A teacher who dramatically criticized special education cuts, by, among other things, presenting Chicago’s mayor with a mock arrest warrant, said Chicago Public Schools improperly fired her in retaliation.
In a complaint filed July 7 in federal court in Chicago, Sarah Chambers sued the Chicago Board of Education, her employer from May 19, 2009, through May 5, 2017. She taught special education at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, but said issues arose after a September 2015 meeting at which she presented Mayor Rahm Emanuel a mock arrest warrant to protest cuts to the Chicago Public Schools special education budget.
Later that month, during the public comments portion of a school board meeting, Chambers spoke about a student who was threatened with expulsion for trying to address the board. In October 2015, the Chicago Monitor published Chambers’ essay about her concerns.
In November 2016, she again addressed the board, saying budget cuts were preventing students with severe disabilities from accessing needed services. The next month she again spoke at a board meeting, this time accompanied by students and with “her wrists bound with red tape to symbolize the complaints she voiced about the inadequate services provided to special education students in CPS,” per the complaint.
Chambers was co-chairwoman of the Special Education Task Force in the 2016-2017 school year, a group that included parents of special education students, teachers, other CPS employees, union representatives and disability rights groups. The task force created a flyer about special education rights to be given to CPS parents at the report card pick-up day. It also protested outside board meetings and at City Hall and conducted meetings to inform parents about special education law.
In her complaint, Chambers detailed interactions with Saucedo Principal Virginia Hiltz and Assistant Principal Nancy Quintana during the last school year, accusing Quintana of making “untrue and even bizarre accusations,” such as sending letters she did not write or being the only teacher opposing changes when several others objected to Quintana’s proposals.
“It makes no sense to say that everyone but Chambers is satisfied with the changes, while also saying that the changes came about because of a complaint by Chambers. It makes no sense that the person who instigated the changes would be the only person displeased with them,” Chambers alleged. “Quintana’s objective was to shift blame to Chambers rather than to explain the true situation to parents.”
Chambers also conflicted with school officials in March when she told eighth-grade students they did not have to take Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exams. Although the board disciplined two other teachers at the same time, it suspended Chambers as of April 6 and, on May 5, sent her notification of her dismissal.
On April 26, students and supporters attended a school board meeting to speak on Chambers’ behalf. She said she had no part in organizing that appearance, but alleged the board fired her for “encouraging speech.”
The complaint formally accused the board of firing Chambers in retaliation for activity that should be protected under the First Amendment. It also said the Illinois Whistleblower Act protects her from consequences for disclosing the school’s violation of laws related to services for special education students
Chambers wants the court to reinstate her without a loss of seniority status, to award damages equal to lost salary and benefits, with interest, as well as legal fees.
She is represented by Dowd, Bloch, Bennett, Cervone, Auerbach & Yokich, of Chicago.