Militant Journalism

San Antonio teacher fighting retaliation after speaking out against unsafe schools

On May 10, the San Antonio Independent School District school board voted unanimously in favor of non-renewal status for Rachell Tucker, a dual language kindergarten teacher at Highland Park Elementary School. After months of outspoken advocacy for school safety during COVID, and retaliation from her school, this means that the school board has effectively fired Tucker.

“My kids never regressed, they just kept growing […] I was in disbelief (at the decision to end her contract) because she is just amazing.” – Vanessa Montelongo, a parent of two children in Tucker’s class.

Tucker had earned families’ trust for her attention to her students’ needs and safety during the COVID pandemic. Tucker, other teachers, staff, families of her students and community members have expressed their belief — in school board meetings, press conferences, and letter-writing campaigns — that she has effectively been fired for advocating for community safety. A growing movement in the community is demanding her reinstatement.

Tucker was pulled from the classroom — effectively a gag order — immediately after the overwhelming display of support at the board meeting. But despite the gag order, parents mobilized on her behalf. The struggle further illustrates patterns of mismanagement by Texas school administrators, while bringing teachers and the community together for a common cause.

Texas school administration risked lives for forced reopenings

Liberation News has previously documented the extensive lies of Texas school administrators regarding teacher, parent, and child safety during COVID-19. In San Antonio, school districts set out an arbitrary threshold for “safe” reopening, then completely ignored that threshold, forcing children back into classrooms as COVID was spreading completely out of control. As we pointed out in January:

In the San Antonio Independent School District, the [original reopening] plan was to begin a slow phase-in of teachers and students. When the city’s positivity rate was lowered to 5 percent, SAISD planned to return 50 percent of students to classrooms. If the positivity rate reached 10 percent, schools were to switch to 100 percent virtual learning.

The 5 percent threshold only lasted one week. Currently, the city is at a 17.5 percent positivity rate, nearly double the metric that should have triggered a complete closure of in-person education. Not only has SAISD reneged on their own guidelines, they have continued admitting students.

Administrators across the state, including at Highland Park, adopted the line that COVID was spreading rapidly through “community spread,” not through schools. This is complete nonsense. Science has shown that children are most likely to be asymptomatic carriers of COVID. This means that they can contract it at school — where they are in close proximity to many other children and adults for most of the day — then take it home to their families who are more likely to develop serious complications from the disease.

School districts, businesses, and government agencies all across the country have denied the basic science behind the spread of COVID. The result has been the needless deaths of over half a million people in just one year. Tucker is one of the many teachers who have bravely spoken out about these unsafe conditions.

School board shoves through termination behind closed doors

San Antonio has seen thousands of deaths from COVID. At least 17% of deaths across the state of Texas can be attributed to the forced reopening of schools. No administrators have been held accountable for these reckless policies or preventable deaths. However, workers such as Tucker, who challenged the lack of adherence to school district policies and safety measures, are facing consequences. Earlier in the school year, another San Antonio teacher, Luke Amphlett, faced disciplinary action in retaliation for union organizing and demanding safe reopening plans.

But in their haste to deal with community advocates, school administrators are leaving a trail of hostile behavior.

From the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, Tucker’s advocacy for her students has coincided with supposed “bad” performance reviews from administrators. Tucker was rated highly at the same school in summative reviews of teaching performance last year. After the school administration effectively silenced her via ever-escalating harassment, they recommended her termination based on “performance” measures which were illustrated only by administration-selected evidence. They have not demonstrated any evidence that Tucker has not performed well as a teacher in this difficult and dangerous school year.

At the time of the board vote, Tucker also had two grievances filed by her union, The Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, including one for retaliation. At no point did the board discuss these issues with her prior to voting for her de facto termination.

At the school board meeting, dozens of parents, teachers, and community members spoke out in anger and confusion at the decision.

