Censorship and survival at the Robert F. Kennedy Schools
Updated: Jun 12
One year ago this week, I sat in the audience of the Cocoanut Grove theater at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools to celebrate the Ambassador School of Global Leadership's class of 2019 commencement.
I had been a teacher at the Ambassador School, also known as ASGL, for three years, teaching English and Journalism.
Erin Kim, who was valedictorian and one of my journalism students, had intended to mention me in her speech. Here's an excerpt from her original draft:
I would say that someone outside of my family who is a role model that inspires me is my Journalism teacher, Mr. McGroarty who is getting fired at the end of this school year. Now, you’re probably thinking - what it is I find inspiring from a teacher who probably did something horrible to get fired? But, contrary to your initial thoughts, he is getting fired for basically exercising his first amendment right of the freedom of speech and expression through vocalizing his opinions about LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner, being a strong strike leader from a few months ago to better the conditions of LAUSD schools and raise teachers’ salaries, and basically speaking up for what he believes in.
The original draft, however, didn't make it past the school's administration. While it's not completely clear what happened or who made the final decision about the speech, what is clear is that Erin was told to make some significant revisions.
Here's an excerpt from the speech she actually delivered:
I would say that someone outside of my family who is my role model is my Journalism teacher, Mr. McGroarty who will not be with us next year. As not only a student journalist and editor-in-chief of Buzzkill, our school’s online publication, but also a student who is finding a voice in the community, I have been constantly reminded through Mr. McGroarty’s actions to not shy away from my true feelings and beliefs. To not be afraid to stand up for what you believe is correct even when others are discouraged and afraid of authority. To be the leader that sheds light on the voices of those that go unheard.
The edited version expresses a nice sentiment, but it's essentially sanitized and depoliticized. Gone are the phrases "fired," "first amendment," "superintendent Austin Beutner," "strike leader," "teachers' salaries," and—perhaps most galling—"conditions of LAUSD schools." In other words, the speech was censored, neutered, rendered safe for consumption, and, most important, sure not to embarrass anyone.
If the bureaucracy had intended to erase history, it had succeeded.
As an LAUSD teacher between 2016 and 2019 (I had also worked as a substitute from 1999 to 2008) my formal evaluations were excellent, and I never had any disciplinary issues. Administrators have written that I was a “model" teacher, “one of the most valued teachers,” and a “genuine asset” to the school. In 2017, I received a “Certificate of Recognition” from acting Superintendent Vicky Ekchian.
It was only during the school-year of our 2019 strike, however, when—as the union representative at ASGL, I began to criticize Superintendent Beutner as well as successfully organize my colleagues in defense of our rights at our school site—that I was punished.
After the news of my dismissal had spread, supportive colleagues and union members collected signatures for a petition, displayed signs reading “No Union Busting,” and even peacefully interrupted a faculty meeting in order to make a formal statement to the principal. I appreciate this, and I'll never forget it. But it didn't work.
Fortunately, I am receiving full legal representation through UTLA and the California Teachers Association. Unfortunately, the process of winning the case and being reinstated can take many years—without any guarantee of success, of course.
Almost two years ago, in August of 2018, Beutner—an investment banker and “civic leader” who has never been a teacher nor worked in the field of education in any capacity that would qualify him to lead the second-largest public school system in the nation—exhorted an auditorium full of administrators to be “rule-breakers,” discouraging them from "spending your time on managing bureaucracy and compliance.” His speech then turned to leadership: "I never met a great leader who asked for permission to lead," he said, tapping into an age-old ideal, one that prioritizes moral and ethical exigency over complacent and cynical inertia.
The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and I can understand why. First, he's the boss. Second, the bureaucracy really is stifling, paralyzing, and maddening. Anyone who has ever worked for LAUSD knows it. What a relief for principals, then, to hear their new leader speak against it. Or at least appear to speak against it.
That's the weird thing about bureaucracy. The chief will decree an official Era of Rule-Breaking. The managers will clap dutifully and set off to follow the rules of the new regime by "breaking" the rules, but only so much as to merely appear to be breaking them—because to break them in actuality would be too risky. But then again, not posturing as a rule-breaker is also risky, especially after the chief's call to action.
In many ways, the unions function the same way. At the United Teacher Los Angeles convention during the summer before the strike, one UTLA officer pumped us up by saying, "If you're chapter chair, you have the same authority as the principal. Own the room!"
I heard this call to action, and I did my job. I championed a merger of passionate union militancy with professional achievement in order to reestablish the public’s trust in our schools and reward the essential work of all school employees. Some good it did me.
But at least I have a lawyer.
It's also good to know that the events at the Ambassador School gave Erin Kim, who's now a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, something to think about. And her personally recognizing me during one of the most important milestones of her life, was genuinely moving:
It’s the little things he does that inspires me. His stories, his lessons for us from an assignment, his ever-present smile in the midst of the chaos, his attitude of finishing strong and trying to teach us as many things as he can regarding what it means to be a journalist. These are the things that inspire me. As a slam poet myself, gaining this inspiration was everything I could’ve asked for.
To the extent that I might have offered her some insight, set an example of how to "finish strong," or helped her find her voice as a poet, I'm satisfied. And it's especially gratifying to know that she's studying in New England, with its rich history—albeit complicated and contradictory—of truly revolutionary ideas and interning at the Street Law Program of the Susquehanna Legal Aid and Education for Adults and Youth (SLAAY).
This isn't over. I've only just begun to fight. If it's going to be a long, hard slog, I can handle it. One quality that all good teachers develop "in the midst of the chaos": resilience.
The bureaucratic machine will grind on, but it can't destroy the soul.