A Fountain Hills teacher is fighting back after she claims she was wrongfully terminated for defending a student against racist bullying.
Pamela Aister, a 70-year-old fourth-grade teacher, was fired this fall because of an incident that allegedly occurred at Four Peaks Elementary School in Fountain Hills in May. Aister had been with the Fountain Hills Unified School District for 25 years.
Aister claims she saw a verbal altercation in the yard that May morning between five boys and Malacai Washington, an African-American student in her homeroom class and one of only three black students in the school.
At a press conference held yesterday outside the state capitol, Aister said Washington began school in another fourth-grade homeroom but was moved to her class in part because of conflict with other students.
Aister said she approached the boys that May morning and said, "He's in my room now. He's not alone anymore. If you're picking on him, you're picking on me."
But the other students--whose identifies have not been disclosed--say her demeanor was far less calm. One child claimed that Aister verbally threatened him, and that boy's mother reported the incident to the principal the following day. The principal requested statements from the boys, and Aister was informed that the incident would be formally investigated by the administration. Aister says she was given no information about what the accusations against her were and was stripped of her classroom key, escorted out of the building, and suspended for the last two weeks of the school year.
Four of the five boys involved in the incident testified at a subsequent disciplinary hearing. The students claimed that Aister told the child whose mother reported the incident that he should watch his back, saying "that should cure his racist ways," before telling the students to shut up and go away.
Washington also testified at that hearing. At the press conference, he said his experience at the school "was hell on earth." Washington said students called him names including nigger, bitch, monkey ears, and stupid crackhead "every single day," beginning when he enrolled in the school in March.
But the hearing officer charged with investigating the matter wrote in her report that the school's principal also had seen Washington be verbally aggressive toward other students.
And Aister does not deny that she had a reputation for toughness at times. The hearing officer's report notes that Aister was placed on an improvement plan in 2011 after her interaction with some students was found to be "negative, demeaning, sarcastic, or inappropriate" and that in 2013, Aister was asked to meet with the principal after a student cried because she reprimanded him in front of the class.
But Aister says her tough-love reputation made her popular with parents and students alike. The mother who first reported the May incident had in fact requested that Aister be her son's teacher, though she had him switched out of Aister's class early in the school year.
Ultimately, the hearing officer, Prudence Lee, believed the boys who claimed Aister had threatened them. "On May 8, 2014, Appellant verbally intimidated, threatened and scared a group of four students whom she believe had engaged in racism toward another student," Lee wrote. She found that Aister had failed to ask questions about what actually occurred that day, instead believing that the confrontation was racially motivated based on past incidents. "That belief was false," Lee wrote in her report.
Lee also found that Aister had failed to immediately report the incident--a job requirement that Aister says she fulfilled--and determined that Aister's testimony regarding the details of what happened wasn't credible.
Lee concluded that Aister had violated ethics and conduct policies. "Appellant, in her conduct with the group of students, was heavy-handed and unprofessional, and she did not make the well-being of students the fundamental value of her decision making and her actions. She did not accord the students the dignity and respect they deserved. She did not relate to the group of students in a manner that maintained social and moral patterns of behavior consistent with community standards and acceptable professional conduct. She engaged in verbally abusive and threatening conduct," Lee wrote.
Lee determined that suspension alone would not likely rehabilitate Aister's behavior: "If an individual does not take responsibility for misconduct when it is brought to her attention, it is likely to continue to occur," Lee wrote. And so, in late September, Aister was formally fired.
"I was in shock," Aister said at yesterday's conference. "I still believe I was doing the right thing."
Aister says bullying is an ongoing problem at the school and that her actions "were based on 25 years of experience in successfully dealing with children." She argues that her termination was the result of "a few vindictive voices creating false reports."
Many have rallied behind the terminated teacher. An online petition calling for Aister's job to be reinstated has collected over 120,000 signatures.
Jarrett Maupin, a local civil rights activist and president of the Progressive Christian Coalition, delivered identical letters yesterday to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Division, the Arizona Attorney General, the Arizona Department of Education, and state legislative leadership formally requesting official intervention on Aister's behalf.
"She told several white students engaging in bullying behavior to stop harassing a black student," Maupin wrote in the letters. "For this act of courage, Ms. Aister was expeditiously terminated."
At the press conference, his words were stronger: "This is not some teacher without experience. We want justice. If that means suing the Fountain Hills School District for every loose penny they've got, we will."
Aister is represented by civil rights attorney Benjamin Taylor, who said he plans to "pursue every legal option possible" to defend her. "Her livelihood and life's passion, educating children, has been ripped away from her in an unjustifiable, cruel, and very public way," he said.
Despite everything, Aister says she simply wants her job back. She is eligible for retirement benefits but says she wouldn't be able to make ends meet with a reduced income. And she wants to be back in the school district she considers home.
"I have been blessed, honored, and am proud to be a Fountain Hills schoolteacher for all the wonderful students and parents who have touched my life for the past 25 years and continue to support me to this very day," she says.
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After Aister's termination, Malacai Washington's family enrolled him in a different school district. The Fountain Hills Unified School District did not immediately respond to a request for for comment.
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