The Berkeley middle school teacher who made headlines this week after going on Fox News to defend the role of violent protest in shutting down “racist, misogynistic and homophobic” messages is asking her supporters to push back against the outpouring of calls that have come into the school district to have her fired.
Yvette Felarca, a teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and a leader in the group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), wrote to allies early Thursday morning saying she was “In Need Of Your Support Once Again.”
“Fox News is waging a hysterical witch-hunt against me because of my prominence in the Bay Area movement against Trump and his Breitbart white supremacist backers,” she wrote. “The fact that I stood my ground against a Fox News demagogue-journalist was a surprising humiliation to him and the Fox News audience, and has driven several hundred Trump supporters into a frenzied attempt to create a new witch-hunt. They have made hundreds of calls to the Berkeley school administration attempting to frighten school officials into firing me.”
Charles Burress, Berkeley Unified School District spokesman, estimated that at least 1,000 emails and calls came in this week urging just that.
“They continue to come in,” he said Thursday at about noon. Expressions of support, on the other hand, have been slim. Burress said one King parent called him directly to express support for Felarca, and that, as far as he knew, perhaps two email messages had come in to the district voicing a similar message.
The district has catalogued a long list of what it has characterized as possible grounds for dismissal dating back to 2009, but has been unable or unwilling to terminate Felarca’s employment. Those allegations appear below on Berkeleyside for the first time.
Her supporters have previously come out by the dozens 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.
In her email Thursday, Felarca asked people to call the Berkeley School Board, and King Middle School directly, to “let them know that you support me against the bullying and harassment by Trump’s supporters.”
She said they could also come to the Berkeley School Board meeting Wednesday, Feb. 22, to make their voices heard during public comment.
“As important as it is to me that I continue to teach the students whom I care about so deeply, it is even more important to the Berkeley community as a whole that the local school authorities not cave into the pressure of these right-wing extremists to get me fired,” she wrote. “This would represent a defeat for me and my students. It would also represent a defeat for the progressive values that hold our community together, and the national movement of millions of new activists fighting to defend those values all over the country against Trump and his bullies.”
In a statement published on the School District website Wednesday, School Board President Ty Alper and BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans said they do not, and cannot, discuss personnel matters in public.
“Many have asked us whether the teacher in question will be disciplined for her political activities and for public statements she has made. As a public school district, we follow the law, including the U.S. and California Constitutions, the California Education Code, and our collective bargaining agreements,” they wrote, continuing: “It is important to emphasize that we firmly support the First Amendment right to free speech. We also strongly condemn the use of violence in confronting speech, even speech we might find abhorrent or counter to the values of our community.”
Felarca has been involved in a public struggle with BUSD since September when the district placed her on paid leave following widespread reports and video showing her punching a man at a white nationalist rally in Sacramento in late June. The district did not say why it placed Felarca on leave, citing confidentiality laws, and ultimately brought Felarca back into the classroom in November following repeated protests at School Board meetings by her supporters.
District letter offers insight into contentious history
In October, Felarca filed a civil rights lawsuit against the district saying BUSD had interrogated her students, removed her from a staff meeting, and threatened to withhold funding, for longstanding programs, from colleagues who expressed support for her. Felarca described the district’s actions as retaliatory and said they caused her to suffer “panic attacks, repressed appetite, weight loss, dizziness, and increased emotional distress resulting from attacks by Defendants in this case.”
According to her complaint, BUSD’s actions “send a clear and dangerous message to BUSD teachers, staff, students, and parents that they will be witch-hunted and driven out of BUSD if they choose to act against racism and injustice and exercise their rights on their own time.”
Felarca has asked for a jury trial, a return of wages taken from her bank account, and compensatory and punitive damages “in an amount according to proof and which is fair, just, and reasonable.” The lawsuit is set to return to court in March.
A district letter to Felarca, included in her complaint, sheds light on problems the district says it has dealt with in the past in relation to her work and activities. The 30-page letter documents allegations dating back to 2009. The letter said Felarca’s performance “reflected unprofessional conduct and unsatisfactory performance,” and said both are grounds for dismissal.
The district cited six Education Code sections related to its notification letter, which was dated June 30, 2016: immoral conduct, evident unfitness for service, persistent violation of or refusal to obey school laws, dishonesty, unprofessional conduct and unsatisfactory performance.
In 2009, according to the letter, Felarca “repeatedly solicited students to participate in protests” against a proposed charter school BUSD was considering, despite having been formally reprimanded about involving students in her political activities, and pursuing those activities during the work day.
In 2011, she asked for permission to take her after-school club on an all-day field trip to UC Berkeley for activities related to Proposition 209. The school principal “ultimately denied permission,” according to the letter, because “it was an opportunity for you to indoctrinate students and use them to support your own personal political agenda, it took them away from necessary instruction, and violated the directives you had been given in 2009.”
