminated for communicating with a principal candidate at the STEM School who is also her supervisor at an after-school program where she works.
“Apparently, principal candidates cannot communicate with other staff members without it being a controversy,” Martinez said in an interview following the board meeting.
The proceedings were punctuated with shouts from a crowd that filed in before the meeting, chanting “El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido” – Spanish for “The people, united, will never be defeated.”
Other chants, in English and Spanish – such as “Jessi stays,” and, “What do we want? Jessi’s job. When do we want it? Now.” – erupted intermittently as the board attempted to cover its regular business prior to voting on Martinez’s termination.
The demonstrators also followed through on their chanted promise, “Jessi stays or we stay.” The swell of protestors didn’t dissipate until board members and Unowsky adjourned to an adjacent room.
“We’ll be back,” the demonstrators chanted. Martinez and SJEM activists promised to return to the next school board meeting to resume their protest.
Board Chair Christine Maleck said she was moved to vote for the termination after reviewing the pertinent files.
“I have reviewed the disciplinary documentation with the human resources department,” she said. “After full consideration, it is clear this administration had followed board policies for discipline and termination.”
The vote to fire Martinez, a five-year employee of the district, came after testimony from parents in support of the outreach worker. A selection of R-STEM students, some with tears in their eyes, also pleaded for Martinez’s job.
At one point before the board’s personnel vote, an attendee motioned to a young boy in the audience, “This kid is crying. He needs Jessica.”
Parents, including one who said she works in human resources in the public sector and is familiar with disciplinary cases, advocated for graduated discipline for Martinez instead of termination.
SJEM called for Martinez to be immediately returned to her position, and for an investigation into the events preceding her termination.
One meeting attendee pledged her support for the district’s decision.
“I am Latino. I am here. I have been with Jessi, I have been with the district. I have never experienced any racism in the district,” the woman said.
According to SJEM, 13 staff members approached STEM School Principal Joey Page on Jan. 11 with plans to wear Black Lives Matter shirts two days later, the Friday before Martin Luther King Day.
Page said he had to check for approval of the plan, and told the group not to use district email to circulate the plan amongst other staff members, according to SJEM. The next day, district and building leadership told the staff members not to wear the shirts, and Unowsky called Martinez in for a one-on-one meeting, telling her that wearing the Black Lives Matter shirts would make “powerful white people crazy,” according to the blog post, which Martinez affirms.
“I can definitely reassure that the accounts that have been shared have been inaccurate,” Unowsky said during the May 15 board meeting.
“No staff members have been disciplined for their plan to wear Black Lives Matter shirts or any advocacy related to the movement,” the superintendent said.
SJEM’s blog post provided an account of discipline Martinez faced after the plan for Martin Luther King Day was announced. The group claims the actions were in retaliation for Martinez’s involvement in the plan.
“I’m the one that was vocal about everything,” Martinez said in an interview after the board meeting.
According to SJEM, Martinez was suspended for two days in April for taking time off and falsely classifying her absence as sick time, and also for failure to properly notify STEM School leadership of her exit from school due to an injury she sustained one day, and for an altercation with another staff member that took place as she tried to council two students.
She came to work the days of her suspension anyway, saying she interpreted an “unpaid suspension” as meaning she was still to come to work, but wouldn’t get paid, the blog post states.
She was subsequently suspended May 8 and 9, and told not to arrive at work the following two days, either, because she was being investigated for her communication with the principal candidate, according to SJEM.
“How can one not become suspect that (the termination) is related to Ms. Martinez’s decision to support her students of color by wearing message T-shirts?” Melissa Carter, a mother of two STEM School students, told the board. Carter said Martinez greatly benefitted her son in his personal difficulties.
Another STEM School parent, Chara Blanch, citing her public sector expertise in human resources, also criticized the decision to fire Martinez, noting it was the principal candidate who initiated the contact in question. Martinez affirmed Blanch’s assertion.
Unowsky contended it takes a leap in logic to believe Martinez’s and SJEM’s interpretation of the events leading to her firing.
“Belief in this account requires the false assumption that despite not organizing an event and not wearing Black Lives Matter shirts, the mere mention of these things set off the course of astounding, deplorable actions,” Unowsky said, reciting a litany of district actions meant to support equity, and progress the district has made to that end.
“ … If I were reading that blog post without additional information or multiple perspectives, I would be concerned, too.”
Following the school board meeting, Martinez took comfort in the overwhelming show of support from the chanting demonstrators.
“My performance has not once been questioned,” she said. “I am very dedicated to the community, my family, my students, and I’ve been giving it 100 percent for five years. All I know is that I’m walking out with my head held high. … I’m not going to stop the fight.”
Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RISunCurrent.