By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
"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, charging 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."
Read the expanded version
Read more about two other members — Rohnert Park-Cotati Educators Association Kathy Torres and United Teachers Los Angeles member Kamal Abdul Jabbaar — who were harassed and wrongly accused, in our expanded edition.