In 2013, the district said Felarca repeatedly used leave time to attend immigrant rights marches in Washington, D.C., which BUSD said is not an allowable use for personal or sick leave. The district docked her pay and alerted her to the problem, according to the letter, but the behavior continued. When BUSD tried to schedule a private meeting with Felarca about the issue, “employees in the District office were confronted with a loud group of over ten young people … chanting and carrying signs” to protest “teacher harassment.”
In the meeting, according to the letter, Felarca said she was being targeted and harassed, while the district said her “abuse of personal leave has been significant and repeated multiple times over a few short months,” contrary to the teacher contract: “It was evident that your claims of ‘harassment’ and ‘targeting’ were an attempt to try to manipulate and bully District officials into not holding you accountable.” Meanwhile, the students who had gathered entered district offices and were disruptive, and Felarca refused to answer questions about how the group knew about the meeting in the first place, according to the letter.
Felarca later went on Facebook, according to BUSD, and thanked the picketers for their support, adding: “I think the Administration is going to back down on the discipline, but they still plan to dock me another day’s pay for attending the Andy Lopez march. We’re gaining ground but the fight continues. Si se puede!”
The Facebook post encouraged supporters to sign a petition that called Felarca a hero and role model, and said she should be allowed to use personal leave at her discretion. The district was not pleased.
“It is apparent from your Facebook posting that you enjoy defying the administration and taking an adversarial position against the administration of your employer,” BUSD wrote. “This is blatant insubordination and will not be tolerated.… Your Facebook posting and the petition also make clear that you are intentionally providing the readers with biased, slanted information.”
The district said its issue with Felarca was her “lack of compliance” with BUSD rules and regulations: “The verbiage of your post and petition which is embarrassingly narcissistic makes it clear that you were trying to provide readers only with information that would support you, not the actual facts.”
It continues, “it was evident that you and your [By Any Means Necessary] representatives were actively trying to brainwash and manipulate these young people to serve your own selfish interests in not being held accountable to the same rules that apply to everyone else. As a teacher, your conduct was particularly reprehensible.”
BUSD said Felarca went on to email fellow King employees “during District time, using the District’s email distribution list” to thank them for their support against “BUSD’s political harassment.” She invited her co-workers to sign her petition or come to her classroom to learn more.
As a result, the district said Felarca had to comply with more stringent rules to justify any leave, and said time away would need to be in compliance with the teacher contract. The district said neither Felarca nor her supporters could use district resources to advocate for her cause, and that she could not use BAMN or discuss private personnel matters as part of a public campaign on her behalf.
The district said a parent of one of Felarca’s former students later got in touch, in response to fliers being handed out at Berkeley High in support of Felarca, saying Felarca had previously “marginalized Caucasian students” in the classroom and “did not present a balanced view of controversial issues in the classroom.”
“Under no circumstances may you try to present material to students in a biased and one-sided manner in order to try to influence or indoctrinate students into a particular way of of thinking,” BUSD wrote. “You are to treat all students equally regardless of their ethnicity.”
The letter also instructs Felarca to avoid using “a defiant, rude or insubordinate tone” with district staff, and says, “You are not to lie or engage in any type of dishonesty,” or “try to bully or manipulate District officials.” The district said she had to remove her petition and any posts related to “this confidential personnel matter” from her Facebook page, the BAMN website and “other on-line locations available to the public.”
The district said Felarca again mis-used leave in November and December 2014 to protest, in part, UC regents during regular school hours. Various media covered an event Nov. 20 where BUSD said Felarca spoke to students and during public comment at a meeting, as documented on YouTube and by the Associated Press. The next month, Felarca took part in large Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Berkeley and Oakland and BUSD said she missed work inappropriately as a result.
BUSD described an interview with Felarca in February 2015 where staff questioned her about her absences. The district described her as snide and evasive in response to questions, and said she had claimed to be unable to remember where she’d been on the dates in question.
“You continued to insist that you had no independent recollection of being at and speaking at these protests,” the district wrote. “This was despite the fact that you had taken two full days off work to attend, had spoken during public comment, had a large bullhorn in your hand outside and spoke to a large group of students, and passionately and loudly advocated for your cause; and despite the fact that you clearly wanted the attention and media coverage. Your continued and repeated claims, frequently accompanied by long pauses and a smirk on your face, that you could not recall being there, were patently dishonest.”
In October 2015, BUSD said Felarca sought permission to take students to immigration court in San Francisco for the hearing of a woman seeking asylum. BUSD said BAMN was involved in advocacy work for the case, and that Felarca failed to disclose that in her request for the field trip.
“It is clear that your request to take these students to witness the asylum seeker’s hearing was misleading and in clear violation of the previous directives that you had been given not to try to indoctrinate your students into your political viewpoints,” BUSD wrote. “This position taken by you and BAMN that U.S. border should be entirely open is a very radical and controversial idea that many students and parents would not support.”
The district ultimately denied the field trip request but said Felarca was absent anyway, and was interviewed on TV during the event.
