“I’ll never forget the support I got from CTA,” says Wendi Smith. “Up until that point I hadn’t attended one single union meeting. My feeling was that I didn’t want to get involved. I didn’t think it would look good. I didn’t see the purpose of the union and never thought I would need its help.”
Smith was selected Teacher of the Year twice in the Sunnyvale School District. She had stellar evaluations and got along well with her administrators. She had heard stories about CTA defending members falsely accused of wrongdoing, but never thought it could happen to her.
But that changed when she worked on campus during one weekend in 2006. She spent the day “catching up” in her classroom at Fairwood Elementary School. Other teachers were also on campus.
Shortly thereafter, she was told that a file had been deleted from the school’s computer system, she was being blamed, and her punishment was suspension for 15 days without pay. There wasn’t a shred of evidence linking her to the act.
“I was shocked,” she recalls. “I just couldn’t believe I was being blamed for this just because I had been on the campus that weekend. It didn’t make sense.”
CTA rushed to her defense and filed a grievance. It charged that disciplinary action was being invoked against Smith in retaliation for “protected” activity — or voicing an opinion. In 2004 she had spoken before the school board and organized a parent meeting, questioning the superintendent’s decision to move her principal to another site in the middle of the year. And in 2005, when the new principal planned on changing grade level assignments, Smith spoke out against that.
The union was not able to prove retaliation was the motive — and lost in arbitration. But that didn’t halt the fight. Fellow Sunnyvale Education Association (SEA) members protested the decision and went to the media. They asked parents to speak in support of Smith at school board meetings. Eventually the district settled with her and dropped all charges. The principal resigned, along with the human resources staff member behind the decision. The superintendent also has left. Smith now teaches at Cherry Chase Elementary School and is trying to put the three-year ordeal behind her.
Today Smith serves as SEA vice president pro tem and is also the association’s elementary school director. When she attended her first NEA Representative Assembly and heard the slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all,” she realized that it applied to her own situation as well.
“That was the stance CTA and my local association took with me. It didn’t matter that they didn’t know me. They knew I was injured and came to my support, no questions asked. They were here for me and gave me emotional support and encouragement. It was difficult to go through this. But I’m lucky — I have found a family.”
Kathy Torres, a third-grade teacher at Waldo Rohnert Elementary School, had always received excellent evaluations. Over her 36 years as an educator she had never been criticized for the manner in which she treated her students. But that changed for the Rohnert Park-Cotati Educators Association member when a new principal was hired.
Torres, the site rep, was asked to speak with the new principal about contract violations, such as having teachers do yard duty during their lunch break. She asked that the principal not sit in during union meetings, and the principal became insulted and angry.
The principal began a harassment campaign against Torres, advising new teachers not to talk with her. She ridiculed Torres at staff meetings, criticizing her “body language,” because she had to turn her body to see the presentation behind her. She embarrassed Torres at parent meetings, too. Then parent complaint letters began turning up, which the principal prominently displayed in Torres’ mailbox, adding to her humiliation.
Torres, who had never received a written parental complaint in 36 years, suddenly had three in her file within two weeks. One complaint was from a mother Torres had never met. The woman was a gang member whose son had a brain tumor, but nonetheless Torres was blamed for her son being unhappy at school. Another was from the parent of a student who was unhappy at having to move away. The third was from a student who was usually absent and whose mother planned on home schooling.
The union charged that the principal “solicited” formal complaints against Torres from three different parents in retaliation for actions she had taken in representing her colleagues as site rep. The arbitrator agreed that the principal did not follow district complaint procedures and acted with “animus” toward Torres. The letters were removed from Torres’ file and the district was ordered to reimburse CTA for legal fees. The principal soon left to work at another school site.
“I have always protected teachers against being treated unfairly and having their rights violated, but I never thought it would be me,” says Torres. “The union was there to preserve my integrity and credibility as a teacher. I’m so glad that the truth prevailed.”
Kamal Abdul Jabbaar experienced a teacher’s worst nightmare — being falsely accused of punching a student. For a month and a half he was placed on administrative leave. The student’s mother filed the complaint.
“After a while I felt helpless,” says Jabbaar, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles. “The prosecutor made me out like Attila the Hun, saying I had anger issues and shouldn’t be around kids. People who had never met me were saying things about me.”
Rosemary Ward, CTA group legal services attorney, proved Jabbaar’s innocence by getting a copy of the student’s X-ray and interviewing the physician’s assistant who examined the student.
“There was not a mark on the kid,” says Ward. “Not even a bruise.”
Once he was vindicated, Jabbaar returned to Crenshaw High School and resumed teaching language arts. He is not bitter and says what happened to him could easily happen to anyone teaching a student bearing a grudge.
“If it wasn’t for the union, I wouldn’t be teaching now,” he says. “I couldn’t afford legal expenses on my own, and a public defender may not have done all the research needed for a good investigation. I am happy my union fought for me. I realize that your union looks out for you, like a big family.”