Just over three years ago, as the nation readied for war with Iraq, elementary school teacher Deb Mayer stood in front of her class and uttered the word that would get her blacklisted from her profession.
It was a word that got her deemed “unpatriotic” by an angry parent. A word that led to her termination from the Bloomington, Indiana school district. A word that got her labeled as a potential sex offender and ruined her chances of finding work elsewhere.
That word was “peace.”
Today, after spending more than $50,000 in legal fees in a lawsuit against the Monroe County Community School Corporation, Mayer awaits a decision from a Reagan-appointed federal judge as to whether or not she will be granted a jury trial.
“If Judge [Sarah E.] Barker doesn’t grant us a jury trial, it would really be criminal,” Mayer said from her son’s home in Wisconsin, where she was forced to live after finding herself unable to support herself. “It means I would have spent all this money for nothing.”
Mayer is one of at least three teachers in the country who have filed lawsuits against their employers since the beginning of the war, claiming their First Amendment rights were violated after they were fired for what they said was an opposition to the war.
So far, one case has been settled out of court in favor of the teacher.
In 2004, former New Mexico high school teacher Bill Nevins received a $205,000 settlement from the Rio Rancho School District. A year earlier, one of his students recited a poem over the school’s intercom system that questioned the war in Iraq. Nevins, a 10th-grade Humanities teacher, was also the coach of the Rio Rancho High School poetry team. His contract was terminated within months of the incident.
Professor says he was denied tenure for body count
In November 2005, Alan Temes, an assistant professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against the college after he failed to get tenure. Temes said he would post the body count of US soldiers and Iraqi civilians next to a bulletin board filled with pro-military imagery, which included the words “Operation Iraqi Freedom” next to a picture of the burning twin towers.
In the lawsuit, Temes claims he was warned by the department chair that he would not get tenure if he continued posting the body count next to the pro-war bulletin board. His last day at the college is in May and he’s been looking for work for several months with no luck. He has no regrets about what he did.
“If you’re going to push the war, at least be aware that the count of Iraqi civilians is growing at a phenomenal rate,” Temes said. “I figured the American people need to know the facts. I didn’t think the mainstream press was doing enough of a job.”
In Mayer’s case, she says it was an article in Time Magazine for Kids that lead to her termination. In January 2003, she was teaching a Current Events class to fourth, fifth and sixth graders at Clear Creek Elementary School. They had been discussing the articles in the magazine, which dedicated an issue to the situation in Iraq. One student asked Mayer if she had ever participated in a peace march.
“I said that peace marches are going on all over the country and that whenever I pass the courthouse square where the demonstrators were, I honk for peace because they hold up signs that say honk for peace.”
That night, a sixth-grade student girl told her parents that Mayer was encouraging them to protest against the war, igniting a furor that Mayer said she'd never before experienced in her 20-year teaching career.
Three days later, the girl’s father showed up to the school for a meeting with Mayer and principal Victoria Rogers. Mayer explained that she had simply explained to the children that there are two sides to the story. When the father asked if she had any children in the military, she told him her son had recently enlisted. But that only seemed to antagonize him even further.
“He kept getting angrier and angrier,” she said. “He stood up and started pointing his finger in my face. I felt very threatened.”
The father turned to Rogers with a request.
“I want her to promise never the mention the word peace in her class again,” Mayer remembered him saying.
Rogers assured him that could be done, and Mayer reluctantly agreed never to mention the word “peace” in her class again.
“I wanted to calm the parent down,” she said. “I didn’t want to be insubordinate.”
Later that afternoon in a faculty meeting, Rogers circulated a memo announcing the cancellation of “Peace Month,” a traditional month-long series of activities beginning on Martin Luther King Jr. Day that taught children how to settle differences through mediation.
“She said that we can talk about war, but not about peace,” Mayer said.
“That for now on, nobody is allowed to have a stance on the war.”
Rogers, who declined to go into specifics about Mayer’s case, said that Peace Month was never cancelled but that it “died a natural death.”