“My kids never regressed, they just kept growing […] I was in disbelief (at the decision to end her contract) because she is just amazing,” said Vanessa Montelongo, a parent of two children in Tucker’s class.

“She was amazing supporting her families,” said Brandi Marroquin, another parent of a student in Tucker’s class. “I always knew what they were studying because I would come home and my son was excited about it … the fact that it is memorable for him and meaningful, and the only interaction he’s had with her is on the computer.”

Tucker attempted to read a statement defending herself and asking questions about her termination, but the school board decided to begin enforcing a strict 2.5-minute comment limit when she took the stand, cutting her off mid-sentence. After several more speakers testified, her husband Jake attempted to finish reading her written statement. They cut off his reading mid-sentence as well. All of Tucker’s supporters who followed were subjected to the same hard time limit, but most spoke in support as long as they could. Not one person at the meeting, from any organization or community, spoke in favor of Tucker’s termination. No person offered an explanation for why the decision was reached.

You can read Tucker’s full statement about her termination at the end of this article.

After the meeting ended, defying all community input and demands, the school board met behind closed doors and out of public eye to uphold her termination.

The following day, Tucker was paraded out of the school at the end of the day in front of her students and colleagues. She learned that she had been pulled from the classroom for the remainder of the year, her school email had been disabled, and she was under a gag order forbidding her from talking about the matter.

The community fights back for Ms. Tucker!

“She was amazing supporting her families,” said Brandi Marroquin, another parent in Tucker’s class. “I always knew what they were studying because I would come home and my son was excited about it … the fact that it is memorable for him and meaningful, and the only interaction he’s had with her is on the computer.”

If the actions taken against Tucker are meant to silence growing dissent, they have backfired.

The resistance to the decision pulling her from the classroom actually began from the kindergarten students themselves. Tucker’s students, heartbroken, confused and saddened having last seen their teacher crying and telling them “los quiero mucho” from a distance, began asking the administrators questions such as, “Why are you so mean to Ms. Tucker? Where is Ms. Tucker?”

Parents quickly became worried at the sudden departure. Tucker was initially replaced by a teacher that only spoke English in their dual language classroom, and some online students were sent to a 2nd-grade class an hour and a half after school had begun the day after Tucker’s de facto firing. Tucker played a unique role as a bilingual teacher, who could bridge the gap in education between English- and Spanish-speaking students — her vacancy is now being filled by three separate educators. Some parents have expressed concern that without Ms. Tucker, their children will backslide in their educational development.

So far, Highland Park has lied to the children about their teacher’s departure as well as deflected blame for their decision. The school has told the kids that Ms. Tucker isn’t in class because she has COVID, despite the district sending her for vaccination a month and a half prior. They told the parents that it was not the administration’s decision, but the school district’s, even though the recommendation was signed by the Highland Park principal. Finally, they attempted to meet with parents one-on-one rather than as a group. Meeting with workers, tenants, or community members one-on-one is a very old union-busting tactic that has historically been used to break up solidarity and sow division between people with a common cause.

Parents quickly saw through the tactic, with 12 forming a delegation to speak with the district on May 14. They intend to hold a press conference on May 25 to inform the community about their discussion with the district.

It is unlikely that parents will be easily broken up, given the egregious behavior of the school and the bond that Tucker has built with her community. Parents and teachers are learning what it means to fight together: for a quality education, a safe community and fair treatment. Children, parents and teachers share this common goal. Stand with Rachell Tucker, stand with teachers, and stand with safe schools and communities!

The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, the union that represents teachers of SAISD, is rallying in support of Tucker. They are asking people to send letters, emails, and phone calls in support of Tucker here.

Statement from Rachell Tucker

Dear School Board Trustees and Superintendent,

My name is Rachell Tucker. I am the dual language Kinder teacher at Highland Park Elementary, a veteran of the US Army and hold a Masters in Bilingual Bicultural Studies. I have been deeply honored to teach in my community. 

