Richfield School Board subject to continued protests

A still from a recording of the July 17 Richfield School Board meeting shows the moment Board Chair Christine Maleck calls for a recess as the meeting is interrupted. (Image via Richfield School District Youtube channel)

For the second time in three months, demonstrators interrupted a Richfield School Board meeting in protest of a staff member’s termination.

Jessie Martinez, an outreach worker at STEM School who was terminated in May, was joined July 17 by a small group of supporters who sat silently until the mid-point of the meeting, when they exited the school board meeting room. Minutes later, the group returned, led by a man who vocally approached the dais.

“He came in saying that we wouldn’t listen to them and that they wouldn’t be allowed to speak,” Board Chair Christine Maleck said, adding that the man identified himself as a Richfield resident and graduate of Richfield Public Schools.

As the meeting was interrupted, Maleck called for a recess as board members dispersed.

“We aren’t going to be able to conduct any business with that going on, so I called a recess to give people time to calm down,” she said. “ … Then the police came, and they started to leave.”

When the board members returned 15 minutes later, they resumed the meeting’s regular agenda and finished without further interruption, Maleck said.

The flare-up was the latest in a series of protests against the firing of Martinez, a decision that supporters say was in response to her efforts to organize a day for staff members to wear Black Lives Matter shirts for Martin Luther King Day. The district maintains the firing had to do with a separate disciplinary matter that can’t be legally disclosed because it is a personnel matter.

After approving the termination in a May meeting, the school board was unable to complete that meeting as protestors took over the proceedings. Protestors attended the board’s June meeting, too, but stayed silent.

When the most recent meeting was interrupted, police were already in the neighborhood and planning to stop by, according to Superintendent Steve Unowsky.

“If we continue to allow people to behave that way and disrupt the board meetings, then it’s just going to get harder and harder to get the work of Richfield Public Schools done,” Maleck said.

Following the meeting, the Sun Current made contact with Martinez and the group leading the protests, Social Justice Education Movement, but those brief communications did not yield an interview.

The man who most vocally interrupted the meeting was “saying that we wouldn’t listen to them, and that they wouldn’t be allowed to speak,” Maleck said.

However, all three Martinez supporters who requested to speak during the meeting were given that chance, she added. Ultimately, only one person, district parent Chara Blanch, ended up speaking.

Blanch, identifying herself as a parent of a student of color, called for an independent investigation into Martinez’s termination, echoing the message printed on signs held up by the protestors as they sat silently prior to the disruption.

“I believe for this district to be truly fair and equitable, we need to have teachers who are able to do their jobs without fear,” Blanch said. “That is not the case right now.”

The Martinez firing has sparked wider unrest in Richfield Schools over what demonstrators say is racial disharmony that goes beyond the former outreach worker’s case. The most visible protest came when approximately 150 Richfield High School students staged a walk-out in late May.

“If people want to speak, we are allowing them to speak. We have not denied anybody who has asked to speak,” Maleck said. “ … We’ve all met with multiple people in these groups and talked to them.”

Acknowledging there is room for improvement in the district regarding some of the concerns expressed, Maleck added, “We would like to work together.”

Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @RISunCurrent.