“We felt we were working on it all year round,” said Rogers, who has since retired as principal of the school. “We were already working on life skills throughout the year so it became incorporated into what we were doing every day.”
But Peace Month was scheduled to begin less than two weeks before she sent out the original memo on Jan. 13, 2003 announcing the cancellation of the five-year tradition. Over the next few months, as President Bush declared Mission Accomplished and the country became increasingly divided, the angry father rallied other parents against the teacher.
Complaint filed on sexual harrassment form
At least two parent complaints against Mayer were typed up on Title IX Sexual Discrimination and Harassment grievance documents and placed in her personnel file.
“There was no substance to it,” Mayer said. “This complaint was very mysterious. I never saw it until I was disposed (in September 2005).”
That likely explains why she had been unable to find work since losing her teaching job on the Gulf Coast of Florida in 2005, where she had been hired as a teacher in Boca Grande, an upscale community and long-time retreat for the Bush family.
Mayer, who is certified to be an administrator, applied to be a principal when a position came open within the Boca Grande school district. But when they checked on her references, the sexual harassment complaint came to light.
“I did not get the principal’s job. I got fired again,” she said.
Even though it was typed on an official sexual harassment document, the actual complaint against Mayer accused her of “harassing” children because she would put up her hand to silence a child if the child had interrupted a conversation between herself and another student.
“The parent had signed it, but nobody on the school administration has signed it,” she said. “When we tried to find out who did it, nobody admitted to it.”
She then found another complaint against her on the same sexual harassment form, this one accusing her of announcing to the class about a student’s medication. Mayer denies the allegation.
When Mayer’s attorney looked into why the complaints were typed up on Title IX forms, they told him they had been writing all complaints against teachers on the federal forms for a decade.
Mayer contacted the ACLU about her case three years ago, but was told to hire an attorney if she could afford it.
“At the time I could afford it, but now I’m out of money,” she said.
And when Indiana author Kurt Vonnegut heard of her case, he contacted the Indiana chapter of the ACLU on her behalf, but they refused to intervene.
If anything, history is on her side. Not only did the teacher in New Mexico receive a $205,000 settlement in 2004, but a Wisconsin teacher had a similar victory in 1991.
During the first war in Iraq, high school teacher and wrestling coach Jim Low, opposed plans for a ceremony supporting the war in Iraq to be held before a wrestling match. When the ceremony continued as planned, Low walked out of the building, delegating his coaching duties to an assistant.
When his contract was terminated two months later, Low sued the Lakeland Union High School District in Minocqua, claiming his First Amendment free speech rights had been violated. He subsequently received a settlement of $240,000 from the northern Wisconsin school district.
If Judge Barker grants Mayer a trial by jury, it would begin on Mar. 6.
“Usually they give you at least a month’s notice as a courtesy, but February 6th already passed and I haven’t heard anything,” she said. “So I’m still waiting to hear from her.”
Mayer said her case is such a clear cut example of a First Amendment violation that she can not comprehend why it has not already been settled.
“At first, the contention of the school was that my speech wasn’t protected because the war in Iraq wasn’t a matter of public concern,” she said. “Then they changed their contention and said that my speech wasn’t protected because the classroom wasn’t a public forum.”
She believes small-town politics may play a role. The teacher’s union refused to help her; Mayer notes that the principal comes from an “old family” and that she was married to the former president of the union.
But others have kept her spirits up. Mayer says Howard Dean, whom she had volunteered for in 2004, has taken an interest in her case and checks up on it periodically. And the local Air America affiliate in Wisconsin has set up a legal fund to help Mayer raise money for her court battle.
“If the judge rules against me, she will be saying that a teacher doesn’t have a right to free speech at school,” Mayer said. “If the classroom is not a public forum, then a teacher has no right to free speech.”
Correction: The first edition of this article incorrectly described the bulletin board at Temes' school. It contained imagery of 'Operation Iraqi Freedom,' not Saddam Hussein.