A roomful of supporters of Berkeley teacher Yvette Felarca — who was placed on paid leave by the district last month — demanded during Wednesday night’s School Board meeting that she be returned to her classroom immediately and taken off leave.
Supporters, including young students as well as parents and other adults, took turns at the mic during public comment for items not on the agenda. Their message was unified: “We stand with Ms. Felarca.” When the board president attempted to move on to other items, supporters shouted her down and insisted the board take a stand.
The public outcry prompted the board to move into closed session for more than 30 minutes before it returned to the dais to continue its meeting.
A video of the disruption appears below.
More than a dozen people spoke before the board Wednesday night to say Felarca is an excellent teacher who focuses on helping students learn how to stand up for themselves and stand up for their rights.
Speakers told the board the district should support Felarca, not punish her.
“We will not let Donald Trump run this district,” said one woman. “Stop conceding to these racist attacks.… She needs to be back now.”
And Felarca herself addressed the board: “Return me to my classroom tomorrow because I want to teach,” she said, adding that the board needs to act fast to reverse the “grave errors that have been made.”
Felarca, a teacher at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, was placed on administrative leave in September after reports and video footage surfaced earlier in the summer that showed her taking part in a counter-protest against a neo-Nazi rally in Sacramento.
A television station filmed Felarca taunting and hitting a neo-Nazi attending the rally, which was led by the Traditionalist Worker Party, a white nationalist extremist group. Felarca, along with a number of others, was injured in the confrontation. Film clips show her with a head wound.
The violent altercation made headlines across the nation after seven people were stabbed and 10 hospitalized during the pandemonium.
The official reasons for the decision to take Felarca out of the classroom have not been made public due to confidentiality laws but, in comments made before and at a BUSD School Board meeting last month by Felarca and her supporters, it appears the district is looking into whether Felarca “indoctrinated” students with her political views; took excessive time off, perhaps to engage in political activity; and spoke badly of the BUSD administration.
Felarca has described herself publicly as having been suspended but the district has said administrative leave is the actual status.
In September, Felarca was placed on administrative leave “pending an investigation into concerns that have been raised.” The district has not commented further because it is a personnel matter. Hundreds of people had signed a petition calling for her to be fired after anonymous threats were made to harm BUSD students if action was not taken.
One community member described Felarca to the board Wednesday as an exemplary teacher: “She represents what’s best about Berkeley, the ideals of Berkeley.” He said the community has made itself clear and will fight for Felarca’s return to the classroom.
Many speakers said they appreciate that the teacher takes her fight for social justice to the streets, and said she should not be penalized for what she does outside the classroom.
When public comment ended Wednesday night, the board attempted to move to its next scheduled agenda item at about 8:20 p.m. Members of the public shouted down the board, demanding to know where board members stood about Felarca, and if they would support her.
Board President Beatriz Leyva-Cutler repeatedly asked for order, but ultimately adjourned the board into closed session when members of the public would not cooperate. She said no action would be taken Wednesday night. A video of those events appears above.
(No action would have been allowed by law because the item was not on the published agenda.)
During the break, as Felarca grabbed a live microphone and encouraged supporters in the meeting room to continue their efforts, Superintendent Donald Evans and Leyva-Cutler emailed a written statement to the media about the Felarca situation.
Leyva-Cutler had tried to read the statement into the record before the adjournment, but had been unable to do so because she could not make herself heard over the shouting in the room.
“A number of people have expressed interest in the matter of a BUSD teacher who has been placed on paid administrative leave, and several people have spoken about the matter during the public comment session. The Board has also received a number of emails on the subject,” they wrote.
They said they could not comment on specifics due to confidentiality laws, but noted that teachers who are on administrative leave receive full pay and benefits, unlike those who are suspended. A number of speakers had demanded earlier in the evening for Felarca to be paid back for lost wages while she is out of the classroom.
Evans and Leyva-Cutler also noted that they have heard community concerns — some of which were raised Wednesday night during public comment — about students who were reportedly pulled out of class and interviewed by BUSD administrators without parental consent. In the statement, they said consent is not required by law or under BUSD policy.
Read the complete statement.
“At the moment, we cannot comment further on the recent interviews that took place because it would implicate confidential personnel matters,” they wrote.
They continued: “Please know that we are working hard to address these concerns. We are committed to ensuring that all of our students have access to a challenging and enriching education.”
At 8:53 p.m., the board returned to the dais and moved on to the rest of its agenda.
Berkeley school district places teacher Yvette Felarca on administrative leave (09.23.16)
Petition to fire Berkeley teacher garners 500 signatures (07.14.16)
Anonymous email threatens students after Sacramento rally tied to local teacher (06.27.16)
[Correction: An earlier version of this story described Felarca as having been suspended, which was the language she used Wednesday night. According to the district, she has actually been placed on administrative leave.]