teacher walkout

Ponchatoula Junior High School employees protested Thursday May 9, 2019 to demand clearer policy on how they should intervene if a fight breaks out on campus, according to a teacher's union.

Employees of Ponchatoula Junior High School staged a walkout Thursday morning to demand clearer policy on how they should intervene whenever student fights break out on campus.

"They want a policy that states what they should and shouldn’t do. They want training to do it, because they don’t want to lose their jobs," said Dina Esquinance, president of the Tangipahoa Federation of Teachers. 

The walkout came in response to the dismissal last week of two Ponchatoula Junior High School teachers who were seen on a viral video restraining a student on a concrete courtyard.

In the video, which authorities have said shows what happened after one of the teachers stepped in to break up a fight, one teacher can be seen forcing the girl to the ground, while another pulls her by the leg underneath a picnic table.

Tangipahoa Parish teachers have said Superintendent Melissa Stilley's decision to fire those teachers has made them uncertain about how they ought to respond when students fight. 

Esquinance said 17 teachers walked off the job around 7:30 a.m. Thursday, just after students arrived. She said nine took personal days, while the others used sick time for which they will later be docked pay. 

They stood outside along La. 22 and waved signs through the afternoon at cars driving by, Esquinance said. Images from the scene show teachers wearing red and waving signs with slogans such as "#Respect" and "How many teachers have to be assaulted until policy is made?"

The teachers were joined by some bus drivers, students and others, Esquinance said. 

Esquinance said the teachers planned to return to work Friday.

Stilley said in a statement she was disappointed by the teachers' decision to stage a walkout, as they were afforded a chance to voice their concerns to the School Board on Tuesday night.

School nonetheless proceeded, Stilley said, and district staff filled in for the missing teachers as needed.

"The school is operating on their normal schedule — all is good," Stilley wrote in a noon email. 

There are 43 teachers at Ponchatoula Junior High, she said.

Can't see video below? Click here.

Esquinance said the teachers decided to proceed with the walkout after Tuesday night because they felt unheard. No one had reached out to them about their concerns on Wednesday, she said.

"It was almost like 'OK, you came and said your piece. And that's it,'" Esquinance said. 

Stilley said in a statement Thursday that she and the board are working on a new policy for handling school violence. Those guidelines will be in place for next school year, she said.

“I completely understand the frustration we all have about how to handle disrespectful and violent students. I understand that our teachers and principals want to be protected, supported and respected by the administration," Stilley said in a statement. "At the same time, as we were making these very difficult and unpopular employment decisions, we were and will continue working very hard on real solutions to the ensure the safety of our students and employees on all of our campuses. We must hold all students accountable for their inappropriate behavior, but we must do so within the clear boundaries we have set for our employees.”

On Tuesday night, Ponchatoula Junior High School teacher Simone Ingram said the terminations made teachers fear that their own jobs would be at risk if they stepped in to stop a fight. She said teachers at the school would not step into a physical altercation until they receive a clear policy. Esquinance said her members would do the same.

“They aren’t going to stand and watch," Esquinance said in a statement. "They will certainly use their voices, they’ll send a student to the office to get help, they’ll use the intercom to request help, they’ll yell down the hallway, but they simply aren’t going to become physically involved any longer. They cannot afford to.”

The video below is graphic.

Can't see video below? Click here.

Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.