On a winter day two months before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, two-dozen children, 10 to 12 years of age, sat in Deb Mayer’s classroom at Clear Creek Elementary in Monroe County, Indiana, near Bloomington, thinking about war as they discussed a then-recent issue of Time for Kids (TFK). The magazine is a version of Time magazine written for school-age children and was a regular part of the lesson plan.
The December 13, 2002, issue of TFK focused on the conflict between the United States and Iraq, with reports on attempts by the United Nations to find–or not–evidence of weapons of mass destruction in the country ruled by Saddam Hussein.
One student’s attention was drawn to an article on opponents of the war, a “peace march” in Washington, D.C.
“The student asked me if I would ever be in a peace march,” says Mayer.
By Mayer’s account, she informed the class that demonstrations for peace were being held all over the country, including Bloomington. She said she often drove past picketers gathered on the Courthouse Square with signs inviting drivers to “honk for peace.” Mayer told the children she honked when she saw the signs.
“I explained to the children that I thought we should seek peaceful solutions before going to war,” says Mayer.
Mayer recalls she then talked about a program at Clear Creek through which kids trained as mediators intervene in conflicts on the playground to help other children solve problems peacefully.
According to Mayer, the discussion ended there, and the conflict began.
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A federal jury could decide in March whether the Monroe County Community School Corporation (MCCSC) should compensate Deb Mayer for discharging her. Mayer and her attorney contend she was wrongfully terminated at the end of the school year because she spoke up for peace on that January day, unjust retribution by MCCSC and a violation of her constitutional rights protecting free speech.
Mayer alleges she was harassed and prevented from doing her job by MCCSC administrators in the months after the classroom discussion of the war.
Representatives of MCCSC counter that Mayer was the subject of seven complaints from students and parents during the 2002-03 school year, and they opted not to renew Mayer’s contract because she wasn’t working out.
Court records contain only two such complaints.
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As she awaits the trial, the now-former teacher works office temp positions. She has spent about $30,000–nearly her life’s savings–on legal fees.
Expressing her opinion also has cost Mayer her independence. She’s been living in Madison, Wis., for the past year with her son, a doctor.
Another son, a nuclear engineer in the navy, transferred to the army and was in-flight to new orders in Afghanistan–a fresh cause of concern–as Mayer discussed her predicament in early October.
Mayer, 55, says her 22-year teaching career may be over. The lawsuit against MCCSC, her dismissal from MCCSC, material in her personnel files, her antiwar stance–something–is preventing her from being hired for another teaching position. And that “something” may have cost her a second teaching job in early 2004.
Citing the matter as one involving pending litigation–scheduled for March 6, 2006, in U.S. District Court, Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division presided over by Reagan-appointed Justice Sarah Evans Barker–officials with MCCSC limited their responses or declined to answer questions concerning the case.
Positions taken by the school corporation and responses to Mayer’s charges are public record in federal court documents.
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Hired as a substitute teacher by MCCSC in August 2002, Mayer was asked in September 2002 to take over Clear Creek’s Launched classroom when its teacher left to take another job. The Launched class, designed to provide an alternative learning experience for students of all abilities grades 4-6, is comprised of students described by MCCSC in court records as “difficult,” many with “bars to learning.”
An evaluation of Mayer, conducted in November 2002 by Clear Creek Assistant Principal Tammy Miller, commends Mayer for having “stepped into a difficult situation, taking over the class two weeks into the school year.” Miller writes. “The students in the classroom are feeling abandoned as this same scenario occurred last year.”
The students, assigned to stay in the class for three years, should benefit from the continuity of having a single teacher, Miller continues. “Unfortunately, this class has had four teachers in a one-year span. They are angry and not willing to trust.”
Miller’s review continues, “Mrs. Mayer is working hard to provide consistency and has high expectations for them [students] both academically and socially. She has remained positive and persevered with a challenging group of students as well as parents. It is impressive to watch Mrs. Mayer put her vast knowledge of best practices into action. She has much to offer in methodology and life experiences.”
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By Mayer’s account, her students that day had 15 minutes to read the issue of Time for Kids before discussion. The students chose which articles to discuss. Mayer estimates discussion of the peace movement article lasted five minutes.
A sixth-grader, both sides concur, told her parents about the Time for Kids discussion. The student’s father requested a meeting with Clear Creek Principal Victoria Rogers and Mayer. It took place on Jan. 13, 2003.
The student’s father, his wife, principal Rogers, and Mayer sat at a small table in Mayer’s classroom. Mayer says she had been informed the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the Launched curriculum with the parents, who had concerns about its ability to meet their daughter’s needs, but quickly realized the intended subject was “peace.”
The student’s father declined to be interviewed for this story.
“He said I had an agenda,” Mayer says. “I said I didn’t have an agenda. He said they were teaching their daughter to support the president and that I was confusing her. The mother and principal were trying to calm him. We were sitting at an elementary school table and he kept rising up out of his chair and pointing his finger in my face.
“He asked me what I would do if I had a child in the service,” Mayer says. “I said, ‘I do.’ He was accusing me of being unpatriotic. I said, ‘My son and I believe you can be for peace and be patriotic.’ That made him furious.”
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The MCCSC’s response to the lawsuit states that according to parents of several students, “Ms. Mayer used the TFK article to discuss her personal belief that the war in Iraq was wrong and to encourage her students to participate in peace marches.”
Of the meeting between the parents, Rogers, and Mayer, MCCSC states, “According to principal Rogers, Ms. Mayer completely mishandled the meeting and she felt that Ms. Mayer and [the father] ‘were going to come to blows.'”
By Mayer’s account, the girl’s father “demanded [she] not mention peace in her class” and principal Rogers promised Mayer would comply.
Mayer holds degrees from Indiana University and has 10 years experience teaching elementary education, primarily at The Key School in Indianapolis, and 12 years of teaching at the college level. She has earned her administrative certificate and says she was led to believe she was on track to become a principal in MCCSC upon completing two years of teaching in the Launched classroom.
Mayer says she promised not to mention “peace” in her classroom to keep her job.
Both sides concur that immediately following the meeting, principal Rogers authored and disseminated a memorandum to staff headed “From the Principal” and “Peace at Clear Creek.” The memo acknowledged the school’s annual sponsorship of its “Peace Month” in January and the school’s support for “the peaceful solution of problems through mediation.”
“We absolutely do not, as a school, promote any particular view on foreign policy related to the situation with Iraq,” Rogers’ memo states. “That is not our business. Individuals in a democracy have personal beliefs, but a public school acknowledges various points of view and those might be discussed related [sic] current events and the news.”
When issuing the memo, Rogers, without explanation to staff, cancelled “Peace Month” for January 2003.
This story originally ran in the Bloomington Alternative.
JEFF WHITE can be reached at email@example.com.