No backing down in Reynoldsburg

September 23, 2014

Haley Swenson reports from the picket line on a strike in Reynoldsburg City Schools.

TEACHERS IN Reynoldsburg, Ohio, are on the picket line in a bitter fight against a school board that wants their new contract to include provisions to tie pay increases to high-stakes standardized test scores, concessions on health care benefits and elimination of planning time for teachers.

The battle in this small city outside Columbus pits school officials determined to impose the corporate education "reform" agenda at any cost against a union ready to fight for the schools students deserve and to address issues, such as swollen class sizes, that have led to an annual teacher turnover rate of 20 percent last year.

Many parents and students have rallied behind the teachers from the day the walkout began, on Friday, September 19. And anyone who believed otherwise learned about the school district's true priorities from students' reports of conditions in the still-operating schools that day--with barely 20 teachers in each building and at least as many police officers and private security guards.

Reynoldsburg teachers hit the picket lines
Reynoldsburg teachers hit the picket lines (REA)

Effectively, the district is keeping schools open as juvenile detention facilities, without any chance that education will take place. The situation was dramatized when cell-phone video emerged of one of several arrests made in one school--it showed a cop accosting a 15-year-old African American student for the "crime" of questioning his order. Destini Sullivan was grabbed by the arm, pushed against a wall, then thrown to the ground and handcuffed--prompting angry protests from her family and other parents.

The school district's heavy-handed behavior toward teachers and students alike will only lead to more of the shows of solidarity evident on the picket line as the new week began.

"I definitely didn't want them to go on strike, but I knew if they did, I would back them," said Marcia Tuff, a senior at Bell Academy, a college-preparatory program inside Reynoldsburg High School's Livingston campus. "Our teachers are what make this community worth living in."

WITH A 10-day strike notice set to expire at midnight on Friday, representatives of the Reynoldsburg Education Association (REA) met with district officials for a four-hour negotiating meeting in an effort to reach a last-minute agreement on a new contract.

But REA members say the board put what they called "poison pills"--measures they knew the union would reject--into their counter-proposal. One example was a demand that the union forfeit its right to strike before taking the new contract back to the membership for a vote. The board then offered binding arbitration, which REA members rejected in a general meeting that same night.

As of Monday, the second school day of the strike, there were no plans for a return to negotiations, though a REA spokeswoman said the union was ready for negotiations to continue at any time.

The walkout is the first teachers' strike in central Ohio for 25 years. The REA struggle has become a focal point for public education advocates throughout the state.

On Saturday, the union hosted a community rally at Huber Park in Reynoldsburg, which drew several hundred people. The program of speakers included parents, union leaders, and local clergy. Most speakers focused on the shallow understanding of education displayed by board members and the district's superintendent, Tina Thomas-Manning.

"We believe our students and our community deserve to have the best schools," REA president Kim Cooper said at the rally. "We believe that we should be providing the best learning environment for our students...We take our students as they are, and we love them for who they are--human beings, not products or raw materials."

Jenny Plemel and Hal Howard from Columbus City Schools were among the many teachers from nearby school districts who showed their support at the Saturday rally. They said they came out because they know what is happening in Reynoldsburg will have repercussions for the future of education in the state.

"We support our brothers and sisters in the Reynoldsburg Education Association, and we wanted to stand with them here today," Plemel said. "We're afraid that [these changes] are going clear across the state of Ohio."

Howard added that the so-called reforms pushed by the school district "are like a cancer in this state, and we're trying to nip it now before it gets out of control. It's a threat to public education. Trying to overload schools with high stakes testing--it's a cancer. Kids and teachers are not automatons."

Teachers say community support for them was strong even before the strike began, and it has only become more enthusiastic. On Friday and Monday, teachers on the picket lines got a steady stream of honks and thumbs-up as they stood outside their schools.

One teacher sat in a folding chair, catching up on grading, with picket signs propped up around her. A sign on top of the chair shading her face read, "Not exactly what I had in mind when I asked for planning time."

ON FRIDAY and again on Monday, students trickled out of the still-open schools to join their teachers on the picket lines, with tales of unsafe conditions, a contentious atmosphere and horribly unqualified replacement teachers inside.

