Five years of dedication to Richfield Public Schools and families
Jessica (Jessi) Martinez began her role as the family outreach worker for Richfield STEM School during the 2012-2013 school year. For four and a half years, her performance reviews consistently met or exceeded expectations. For the past two years, she has been the only Latina staff member working in a school where 26% of students are Hispanic, 16% are black, and 38% are white.
Through the years, she was offered more responsibilities and promotions, including coordinating summer enrollment for the entire district, becoming student success coordinator for the district-wide middle and elementary school summer school program, and training other outreach workers within the district. Two years ago, she won the Inspiration Award, for which she was nominated by her principal. When asked about her work ethic, the vice president of the parent committee said, “Jessica works tirelessly for our STEM students and families...she does the important work of helping our children and families navigate and succeed in our school system.” Up to this point, Martinez has not had a single bad review in the workplace. There have been no disciplinary actions taken for lack of meeting the requirements of her duties. Jessica Martinez has been deemed an outstanding worker by her superior, co-workers, and families.
Beginning of January 2017 - A plan to support black students
As Martin Luther King Jr. day approached, two staff members at Richfield STEM began organizing a day for all willing staff to represent Black Lives Matter (BLM). They planned to show support by either wearing a BLM shirt or dressing in black to school on Friday, January 13th. When asked to participate, Jessica immediately agreed. “As someone who went through this district as a student,” said Jessi, “I know what it’s like to not be affirmed, and it’s so important to me that these students feel our support of them and their humanity. With the recent murder of Philando so close to us in St. Paul, the timing felt right.” What started as a plan between two staff members, soon became thirteen.
Wednesday, January 11 - A meeting with the principal
The group of thirteen met with principal Joey Page, to inform him of the plan to show support for their students of color on Friday, January 13th. They also let him know they would be sending an email to all staff to invite them to do the same. “We didn’t want it to stop there,” says Jessica. “We said that this was just the beginning, that we wanted to continue with actions that showed support to other groups of students as well in the future. We want to validate everyone here at Richfield STEM.” The principal said “okay,” and later that day called Jessica to ask her to prepare and share with him a draft of the email that would be sent to all staff. This is the email that was prepared to share with all:
“In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and all of the work he has done for justice, we would like to invite you to wear your “Black Lives Matter” attire on Friday, January 13th. If you don’t’ have any BLM attire, feel free to wear all black in honor of the cause. Although we have come a long way, there is a long way to go in the fight for equality. Please join us in affirming our students on Friday, January 13th. "
The principal responded requesting a meeting with the group for the following day and told them not to use district resources to send the email to staff.
Thursday, January 12 - “You don’t belong in this district”
Superintendent Unowsky came to the school to meet with Principal Page. Despite not having originally planned the action or being the leader of the group, the superintendent pulled Jessica in for a one-on-one meeting. He told her she was “not educated” on issues of social justice and not qualified to do social justice work. “Maybe you don’t belong in this district,” he said. He also demanded that no staff member wear a Black Lives Matter shirt. When Jessica pointed out that it wasn’t against dress code, he said it “would be soon.” Unowsky told her that she was putting the district’s funding in danger because the public would not vote in favor of the referendum for additional school funding next election if staff made “powerful white people angry.”
That afternoon, the superintendent, assistant superintendent, principal, and assistant principal met with all staff interested in wearing shirts, at that point a group of 22, to tell them they were not allowed to proceed any further. The principal of the building gave a speech regarding his support of the BLM cause and explained that he had met and prayed with BLM leaders, but ultimately, they would not allow them to dress in support of their students of color. The superintendent said that this “isn’t the place for it,” and commented that as a parent he would not feel comfortable with his child coming home asking why her teachers wore BLM shirts. He said that “BLM shirts mean you don’t support cops.” Jessi objected to this, since she has been on the Police Multicultural Advisory Committee of Richfield for 4 years and works closely with the Richfield Police Department. Furthermore, Jessi has served as one of the primary links between the school district and the police department. When a staff member brought up staff in St. Paul wearing BLM shirts to protest the murder of Philando, the superintendent said that when they did this, the academic performance of the students in the district declined. When asked for evidence, he simply said he “knows people in the district.”
“I’ve been here for 5 years seeing the mistreatment of staff and students of color. When is it going to change if we don’t do something?” Jessica asked.
Friday, January 13 - Another meeting with Principal Page
Jessi was called to a one-on-one with her principal and told that her angry tone of voice in the meetings was an issue. He further elaborated to include his feelings of being attacked and asked if there was reasoning behind this. Martinez then explained her frustrations from her one-on-one meeting with Unowsky, where he called her uneducated and said that she didn’t belong in the district. Page responded by saying, “Steven didn’t tell me that.”
February - Harassment, surveillance, and micromanaging begin
Harassment, surveillance, and micromanaging of Jessica and other staff who were vocal at the meeting began. For Jessica, that meant the following:
STEM staff were told they needed to have permission to speak with her in her office.
The secretary was put on a mission to keep a running tally of staff members interacting with her in her office. Those records would later be turned over to the principal.
February - Defending students
In February, the assistant principal asked Jessica to handle a behavioral incident between two fifth grade students. After taking the time to create a safe space for these individuals, the school’s social worker came into the space, shouting at the students, calling one of them an “instigator” and demanding they come with her. Jessica said that she had been directed to handle the situation and told the social worker “not to speak to her or to her students like that.” Jessica immediately went to the principal to report the interactions. A similar incident took place between Jessica and the social worker in the fall, before the BLM incident, and it was determined the social worker was at fault for interrupting Jessica’s work and speaking in an aggressive manner. This time, however, Jessica was deemed to be at fault.
