Today, educators and concerned Richfield community members are standing up for a staff member at Richfield STEM Elementary facing retaliation for her statement of support for students of color. After a month-long campaign of intimidation by administrators at the building and district level, the community is saying that they’ve had enough. Education professionals do not deserve to be attacked and mistreated by administrators for their legal and ethical stands on an important issue of social and racial justice.
On Wednesday, January 11, 2017, thirteen educators at Richfield STEM Elementary, in an inner ring suburb of Minneapolis, approached their now-outgoing principal, Joey Page, to inform him of a simple statement that they planned to make that Friday. In order to stand with their students of color, staff members had planned to wear shirts proclaiming that Black Lives Matter on the day before the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day long weekend. What should have been a simple, uncontroversial statement by conscious educators in a district with a large number of students of color, was quickly attacked by administrators. At an impromptu meeting with Richfield Schools Superintendent Steven Unowsky, staff were told that they were banned from wearing the shirts. Staff who were seen as responsible for planning the action were subsequently taken aside and told to “stay in their lane,” and that they were not “educated to do social justice work.”
Since the meeting, things have only gotten worse for educators who took a stand. Four of the teachers who were planning on participating in the show of support have had their positions cut. Numerous staff feel so intimidated that Richfield STEM is no longer a welcoming space for them. Now, the family outreach worker, Jessi Martinez, one of a small handful of staff of color at the school, is being targeted. A celebrated staff member with five years at the school, Martinez has been disciplined multiple times since Martin Luther King, Jr Day. On Monday, May 8th, she was interrogated by administrators, put on a two-day suspension, her keys and computer were confiscated and she was instructed that she was forbidden to speak with other Richfield staff members.
The trajectory of these actions is clear: The Richfield School District plans to fire eminently qualified education professional Jessi Martinez as part of an ongoing effort to sweep out educators who support youth of color and racial justice. That this should happen in Minnesota is disappointing but not surprising. The achievement gap between white students and students of color in Minnesota has long been among the worst in the nation by nearly every measure. Despite official proclamations that the state is committed to change, in school district after school district, administrators focus on quick-fixes and smokescreens instead of dealing with the real problems of racial injustice. What is particularly disturbing about this story is how blatantly administrators in the Richfield School District have engaged in an organized campaign to target educators for what amounted to a very small, but important, statement of solidarity with students.
Standing up for youth of color in these conditions is a necessary part of being a good educator. “As a Richfield alum I went through the whole education system in Richfield and I can say that not a lot has changed. Our mission is to inspire and empower each individual to learn, grow and excel and we are not doing so long as staff members are being an obstacle to the futures of our students of color”, said Martinez, unbowed by the district’s pressure on her.
Today, educators and community supporters, along with the Social Justice Education Movement, are calling on Richfield Public Schools to stop their campaign of harassment against Jessi Martinez. They’re calling for Superintendent Unowsky and the Richfield School Board to
Reverse all disciplinary action taken against Jessi Martinez
Maintain her position as family outreach worker at Richfield STEM free from harassment
by Monday May 15th at 12pm. As Kellen Roberts, an organizer with the Social Justice Education Movement and Richfield teacher, put it, “We cannot allow bully administrators to target staff for standing up for what’s right in their schools. Without the freedom to support students of color, educators cannot truly serve their communities.”
Want to take action? Join us in calling for Jessi!