Reports of replacement teachers falling asleep during their "classes" circulated on social media sites and the picket lines. Some students said they played games in class, instead of working on the packets of worksheets their substitutes had given them. One high school went into lockdown after a number of fights and arrests.

One of those arrested was Destini Sullivan at Livingston High School, one of two high schools in the district. The video of her arrest shows Destini and a friend walking down the hallway and saying something to a police officer behind them--the officer then goes into attack mode.

Destini says she and her friend were walking down the hall, as they had been instructed to do by a replacement teacher, when police officers told them to stop and walk down a different hallway. She says she turned and asked why--and that's when the officer charged at her. Destini says was never read any rights and was left in the back of a police car until school ended. She had bruises around her wrist for the time she spent handcuffed. She asked officers at one point to loosen them, complaining that they were hurting her--and the cops proceeded to tighten the cuffs.

At first, Destini's mother, Misty Sullivan, couldn't believe that Destini had not done something to prompt the arrest and was angry with her daughter. When she saw the video, she was stunned by the level of force used in response to a student "talking back." "If I put my hands on my daughter the way they did, I'd be in jail," Sullivan said.

On Monday morning, Misty accompanied Destini to school and was met with the news that her daughter was being suspended for one week for "creating a disturbance." Misty says she asked why her daughter was suspended, and not the officer who arrested her for no reason. Misty and Destini attempted to show administrators the video of the arrest, but they refused to watch it. Since Destini was barred from school, she and her mother decided to join the teachers picketing outside.

Destini said that she, like most of her classmates, supported the teachers before her arrest--but now, she's even more determined to stand with them in their struggle.

ON SUNDAY night, the superintendent, Tina Thomas-Manning, issued updates about how school would be run on the district's website. At the district's two high schools, students were to remain in one class all day, while completing online work on laptops. They would only be allowed to go to the bathroom in predetermined, group bathroom breaks, and would eat their breakfast and lunch at their desks in class.

Students would be suspended for being "insubordinate"--though, of course, explanations of what constituted insubordination weren't given. At school on Monday, students said they were told they would not be allowed to use recording devices of any kind while inside the school.

Students quickly organized a response to the new stipulations through Twitter and Facebook. Dozens of students came to school Monday wearing orange, or black and white, and taped their student numbers to their chests, as if they were wearing prison inmate uniforms.

Marcia Tuff of Bell Academy said she and her classmates got the idea because the school was becoming more like a detention center than a learning environment. "The letter they sent out describes a maximum security prison to me," she said. "To be fed in our classrooms and have to use the bathroom at the same time? I felt like I was dehumanized."

For teachers out on picket lines, the new policies for students only underlined the points that their union has been making throughout negotiations: Students don't learn in automated, overly structured environments. They learn from engaged teachers who have enough time to dedicate to each member of the class.

The Reynoldsburg Board of Education has repeatedly claimed to be acting in students' interests, and school officials have tried to justify the heavily policed school days similarly. "Please understand," Thomas-Manning wrote on the district website Sunday night, "that my top consideration is the safely [sic] and well-being of our students. In a structured environment, we expect to be able to help students acclimate to the situation more quickly so that they do not fall behind academically."

On the picket line, Tuff laughed about Thomas-Manning's statement with a few of her classmates as they read it from their cell phones. "They say this structure is there to help us learn, but I feel a lot safer out here with the teachers," Tuff said.

The Board has threatened to stop students like Tuff from standing on the picket lines with teachers. "In an effort to assist us with our plans for safety," Thomas-Manning wrote on the district website, "Reynoldsburg police will begin actively enforcing truancy laws on Monday...Students who are causing distractions, especially near any schools, may be taken into custody by police."

On Monday afternoon, the REA released a statement challenging the district's threats against students who were joining their teachers on picket lines. As REA spokeswoman Kathy Evans said:

When the teachers are against you, when the students are against you, when the parents are against you, when the community is against you, don't you have to think that maybe you need to change your approach?

This is the latest example of Tina Thomas-Manning trying to get her way through bullying and intimidation rather than having the self-awareness to see that it's not working and change her ways. We are ready for meaningful negotiations at any time. We are continuing to fight for the schools that our students, our parents, and our community deserve.

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