COVINGTON, Ga. — A new teacher says she believes Newton County Schools officials asked her to resign in retaliation for her speaking out publicly in support of all-virtual learning to begin the school year.
Jammie Phillips, who was hired in June as the band director at Clements Middle School, said school district officials made the request last week after seeing a video she produced for her personal Facebook page.
She said she believes administrators are seeking her immediate departure to appease those favoring in-person learning after Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey’s Aug. 7 decision to begin the school year Sept. 8 with only virtual learning because of fears about the spread of COVID-19.
Phillips said she posted the video on her personal Facebook page, did not use district equipment to do so, and the page did not feature her real name.
“None of this was anybody’s business,” she said.
Norreese Haynes, president of the Association of Professional Educators, said his group is representing Phillips and wants the school district to give her a hearing on the action.
The Association also is planning a demonstration this week in Covington to protest her treatment, he said.
“We’re not going to have our members treated like tall children,” Haynes said
He said teachers his group represents are “scared” about contracting COVID-19 because many have pre-existing conditions that may make them more susceptible to the disease.
A Newton County School System spokeswoman said she was unable to comment on the matter because it was a personnel issue.
In the video Phillips posted Aug. 4 on her Facebook page, she is speaking to fellow alumni of Bethune-Cookman University about a music video she believed reflected badly on the Florida school.
Phillips admits in the video she used vulgar language and made crude sexual references — which she called “juvenile” and “stupid.”
She said she did not use her real name as the page name, and never has identified herself as a Newton school system employee on her page.
Phillips also used equipment she owned to make the video at her McDonough home and place it on Facebook — none of which was owned by the school district.
The band director said she worked for 13 years as a music specialist in the Clayton County School District before moving this year to teach at Clements Middle in western Newton County. She replaced Brittany Thurston as director of its 70-member band.
However, Phillips said she only signed her employment contract June 29 and has never taught a day in Newton County schools. She only met school administrators for the first time Aug. 10, she said.
Phillips said she believes someone contacted school district officials about seeing the video after disagreeing with her opposition to a former school district plan to allow students to choose in-person learning this school year despite safety concerns around the spread of COVID-19.
Phillips was part of a group that publicly demonstrated in July outside the school district’s Covington offices against allowing in-person teaching.
Fuhrey announced during an Aug. 7 school board meeting students would be taught virtually rather than having a choice to begin the 2020-2021 school year.
During the Aug. 7 meeting, Phillips said she posted comments on the school district’s Facebook page using her screen name but identified herself as a teacher.
She disagreed with others favoring in-person teaching and believes someone opposed to her stance on the issue became upset, found the video on her Facebook page and complained to school district officials about its existence.
Administrators then called Phillips to the school’s media center on the fourth day of new teacher orientation on Thursday, Aug. 13, she said.
One told her he “didn’t want her in his building” because he believed the personal demeanor she displayed on the video would transfer to how she spoke and related to her students.
A human resources official then asked her to resign, which she said she refused to do because she was under contract and was owed a hearing on the charges, she said.
“If you curse in front of kids you at least get the courtesy of being written up a few times so they can attempt to non-renew (a work contract) for the next school year every time you do it — not being asked to resign," she said.
Phillips then was asked to turn in her electronic keys, gather her belongings and leave the building. She kept the keys and left her belongings to prove she was not “resigning” her job, she said.
After showing up for work the next day, she found she was locked out of the building and not allowed access to the school’s internet system, she said.
The issue of a teacher facing a job loss for publicly stating a personal opinion about a school district’s action predates the digital revolution.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1968 in favor of a public school teacher who was fired for publishing a letter to the editor that criticized the school board's division of funds between educational and athletic programs, according to the publication Education Week.
The case, called Pickering v. Board of Education, concluded that public school employees do not waive constitutionally-protected rights to freedom of speech and can publicly comment on issues of public importance or concern, the publication reported in its March 17 article on edweek.org.
But it also quoted Belmont University law professor David Hudson as saying the Pickering ruling established a “balancing test” for the courts to decide if the teacher publicly said something so offensive or inflammatory that it impacted the teacher's ability to do her job and educate students.
Speech that represents a “direct affront to basic decency and dignity” is “not going to fare well in the balancing test," said Hudson, a First Amendment Fellow for the nonpartisan Freedom Forum Institute, in the March 17 article on edweek.org.
In addition, a band director in the metro Detroit area told Education Week she was "chastised" by administrators for things she had posted about local politics and school board elections online and felt they were using her continued employment as a means to control what she said.
However, Phillips contends that she made the video as a private individual intentionally out of view of her employer and the public.
Ironically, she made the video to privately criticize another alumnus of her Florida alma mater, Bethune-Cookman, for producing a video with crude language and sexual references that she believed potentially could harm the historically Black university’s image.