From the Wichita Eagle:

A Wichita teacher who posted to Facebook about her concern that USD 259 reopening procedures are deficient was wrongly disciplined by the district, said the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. The nonprofit wrote to the Wichita school district’s administration asking officials to rescind the teacher’s reprimand.

District officials issued the teacher a write-up for her posts on social media, the ACLU said. The teacher does not want to be named for fear of further retaliation.

The ACLU of Kansas said it is defending the teacher’s First Amendment rights and that the district’s move to discipline her was a way of “weaponizing inapplicable policies as a pretext to censor them.”

“As a remedy, we ask that the District rescind the write up it issued to (the teacher) and advise that she may continue to post her views about the District’s reopening protocol without any fear that her employer will further interfere with her right to free speech,” said the ACLU’s letter, obtained by The Eagle, which was addressed to the district’s general counsel, Tom Powell.

“We also urge you to cease threatening and intimidating other teachers and employees for voicing criticisms of the District’s reopening plan,” attorneys wrote. “This letter is an attempt to resolve this matter amicably.”

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A spokesperson for USD 259 said there is much in the letter with which officials disagree, and the district will share those comments with the ACLU’s attorney.

“We respect the teacher’s right to disagree with our policies for the reopening of schools, as well as the teacher’s right to publicize those views on their own time in a manner consistent with our policies,” the spokesperson said in an email.

“We will not be engaging in an in-depth discussion of any personnel matter,” she added.

The teacher whom the letter references is not the only one who has been “threatened” for publicly expressing concern about the district’s reopening plan during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the ACLU’s letter. The group said it has heard from other educators in the district who have been directly and indirectly threatened with “adverse employment consequences” if they continued to post their concerns online.

The United Teachers of Wichita, the teachers’ union, has posted to Facebook on occasion reminding teachers that they are not supposed to use social media during work hours.

Kimberly Howard, president of UTW, said she can’t comment specifically on the ACLU case. Howard said she doesn’t know of other USD 259 teachers who have been disciplined because of their social media posts or otherwise speaking publicly about the district’s reopening plans.

The case of the teacher’s discipline began Aug. 12, when she recorded a 48-second video on her phone of her temperature check before entering the building that morning. The video showed that her temperature was taken as 93.9 degrees and the teacher responded “That’s a bit chilly.” The teacher later posted the video to Facebook, according to the ACLU’s letter.

The teacher made the post to document that the thermometer was not working properly and to express worries that the screening process was deficient, the ACLU said. The letter added that the teacher’s phone was in plain view when she recorded the video.

The following day, a person whose name is redacted in the letter told the teacher he thought that the video violated Board Policy 1389, which requires prior approval to use a concealed camera to record a student or employee.

The teacher maintains that she did not conceal her phone and therefore did not violate the policy. She apologized to a principal and the security guard for her post, according to the letter.

The next week, the district called the teacher into a disciplinary meeting where she received a write-up for her Aug. 12 social media post, ACLU attorneys wrote in the letter. The district also told the teacher she could face further discipline, including termination if she continued to post about USD 259’s preparedness to reopen and resume activities during the pandemic.

The ACLU’s letter says the teacher posted to social media during work hours but claims she is not the only one to do so. The letter adds that another employee posted during the workday about their support for resuming student activities, and that employee was not disciplined.

The letter from ACLU of Kansas attorneys includes a legal analysis about public employees’ First Amendment right to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern. It asks the district to contact the nonprofit so it can avoid further legal action.

“The voices of our educators are critically important at this moment,” the letter reads.