FRANKTON — A former Frankton Elementary School Title I reading instructor filed a federal lawsuit Friday claiming the school violated her right to free speech by firing her for criticizing a curriculum in a Feb. 10 Facebook post.
In the complaint, filed Friday in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Jennifer McWilliams claims she spoke as a private citizen in her public criticisms of “The Leader in Me” curriculum, and that by firing her, the school had violated her First Amendment rights.
“The U.S. Constitution protects all of us, including public school teachers, from the government’s unlawful infringement on our free speech rights,” said James Bopp Jr., of Terre Haute-based The Bopp Law Firm, which represents McWilliams, said in a prepared statement released Tuesday. “As a citizen and as a parent, she had every right to criticize the curriculum in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper on her own time — here, she had every right to post the modern-day version of a ‘letter to the editor’ — a Facebook post — doing the same.”
However, Frankton-Lapel Superintendent Bobby Fields said he has no problems with staff expressing their concerns in public. He said McWilliams, who was an at-will employee and not a licensed teacher represented by the union, has made public comments about the district on social media and in Elwood’s Call-Leader newspaper without being fired or disciplined.
He said she was terminated Feb. 14 for circulating untruths about the school, the district and the program.
“As an at-will employee, we are not going to accept someone who is unhappy about people and lying,” he said. “You can say what you want, and we’re not going to fire you for that. But if you don’t tell the truth about us, you should be fired. We don’t need that kind of employees around.”
McWilliams did not return requests for comment.
However, McWilliams asserted in her complaint that she always participated in the required lessons and activities associated with The Leader in Me curriculum and never has had a negative job performance evaluation.
“Ms. McWilliams never discussed her concerns with the Leader in Me curriculum with students,” the complaint asserted. “Ms. McWilliams never discussed her concerns about the Leader in Me curriculum with parents on school property or during school hour.”
However, among McWilliams’ concerns, according to the statement, is that “the school inappropriately mixed church and state because the curriculum is largely based on church doctrine.”
McWilliams, whose daughter was enrolled at Frankton Elementary, allegedly used her personal computer and phone after school hours to post her concerns on Facebook. They include the following, according to the complaint:
• “The curriculum usurped the parents’ primary role for teaching morals and values to their children.”
• The time dedicated to “Leader in Me” activities took critical time away from academic learning in the school.
• Parents had no way to opt out of the curriculum as it was incorporated into virtually every aspect of the school’s culture and programming.
• Frankton Schools would begin mentoring other schools to implement the Leader in Me Curriculum.
• Part of the teachers’ evaluations were based on how well he or she implemented the curriculum.”
But Fields defends the use of “The Leader in Me.” He said he didn’t believe there was anything in the principles that favor any particular religion.
“If you can show me one thing about that program that is harmful to kids, that’s not beneficial to kids, we would do away with it,” he said.
Fields, said though he does not recall exactly when The Leader in Me curriculum was implemented, its use at Frankton Elementary precedes McWilliams’ employment there. The program takes about 15 minutes once a week during Eagle Time at the end of the day, he said.
Though McWilliams’ lawsuit addresses concerns specifically with “The Leader in Me” curriculum, her Facebook posts up to as recently as Monday demonstrate disagreement with social-emotional learning in general. Social-emotional learning, a current trend in education that has been widely implemented at schools throughout Madison County and surrounding areas.
As recently as Monday, McWilliams has shared Facebook posts criticizing social-emotional learning.
But Fields said that although he agrees that character education, which includes social-emotional learning, really is the responsibility of parents, many are not equipped to take on this task, which results in problems in the classroom.
“It’s not like Frankton Elementary decided to go out and teach this social-emotional program. It is part of the curriculum that is required by the state,” Fields said. “There are a lot of things that aren’t strictly math or science or English that are important for us to teach kids. In my opinion, this is one of them.”