In the space of less than 72 hours, Deyshia Hargrave went from being an anonymous Vermilion Parish language-arts teacher to an internet sensation who had national network news programs knocking on her door seeking interviews.
On Monday night, Hargrave unabashedly confronted the School Board and the superintendent at a public meeting over a payraise for the superintendent while teachers have received none. On Thursday afternoon she addressed hundreds of cheering supporters, many of them wearing t-shirts bearing the hashtag #standbydeyshia.
“Deyshia has become a heroine in the fight to be heard,” Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, told the crowd, which gathered Thursday afternoon for a rally in downtown Abbeville.
Hargrave was known for speaking out at School Board meetings, but Monday night was different. An Abbeville City Marshal officer prevented Hargrave from finishing, ordered her to leave and handcuffed her as she walked out. Hargrave was booked on two charges, but the city prosecutor is declining to prosecute. A YouTube video showing the incident had been seen upwards of 3 million times by Thursday evening.
Echoing a video statement she made on social media on Wednesday, Hargrave urged her audience take courage from her experience.
“What happened to me should not dissuade others from speaking out. I hope and pray my experience will empower you, my students, young women everywhere,” Hargrave said. “I hope and pray my experience will empower you, my students, young women everywhere.”
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Fallout from the video has been swift and damning to the school system, with superintendent Jerome Puyau tearfully expressing his remorse on multiple national television shows.
“I should have stood up. It’s what you want to hear. And it’s the truth,” Puyau said in an interview aired on CBS network news Thursday morning. Asked what he should have done differently, Puyau replied, “Let her speak.”
The mood at the rally blended support for teachers with a broader political movement that exploded into the national consciousness with the Women’s March in Washington D.C. the day after President Trump’s inauguration, and has continued over the last year with women in various sectors of the economy disclosing their experiences with sexual misconduct.
Signs in the crowd read: “Though she be but little, she is fierce;” “Nevertheless she persisted” and “Poor little women vote.”
The last one referred to a phrase the School Board president, Anthony Fontana, used in an interview with a WAFB-TV reporter in defending the arresting officer, Reginald Hilts, and criticizing Hargrave.
Fontana said everybody wants to take the side of "the poor little woman who got thrown out.”
More than one person attending the rally had noted the comment. Anne Hollier of Lafayette said the video initially outraged her, but that Fontana's comment angered her even further.
“His mama and daddy raised him better than that,” Hollier said while holding a double-paneled sign that read, “Thanks to all teachers; especially the poor little women.”
Fontana has not returned numerous calls from The Advocate, nor has City Marshal Jeremiah Bolden.
On Thursday afternoon, Bolden opened a locked, unmarked door in the city court building after a reporter knocked. He said he had retained an attorney and an independent investigator and is not making any comment until advised to do so. Bolden declined to share the name of his attorney, saying, “it serves no purpose” to do so.
Lauren Gaspard and her three sons, all wearing #standbydeyshia t-shirts, stood somewhat apart from the crowd prior to the start of the rally.
Gaspard, fighting tears, said she and Hargrave grew up together in rural Vermilion Parish and that Hargrave was the bridesmaid at Gaspard’s wedding.
The last three days had been overwhelming, Gaspard said, and she had two feelings about it. On the one hand, Gaspard said, she is “so extremely proud of Hargrave.”
She continued, “But it’s also heartbreaking because I saw my best friend manhandled and thrown to the ground. “For what reason? No one will ever explain to me why.”
Editor's note: This article was changed on Jan. 12, 2018, to note that the arresting officer's name is Reginald Hilts.