School board accused of stifling debate
KAPLAN, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s attorney general is accusing a local school board of stifling public debate at a meeting in January disrupted by the video-recorded arrest of a teacher being roughly handcuffed on a hallway floor.
Attorney General Jeff Landry filed a lawsuit accusing the Vermilion Parish School Board of violating the state’s Open Meetings Law at its Jan. 8 meeting in which a teacher criticized a district superintendent’s pay raise.
Middle school English teacher Deyshia Hargrave, whose arrest sparked outrage after video of it spread online, said the suit is good news for “anyone who speaks at public meetings.”
“It has been the most stressful two months of thinking that nothing was going to happen and that all this happened for nothing — and something has happened,” Hargrave told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday outside the Kaplan school where she works.
The suit asks a state court to nullify all actions taken by the board during that meeting, including its vote to raise Schools Superintendent Jerome Puyau’s salary by roughly $30,000.
It also seeks civil penalties against any board members found responsible for violating the Open Meetings Law and says the school system should be reimbursed for any extra money the superintendent received under his raise.
“Every community has a stake in the performance and the governance of its public schools, and the community’s views and thoughts should be taken into account before any action or discussion on an agenda item occurs,” the suit says.
Hargrave has said the incident violated her First Amendment right to free speech.
“It’s been proven that there is a law that was broken, or they’re going to at least look into it. And that’s the very least that should be happening at this point,” she said Thursday.
Landry’s suit says the school board conducted the meeting “in an atmosphere that was hostile toward and contemptuous of” parish residents who attended it.
Video of the meeting shows Hargrave addressing the superintendent directly, asking him how he could accept a raise when teachers haven’t received a pay increase in 10 years.
Anthony Fontana, the school board’s president at the time, then banged his gavel, told her to stop and said her comment wasn’t “germane” to the vote on the contract. Hargrave countered that she was directly addressing the matter.
At that point, according to school board member Kibbie Pillette, Fontana beckoned Deputy City Marshal Reggie Hilts, who interrupted Hargrave while she was speaking and ordered her out.
“I’m going,” she said, making her way out. The officer followed her into the hallway, where a camera recorded her on the floor with her hands behind her back as the officer handcuffed her.
“Stop resisting,” the officer said, lifting Hargrave to her feet.
“I am not. You just pushed me to the floor,” Hargrave said.
Hargrave was arrested on charges of “remaining after being forbidden” and resisting an officer. Ike Funderburk, the prosecutor and city attorney in Abbeville, decided in January not to pursue any criminal charges against her.
The teacher told the AP in January that she blamed Fontana for the incident.
Fontana, who served six terms on the board, announced his resignation less than two weeks after the Jan. 8 meeting.
He had announced last year that he wouldn’t run for re-election.
The board voted 5-3 to approve a new three-year contract raising Puyau’s salary to about $140,000 annually, with incentive targets that could add 3 percent a year. Puyau has said the raise matches what school officials in similar jobs make.
Puyau, who also is named as a defendant in Landry’s lawsuit, said he couldn’t comment on its allegations because of an ongoing Louisiana State Police investigation of the incident.
Pillette, who voted against the superintendent’s pay raise, said he applauds Landry for filing the suit even though it names him as one of the defendants.
“It’s about time somebody gives us some help,” he said. “We have sent (Landry’s office) tons of information about the wrongdoings of the Vermilion Parish School Board.”
Several other board members either declined to comment or didn’t immediately respond to emails seeking comment on the suit.
The superintendent has said he began receiving hate mail and threatening phone calls as the video spread on the internet. He told the AP in January that he wasn’t happy with how things played out.
“It was not good in any way,” Puyau said. “We are a good community. It took everybody by surprise. I’m having a hard time with this, but we care about our teachers and our support staff.”