The letter went on to describe a contentious Oakland Unified School Board meeting Felarca had attended, and been arrested during — on suspicion of creating a disturbance, refusing to leave the meeting and related issues. BUSD said she logged into the district system that night indicating she would take a sick day the following day.
BUSD interviewed Felarca again in November 2015 to ask about her absences from work, and about her arrest as well. BUSD said Felarca was “evasive and dishonest” in her answers about those subjects.
“It is evident that the previously issued Notice of Unsatisfactory Performance and Unprofessional Conduct has been insufficient to correct the deficiencies noted therein,” BUSD wrote. “You were given explicit directives regarding expectations for the future, and you have repeatedly and deliberately violated those directives. You have been repeatedly and openly defiant and dishonest, and have displayed an utter lack of remorse for any of your misconduct.”
BUSD said it would dock Felarca’s pay “due to your failure to comply with the provisions for paid leave.”
Teacher says BUSD was “trying to bully me out of the District”
In her own 10-page grievance letter in response to those allegations, dated Sept. 14, 2016, Felarca requested that her 25.17 days of backpay be returned to her, writing, “We cannot allow the District to dictate what teachers do on their own time.”
She said the district’s “political witch-hunt” would “send a message to the Latina/o, Asian, Arab and other immigrant students and to black, Muslim and other minority students and the many anti-racist white students I reach every day, that the teachers who actively defend their rights and interests and tell the plain truth about racism and the new Jim Crow are not welcome and will be driven out of BUSD.”
She wrote that the district acted against her as a result of the media coverage of the Sacramento white nationalist rally, as well as the outcry that arose against her at that time. That outcry included anonymous threats to BUSD saying King students would be harmed “if certain actions were not taken against the teacher within the week,” and prompted the creation of the petition to fire her because, its creator told Berkeleyside, he didn’t think a “militant agitator like Felarca” should be allowed to “mold impressionable students.”
The Sacramento rally was not referenced at all in the district’s 130-point letter, which only describes events and allegations through 2015.
Felarca — who has been with BUSD since 2006 — wrote in her grievance letter that the district’s notification letter about her performance was “a classic red-baiting diatribe filled with attacks on my character and lies and demagoguery that become even more extreme as the document progresses. The District leaves no doubt that they are disciplining me and trying to bully me out of the District because they both disagree with the content of my political beliefs and political affiliations and because they reject my right to express my beliefs in my off-duty time.”
She said she’d always gotten high ratings from evaluators who watched her teach, and wrote that “Management is hoping they can circumvent our contract and concoct a case that will allow them to use the Education Code to threaten, slander, and bully me to resign.”
Felarca continued, “They rely on anonymous sources, random unverified websites, or social media to attempt to discipline me and build a case for terminating me through a twisted and distorted use and understanding of the state education code,” and said the district’s attacks were simply mirroring the attacks upon her character from “far right-wing fascists and racist organizations.”
She also said some of the time she took off was for a family emergency of a very personal nature, so she had declined to share details previously. In her letter, she references documentation she says backs up the appropriateness of that leave.
Felarca wrote that the school district referenced BAMN 21 times in its letter and “spends a great deal of the document describing their investigations of my off duty-activities with BAMN that had no point, served no legitimate or legal end, and were nothing more than attempts to muscle me out of the District.”
She writes that BUSD was also trying to discipline her for her union work as a site rep, which she said was an unfair labor practice.
Felarca said the district’s questions about her actions at the Oakland school board meeting violated her privacy rights, and that she was never charged with a criminal offense after that meeting. She said her actions at that meeting had no relevance on Berkeley and should never have come up.
She wrote that the district’s complaints about indoctrination had no basis, either.
“I have never received a single complaint from any parent claiming that their son or daughter who did not attend these field trips felt ‘excluded or marginalized.’ I have never received a single complaint from a single parent or student for how I present political and social issues that are under debate in our society,” she wrote. “I am allowed by law to express my own views on a variety of issues. In fact, I have heard from many parents and students over the course of my career teaching in Berkeley who have appreciated the fact that we address these very types of issues in my class. I have never been accused of ‘indoctrinating’ students or ‘using them as pawns in your own personal cause.'”
The parent complaint referenced in the district letter — the allegation regarding “marginalized Caucasian students” — had never been provided to Felarca in writing or been completed in a formal manner, she said, adding, “It should have been dropped years ago.”
Felarca wrote, further, that the district’s requirements about how she uses her leave violated her constitutional rights, and said forcing her to provide a doctor’s statement for her sick days singles her out and puts a costly and cumbersome burden on her. She said, too, that limiting what she can tell her students “is completely vague and impermissible, and it interferes with and violates my academic freedom.”
She said the district presented no evidence that she ever presented one-sided views of classroom material, and slammed what she called the district’s attempts to put a “gag order” on her “for my attempts to build up the confidence and inclusivity of the students I teach.”
A fundraising campaign to help with Felarca’s legal efforts raised about $3,600.