The Vermilion Parish School Board offices were temporarily locked down Tuesday amid death threats from across the world, Board President Anthony Fontana said.
The threats come a day after a Vermilion Parish teacher was handcuffed and forcibly removed from the board’s Monday night meeting to approve the superintendent’s new contract.
Fontana said the threats have come from as far away as South America, Australia and England, as well as other U.S. states. They have been reported to Vermilion Parish law enforcement and the FBI, Fontana said.
The teacher, Deyshia Hargrave, spoke up multiple times Monday. In her comments, she disagreed with the board’s decision to give Superintendent Jerome Puyau a raise, saying teachers and other employees have not been given raises in several years.
At one point, an officer with the Abbeville City Marshal’s Office approached Hargrave and told her to leave the room. A video showed Hargrave asking why she was being removed. The officer then escorts her out of the room. The video next shows Hargrave in handcuffs on the floor of the hallway, then being brought to a parking lot and placed in a police vehicle.
► Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the WFMY News 2 App now
Hargrave was booked into the Abbeville City Jail on charges of resisting an officer and "remaining after being forbidden." She was later released on bond.
Fontana said the officer acted appropriately and that he stands by him “100 percent.”
“His job is to make sure we have an orderly meeting,” Fontana said. “He knows what the law is. He knows what our policy is … The officer did exactly what he is supposed to do.”
What actions would Hargrave take if a student were disruptive in her classroom, Fontana asked.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana condemned Hargrave's arrest.
“Deyshia Hargrave’s expulsion from a public meeting and subsequent arrest are unacceptable and raise serious constitutional concerns," the ACLU said in a statement. "The Constitution prohibits the government from punishing or retaliating against people for expressing their views, and the fact that a schoolteacher was arrested at a public meeting of the school board is especially troubling.
"The ACLU of Louisiana will continue to investigate this incident and defend the constitutional rights of all Louisianans. We urge anyone whose rights have been violated to contact us.”
At least two board members are claiming the board treats women unfairly.
Women have several times been told to leave meetings, while men who speak out have not been removed, board member Laura LeBeouf told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday.
“When she realized she had to get out, she picked up her purse and walked out,” LeBeouf said. “Women in this parish are not getting the same treatment.”
The board’s other woman member expressed similar sentiments.
“No reason for anyone to be treated this way. So far in three years, only women have been removed from board room meetings,” Sara Duplechain wrote in an emailed response to AP’s questions.
Board president Fontana disagreed.
Fontana said he could recall two other times when a person was removed from a board meeting. One of the people is the husband of a board member, he said.
“This is not a women’s issue,” he said.
The Louisiana Association of Educators confirmed via its official Facebook page that Hargrave is a member of the group. Brian Blackwell, the LAE attorney, is working closely with Hargrave.
"As an organization that advocates for the dedicated school employees of Louisiana, we firmly denounce the mistreatment of Ms. Hargrave, a loving parent and dedicated teacher serving the students of Vermilion Parish. It is every citizen’s right to speak up for their beliefs. Any action that infringes upon this right is unlawful and unacceptable," the LAE said on its Facebook page. "We will continue to support the right of every single school employee to take an interest in, and ultimately stand up for, the best interests of their schools and their students."
Hargrave, who teaches English at Rene Rost Middle School, spoke up multiple times during the special meeting, which was to vote on Vermilion Parish Superintendent Jerome Puyau’s new contract.
The board ultimately approved the contract. Prior to its vote, Hargrave spoke at length about the possibility of Puyau receiving a raise.
Puyau said Tuesday that his new contract pays him an annual salary of $148,811, which he said would put him at No. 32 out of 69 superintendents in Louisiana in terms of salary.
His previous salary was $110,130, Puyau said. He added that he had not received a raise since being in the job.
“I have a serious issue with a superintendent or any person in a position of leadership getting any type of raise,” Hargrave said, according to video of the meeting. “I feel like it’s a slap in the face to all the teachers, cafeteria workers, any other support staff we have.
"We work very hard with very little to maintain the salaries that we have, and as I’ve been teaching the last few years, I’ve seen class sizes grow enormously … I just want to say, I don’t care if the performance targets were met. You’re making our jobs even more difficult and we’re jumping through hoops and we’re continuously meeting those goals.”
Abbeville city prosecutor Isaac Funderburk said Tuesday that he will not press charges against Hargrave.
