AMITE — About 50 teachers, support staff and their backers filled the Tangipahoa Parish School Board chambers Tuesday to protest the terminations of two teachers caught on video physically restraining a student, and demanding clearer policy on how to respond to students who are fighting.
Ponchatoula Junior High School teacher Simone Ingram told the School Board that the superintendent's decision puts "teachers and school employees of Tangipahoa Parish in a precarious situation when it comes to handling physical fights between students.
"Because of the manner in which the situation was handled, we see that if we get physically involved, then we run the risk of losing our careers," Ingram said.
A few supporters of the Ponchatoula Junior High student and her family attended the meeting as well.
An attorney for one of the teachers seen restraining a student in a video that went viral from Ponchatoula Junior High School in March said th…
The video shows the student being physically restrained on a concrete courtyard by two teachers.
One teacher can be seen forcing the girl to the ground, while another pulls her by the leg underneath a picnic table.
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"You're going to be still or I'm going to thump your ass on the concrete," one of the teachers can be heard yelling.
"Let me out!" the student calls repeatedly.
Authorities have said the video shows the aftermath of a fight between two students that one of the teachers broke up.
The fight, captured on a second, less-widely shared video, depicts two teenage girls grabbing each other by the shirt and hitting each other in the head until a teacher pulls one of the girls away.
Superintendent Melissa Stilley fired both teachers — Arthur "Rusty" Barrilleaux and Brett Chatelain — last week.
The situation is proving a test for Stilley, who was appointed superintendent almost a year ago, of how well she can navigate racial tensions in the school system. In this incident, the student is black and the two teachers are white.
The Tangipahoa Parish schools superintendent said the video that circulated on social media last week showing two teachers physically restrain…
Tony Clayton, an attorney for Barrilleaux, has said Stilley's decision was informed by her concerns about public opinion and not the actions of his client.
“My client got fired because he happened to be a white teacher breaking up a fight between two black kids. Period,” Clayton said in an interview Friday.
The 19,000-student school district is nearly 50 percent black and remains in the throes of a 54-year-old desegregation case that has seeded distrust in the community and halted efforts to raise taxes needed to improve facilities.
In February 2018, those racial tensions surfaced when many residents, predominantly black, called for the resignation of a board member who posted a photo of a noose on his Facebook page.
At Tuesday's School Board meeting, the teachers took turns to speak out.
Ingram said she wants the School Board to provide clear policy on how staff should intervene in physical altercations. She also said the policy should be made with the collaboration of the faculty.
Until that time, the Ponchatoula Junior High School faculty will no longer use physical interventions to prevent fights, stop fights or prevent a student from running off campus, she said.
Dina Esquinance, a former Ponchatoula Junior High School teacher and representative for the Tangipahoa Federation of Teachers, said members of her union would do the same.
She noted the risks teachers face in schools on a daily basis by asking anyone in the audience who had been assaulted by a student or intervened in a fight to stand. About a dozen did.
"Teachers have been beaten, punched, scratched. … All because they instinctively feel the need to protect the students from being hurt," Esquinance said.
She said one of the teachers involved in the incident, and who is a union member, never received training on how to intervene in a fight.
Melvin McElwee Sr., a former Hammond High School teacher and parent of graduates of the school system pushed back on their comments.
He thanked Stilley for making the tough decision. He also said there are ways to de-escalate fights between students without physically intervening, something he experienced first-hand while working at the school.
"I'm glad as a parent that no one handled my kid like that," McElwee added.
Also in attendance were two representatives from Friends and Families of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, a group that has been working with the student seen in the video and her family.
Gina Womack, executive director of the group, said in an interview that school should be a safe place where students are not being dragged "by two grown-ups in any circumstance."
Stilley also addressed the situation during the meeting, although she declined to talk specifically about her decision making, due to privacy concerns.
She said her decision was not made hastily and it has "weighed heavily on my heart." She added that the decision was made for the parish as a whole, and not for a particular school or group.
"The decision was based on our expectations both for employees and students in our parish and how they should conduct themselves even in tough situations. The decision was not about race. It was an ethical and moral decision based on the facts," Stilley said.
She said the school system plans to make changes next year that will address the teachers' concerns. She said the school system will implement a zero-tolerance policy next year for students who "choose to fight."
"Students who fight will go to the alternative school. Period. At that site they will receive services to assist making them have better decisions in the future," Stilley said.
She said there are guidelines in place for teachers to physically restrain students and that training is provided, a comment that drew grumbles from the audience. But she promised more in the future.
"Our commitment moving forward is we will continue to provide additional guidelines and policies not only for bullying, but how to better handle student conflicts in our schools," Stilley said.
John Williams, an attorney for the student and her family, said the student shown in the viral video has not faced formal discipline but has not returned to school. A teacher comes by the house each day to work with her, Williams said.
This story has been corrected to delete a reference to "teachers and student employees" in a quote from Ponchatoula Junior High School teacher Simone Ingram. She referred to "teachers and school employees."
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