I come before the board today not because I have failed as an educator. This has nothing to do with my performance. – which really no teacher, unless they have done something completely heinous, should be fired or forced to resign for performance during this pandemic. My name, my career and my livelihood are all being defamed by my administration. The request for termination is the culmination of a campaign of harassment that started only after I advocated for the safety of my students, fellow teachers and my community. 

I love my community, that is why once the pandemic hit I saw what was possible, what is now our reality. San Antonio has over 3 thousand dead and over 200K who have been infected. Victims include family members of my students, coworkers who have had family members die or have gotten sick themselves and passed it onto their families. This pandemic has ravaged our community and continues to do so. Since last May I have advocated for the health and safety of my community with the San Antonio Coalition on School Reopening. I voiced concerns about health and safety publicly, to my coworkers, and to administration. My administration does not live in the Highland Park community. I question whether they feel what I feel when I saw letter after identical letter of positive cases at my school.  Documenting cases and contact tracing were just another box to check.

The district made promises to staff, students, parents and the community to get students to come in person. It is now clear there was no intent to adhere to those promises. One example includes the safety measure to close schools if outbreak was rampant. They defined this as a 10% test positivity rate. When that number was reached, schools did not close. When it went as high as 26 percent positivity, schools did not close. Instead, you changed your safety plan and pursued the narrative that the ‘community,’ not schools, were the source of outbreak.  What are schools to you, if not part of our community? Spread happens at our schools – not acknowledging that simple fact illustrates your deception and culpability.

The district’s work vaccinating teachers could have been a celebrated accomplishment if it was followed by an equally strong effort to vaccinate the community. Instead, teachers and parents were pressured to bring kids into the classroom even more than before –  opening up to 80 percent, with some classes in my school having no more kids online. Our students, and many of their caretakers, are still not vaccinated, yet teachers felt pressured to call students back for testing purposes. Safety standards continue to relax, which speaks to how much the communities they service are valued.

Why is it so wrong to ask questions of the institutions that we all trust to teach and keep the next generation safe? Why am I being terminated, defamed and disrespected for standing up for myself and my community? Why did people try to convince me to resign instead of stand before you today? Why do you say we have had a choice all along – when that choice is to leave our profession – our livelihood and passion – if we do not feel safe? This is no choice at all. Why am I being held accountable for the failings of this  district?

I was an all around proficient teacher last year, still with a lot to learn and willing to do so. This year, according to my administration, I am the worst teacher and the only teacher on the campus that needed a growth plan during a pandemic year for classroom management. This added so much more stress on me that I have lost 15 pounds and I have had to file for a readjustment to my VA disability for anxiety. Everytime I hear keys on my door I get scared because I knew it was going to be a negative walkthrough.  I was the only teacher that has found hybrid education challenging according to them. I say all this because there is a double standard, there is no empathy or understanding and certainly no mercy. My working environment was hostile from all of my leadership.  

I was actively targeted by the administration for my advocacy for the safety of our communities. I have documented an entire year of attack, dishonesty and degradation for speaking up against unsafe practices in the midst of the devastating pandemic. This kind of political targeting shouldn’t be at the core of our educational practices.

In closing,  Here are my demands: First of all, I ask that the board vote to retain my position at Highland Park Elementary without prejudice or retaliation. 

In order to support me in being the best educator for my students, I ask for the Professional Growth Plan that was placed on me for performance during a pandemic year in the midst of hybrid learning as a punitive move for my advocacy for teachers, students and families be removed. My record should be wiped clean of any and all punitive measures, including negative evaluations.  Furthermore, I request that for all future meetings I am granted union representation upon request and that the San Antonio Alliance for Teachers and Support Staff be granted access to the campus. 

Finally, I request that the Principal and Vice Principal of Highland Park elementary school themselves be placed on a professional growth plan for the duration of one year that supports them in creating a working environment that encourages teacher retention and builds the kind of community relationships that best supports our students and our families.

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