“In response to the numerous requests for the teacher’s booking information, the Abbeville Police Department is cooperating as directed by law. The Abbeville Police Department did not arrest the teacher," Funderburk said. "Due to the location of her arrest and the arresting agency’s jurisdiction, which includes the city limits of Abbeville, she was booked in and bonded from the local police department.”
The department said it has received numerous emails and phone calls about the arrest. It has directed all questions concerning the incident to the Vermilion Parish School Board.
City Marshal Jeremiah Bolden did not immediately respond to phone messages left Tuesday.
According to the Louisiana Department of Education, Vermilion Parish teachers made an average of $47,041 per year in 2015-16. The Louisiana average for teachers was $48,462.
Puyau said it has been several years since the parish’s teachers or other employees received a raise.
He plans to propose some changes to the school board in the coming months, however.
“We’re going to be presenting to the board a proposal on how we can increase the salary that we want to provide our teachers, but it’s going to take our community to support it,” Puyau said. “We have shown that we have taken the right steps. Our schools do very well, and our board agreed that I’m doing a good job. We have that stability, so now we have to move forward and increase the salary for our teachers.”
According to video of the meeting, Hargrave spoke up again after the board approved Puyau’s new contract.
“When I first started teaching ELA, there was like 20, 21 kids in a class, and now there’s 29 kids in a class that we are now having, and we have not gotten raises,” Hargrave said. “How are you going to take that money, because it’s basically taking out of our pockets.”
At that point, Board President Anthony Fontana banged his gavel and stopped Hargrave, saying her comments did not pertain to anything on the agenda.
Shortly after, Puyau began speaking to Hargrave, but was cut off. At that point, a man in a law enforcement uniform approached Hargrave, told her to get her things and leave.
Hargrave, and others in the crowded meeting room, are heard asking why she is being escorted away. A short time later, the video shows Hargrave on the floor in the hallway in handcuffs, asking why she is being detained. The officer then escorts Hargrave outside. An Abbeville Police Department vehicle arrives a short time later, and Hargrave is placed in the vehicle.
Puyau said he had been advised not to discuss the meeting itself.
Puyau was named Vermilion Parish superintendent-elect in July 2012. He took over the position permanently in January 2013. He has worked for the parish school system since 1991, spending nearly 15 years as a teacher and administrator before becoming the district’s supervisor of maintenance in August 2006.
Longstanding divisions on the eight-member school board preceded the meeting, according to LeBeouf and board member Kibbie Pillette, both of whom said that a new contract for Puyau gives him the opportunity to earn as much as $38,000 more per year.
Pillette said he wouldn’t be surprised if teachers decide to walk out to protest Hargrave’s treatment, although they were at work Tuesday.
Other board members either declined comment or didn’t respond to queries Tuesday.
The LAE has a lawyer supporting Hargrave.
“As an organization that advocates for the dedicated school employees of Louisiana, we firmly denounce the mistreatment of Ms. Hargrave, a loving parent and dedicated teacher serving the students of Vermilion Parish,” the union’s statement said.
In recent years, Vermilion Parish has consistently been one of Louisiana’s top-rated public school districts. Most recently, the Louisiana Department of Education awarded it an ‘A’ grade and an overall score of 106.3, signaling high academic test scores among many of its students and schools.
However, Puyau’s time as superintendent has not been without question. In May 2016, some board members publicly expressed concern about Puyau’s management style, staffing, financial decisions and strategic planning.
Others, including Fontana, supported Puyau and claimed negative feedback about him was politically motivated.
Hargrave was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday. But on social media, several people expressed support for her and her comments.
“We don’t know each other, but you are an amazing young lady and its teachers like you who get things done AND hopefully changed,” one person wrote on Hargrave’s Facebook page.
Another person thanked Hargrave for speaking up in such a public way.
“Thank you for being the voice of all Louisiana teachers!,” the comment read. “Wish more teachers would be brave enough to voice their opinions! You are a blessing to your students and school.”
A petition started online Tuesday had garnered about 1,100 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.
In her comments before the board approved Puyau’s contract, Hargrave said many teachers had similar concerns, but were afraid to speak out because of Louisiana’s Act One law, which gives superintendents broad authority over personnel decisions.
“I feel like I’m speaking on behalf of more than just myself, more than just Kaplan teachers. I’m speaking as a group,” she said. “It’s, again, I’m going to use the word, absurd, that we’re even considering giving someone a raise when these teachers are working this hard and not getting a dime.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report
© Gannett Co., Inc. 2018. All Rights Reserved