April 6 - An ambush
A month later, Jessica was pulled into principal Page’s office, where a human resources representative read her her rights. They said they had concerns about her work performance, which she had never heard in almost five years at Richfield STEM. Their concerns included:
1. In March, Jessica injured her arm and needed to go to the hospital during the school day. She asked a teacher to write an email for her to the principal to coordinate coverage for her meetings and after-school responsibilities. This, she was told at this meeting, was not acceptable. She should have reached out to the administration personally. She explained that she had asked several others for help, but they were busy or out of reach, so she used the teacher as a last resort.
2. Jessica did not notify the principal of two and a half days she took off in March to visit her family in California. These days were taken as “sick” days, when she was not ill. Jessica responded that she had not reported the absences to the principal because he was not in the building, but that she had told the assistant principal, as well as entered the absences in the AESOP system. They were entered as “sick” days because that is all she is given.
April 19 - Suspended
Jessica is called to another meeting with the principal. She is given a formal disciplinary report that states, “This letter serves as a formal written reprimand and notice of a two-day unpaid suspension for failure to appropriately communicate your absence from work to me, for attempting to submit your absence for paid time, and for the following performance concerns. The two-day unpaid suspension will be served on April 26 and 27.” The performance concerns included:
“unprofessional behavior” in her interaction with the social worker
asking a teacher to write an email for her when this teacher was not on prep
“falsifying company documents” by entering her absences as sick days and “failing to inform” the principal of those absences
April 26 and 27 - Working while suspended
As it was never explicitly stated she not come to work, Jessica understood the meaning of “unpaid suspension” to mean she attended work on those two days without receiving pay. While at work, no one asked her to leave or defined the correct meaning of her suspension. The principal was not in the building for those two days. On April 28, the Friday after her two day suspension, he told her that she was not supposed to have attended work. She explained her understanding and he admitted that there had been miscommunication.
Thursday, May 4 - “Stay in your lane.”
Superintendent Unowsky came to Richfield STEM and again called Jessica into a meeting with himself and the human resources rep. He asked her whether she was being “passive aggressive or defiant” by attending work during her days of unpaid suspension. She was given a formal letter that states: “You failed to serve your two-day suspension on April 26 and 27 based on your lack of clarity and understanding that a suspension meant you were not to report to work on those days…You will serve the two-day suspension on May 10 and May 11 where you will not report to work.” He read out loud the description of her job in the handbook and told her she needed to “stay in her lane from now on.”
In the same meeting, Unowsky asked Jessica what her interactions had been with one of the principal candidates for Richfield STEM; he then asked to go through her personal cell phone. The candidate in question oversaw Jessica at the afterschool program where she works and they have a close working relationship. Unowsky said that he knew the candidate told her he didn’t get the job and wanted to know the extent of their conversation. Jessica reported that the candidate told her he was interviewing, and a week later he had called her on her cell phone to tell her he didn’t get the position. Unowsky admitted that he was told by principal Page she and other STEM staff were trying to protest against the new hire. She said that she had no idea who the new hire was and was not involved in any protest. At the time, two other teachers were trying to plan an all-staff meeting to talk about what their expectations were for the new principal, an agenda Jessica was not involved with. Yet again, she was being singled out as the instigator of the work started by other staff. Though it seemed insignificant that her colleague had shared his news with her, this “offense” will later be the reason for her termination.
Monday, May 8 - Investigation
Jessica was told she needed to meet with the principal and human resources rep at 3:00PM. She stated she had an IEP meeting to interpret for and Dr. Page said he would find coverage. The family was early and the replacement wasn’t present so Jessica began interpreting. In the middle of the meeting, another translator arrived and told Jessica she needed to go to the principal’s office, so she complied. The human resources rep was not yet in the building, so Jessica waited outside the office for what ended up being 40 minutes.
In this meeting, Jessica is told that her two day unpaid suspension will be changed from May 10th and 11th to May 9th and 10th and also informed of an additional two days paid suspension on May 11th and 12th. All four dates she should not report to work. During the two day paid suspension, she will be under investigation for her communication with the principal candidate. At this time Jessica was forced to turn in all school property, including laptop and keys. It is further explained to her that she is barred from property owned by Richfield Public Schools and that she should have no contact with Richfield parents or staff.
May 13, 2017 - Letter of termination
Saturday afternoon, Jessica received a letter from Richfield Public Schools that read: “A recommendation to terminate your employment with Richfield Public Schools, effective immediately upon approval, will be submitted to the Board of Education for approval at the School Board meeting on May 15, 2017. This recommendation is based on the fact that you had received a last chance notice regarding your behavior and you provided false information during a district investigation after receiving the notice.” The school board will be voting on whether to enforce this decision at Monday’s board meeting.
We are asking the board to reject this termination, and to give Jessica her job back at Richfield STEM School for this year and next. We ask them to reject the retaliation against staff for challenging racism and speaking their minds. We ask them to realize that the commitment to hiring and retaining staff of color is disingenuous if they will allow a staff like Jessica, with five years of celebrated service and dedication behind her, to be terminated over the petty and exaggerated “offenses” that the district claims as justification.
Jessica has asked that she be reinstated to her job Tuesday May 16th, the day following the board meeting, because she misses her students and she wants to see them as soon as possible. We ask the board to consider how many students and families are missing her, and to do their job: doing what is best for Richfield students. No one who knows Jessica and her work can think that this means anything other than reinstating her position at Richfield.
Join Jessica and the Social Justice Education Movement (SJEM) at the Richfield School Board meeting to stand up for those who support racial justice in schools this Monday, 6:30pm at 7001 Harriet Ave S, Richfield, 55423.