David Roberts, a 75-year-old substitute teacher, went to work last month at Clovis West High wearing a Black Lives Matter button on his shirt pocket. A day later, he was told that he was no longer allowed to work at the school.
“They said it was a violation of their policy of being neutral regarding political issues, but I don’t consider it a political statement. It is a moral statement,” Roberts said. “I was very surprised because I didn’t think it was a violation of anything.”
According to an incident report dated Nov. 8, Clovis Unified School District asked that Roberts – who has subbed for the district for 15 years – be removed from Clovis West’s list of eligible substitutes one day after he wore the button to class.
“I was informed by an instructional assistant that the substitute teacher was wearing a political button and that some students were offended, and he wasn’t following the lesson plan,” said the report, which was submitted to human resources by Clovis West Deputy Principal Tony LeFore, Gabe Calderon – the teacher Roberts was filling in for – and school secretary Dawni Peisch.
According to the report, LeFore approached Roberts during fourth period “and explained that we remain politically neutral on campus, and he took off the political button.”
Roberts contends he did follow the lesson plan – which he says only included instructions to administer a test and assign a reading – and that the disciplinary action is solely over his Black Lives Matter button. He says LeFore pulled him out of class, saying a parent had complained about it. Roberts said he asked LeFore if he would be allowed to wear a button that said “In God We Trust,” and LeFore said he would not.
“A pin that reads ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not a political button. It is a peaceful request to end this violence. It is not a protest. It is not intended to be anti-police and does not imply that black lives matter more than other lives. It simply says they matter, too,” Roberts said. “Clovis Unified claims you have to be neutral, but they’re not neutral. There’s a set of beliefs you’re expected to have there.”
Roberts, who is white, said students of color came to his classroom to shake his hand in appreciation of the Black Lives Matter button. The high-achieving school district is much less diverse than neighboring Fresno Unified. At Clovis Unified, more than 40 percent of students are white, while 10 percent of students at Fresno Unified are white.
Clovis West has the largest number of black students in the district; they make up about 5 percent of the high school’s enrollment. Districtwide, 3 percent of Clovis Unified students are black.
“That’s why I was doing it: to show solidarity to the kids,” Roberts said. “They really appreciated it. They understand it.”
Roberts, who has worked as a substitute in Clovis Unified about twice a week for the past decade, has been in trouble with the district before. In 2012, he was banned from working at Buchanan High after a student in an Advanced Placement world history class complained that Roberts’ lesson was against capitalism. Roberts, who is a credentialed social sciences teacher, contends that his lesson was in line with state standards.
Clovis Unified has a policy that forbids political activities conducted by employees on campus during normal operating hours, and, according to that policy, “engaging in political activity” during class time is cause for dismissal.
Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants pointed to another board policy that limits teachers’ lessons on “controversial issues,” which the district defines as a topic that is “likely to arouse both support and opposition” in the community.
The policy forbids teachers from addressing issues that contain any matter “reflecting adversely upon persons because of their race, color, creed, national origin, ancestry, sex, handicap or occupation.”
But the policy also says that controversial issues have a legitimate place in classrooms if properly introduced and that they can help students learn to identify important issues.
“We respect the rights of any employee of the district, outside of their instructional role, to freely express their personal opinions and beliefs,” Avants said in an email. “During the instructional day, however, it is our expectation that employees attempt to remain neutral in their speech and/or behavior in order to promote a learning environment free from distractions and/or possible disruption.”
Roberts questions how Clovis Unified defines what is political or controversial. While he has worked as a substitute in other schools in the district since the button incident, he fears that he could stop getting work altogether because of it.
The Black Lives Matter activist movement was launched in 2012 in light of the high-profile shooting of Trayvon Martin – an unarmed black teenager in Florida – and has since grown nationally. The motto has been used in protests to condemn racism and police brutality “in a world where black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”
Black Lives Matter was a focus of Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson’s annual teacher rally in August. Hanson has called for more support for black students, who are falling behind their peers in academics and are disproportionately disciplined. “Black lives matter. They matter a hell of a lot,” Hanson said then.
Thousands of Seattle teachers made national headlines in October for wearing Black Lives Matter shirts to class.
“There are schools that support Black Lives Matter as a slogan. Schools have a duty to create a safe space for all students, so it’s certainly in the scope of that if a school wanted to have Black Lives Matter be a message it was promoting,” said Julia Harumi Mass, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Harumi Mass says policies that regulate controversial issues such as Clovis Unified’s are inherently problematic.
“What’s controversial to one person is not to another,” she said. “Often with these policies, because they’re so subjective, it ends up getting played out in a way that it’s the minority view that gets censored. Anything could be made controversial – that’s the problem.”
California schools have a right to ban political buttons in some situations, she said, pointing to a case in 1998 in San Diego Unified. Then, the California Teachers Association challenged a policy that forbade teachers from wearing political buttons entirely. Eventually, a court decided that teachers could not wear the buttons in classrooms or when engaged in instructional activities, but they could wear them otherwise on campus.
Harumi Mass questions the disciplinary action Clovis Unified took against Roberts.
“The fact that you take a teacher off the list for wearing a button expressing a viewpoint that isn’t clearly prohibited by board policy raises questions if it’s because of the content of his viewpoint, and that raises serious constitutional concern,” she said. “One would want to know whether people who have worn other political buttons were treated this way.”
Avants said Clovis Unified does not track teacher discipline records based on which policy was violated and could not say how many other teachers have been removed from schools for similar reasons to Roberts.