A fired Chicago Public Schools teacher filed a lawsuit in federal court Friday morning alleging the city’s appointed school board attempted to silence her efforts to speak out against the district’s violations of state and federal laws that protect students with special needs.
In the suit, Sarah Chambers, a former special education teacher at Saucedo Scholastic Academy, 2850 W. 24th Blvd., claims the Chicago Board of Education violated both her First Amendment rights and the Illinois Whistleblower Act by firing her as she attempted to expose the violations.
During her tenure, which stretched from May of 2009 through her dismissal in May, Chambers was a vocal advocate for special education students, the suit claims.
She voiced complaints at various board meetings and to board members about the need for increased special education services, noting they were below the minimum legal threshold, the suit claims. She also served as the co-chair of the Special Education Task Force, a coalition dedicated to fighting for the rights of special education students.
“CPS and Rahm Emanuel don’t want anyone challenging these policies that save money off the backs of our special education students,” Chambers said at press conference Friday at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters, 1901 W. Carroll Ave. “That’s why they’re going after me, because I have been challenging these destructive policies.”
Chambers’ continued advocacy for special needs students “made her into a target for the board,” the suit claims.
Chambers’ dismissal hinges on her approach to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam. On March 8, the first day the test was being administered, Chambers was called into the office of Virginia Hiltz, Saucedo’s principal, the suit claims.
During the meeting, Hiltz brought up a lesson Chambers had given students about the merits of the PARCC test as an example of a subject being publicly debated, the suit claims. Hiltz told Chambers she “should try to find a more balanced argument for both sides.”
The following day, the school’s vice principal, Nancy Quintana, and other administrators told students the PARCC test was mandatory, threatening punishment if they didn’t take it, the suit claims. Quintana also claimed the test would be used to determine students’ high school placement.
Students have the right to refuse to take the PARCC, but some students reported problems when trying to opt out, the Sun-Times reported earlier this year.
Chambers visited the school’s eighth grade classrooms that same day, explaining to students they had been given incorrect information, the suit claims. She told students the Northwest Evaluation Association standardized test was actually used for high school admissions.
She was officially reprimanded for interfering with the test along with two other teachers, the suit claims. However, the other two teachers were not fired or disciplined further.
Chambers then received an email April 6 telling her she was suspended and banned from all CPS property, the suit claims. During her suspension, students and others who support Chambers organized a trip to the April 26 school board meeting, the suit claims. Chambers protested outside the meeting, but did not travel with students or attend the meeting.
On May 5, Chambers received a dismissal letter from the board that listed a variety of charges, including giving a biased presentation on the PARCC exam, telling students they were being lied to about the exam and hatching a “scheme” to bring students to the board meeting.
Chambers’ suit says the claims are “simply false.”
“It’s a trumped-up charge,” CTU President Karen Lewis said at Friday’s press conference.
CPS responded to the lawsuit, saying in a written statement that Chambers took “serious and grave actions that did not put students’ interests first.”
The district says Chambers violated directives from the Illinois State Board of Education and the Chicago Board of Education to administer the PARCC test; and the district says Chambers and other individuals working on her behalf removed students from the school to advocate for her without following procedures, including chaperone background checks and parental consent to transport minors.