A Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School teacher filed a lawsuit against the Berkeley Unified School District on Wednesday alleging in part that the school district violated her first amendment rights by placing her on involuntary paid leave based on her involvement with a political group.
Yvette Felarca, the plaintiff of the case, was placed on involuntary paid leave in September 2016 after being placed under investigation for “inappropriate conduct.” In June 2016, Felarca attended an anti-racism protest in Sacramento, at which she was filmed taunting and punching a member of a white nationalist group. Violence escalated at the event, and she and other protesters were stabbed by another white nationalist.
Natasha Beery, director of the Berkeley Schools in Excellence Program and community engagement, said in a statement that placing teachers on paid leave during an ongoing investigation is “not unusual.” She said because the issue was a personnel matter, the Berkeley school district could not comment on why she was under investigation or whether it was related to her conduct at the protest.
Felarca alleged that the school district placed her on leaved because she is a political organizer for the liberal activist group By Any Means Necessary, or BAMN, a coalition which works to defend affirmative action, racial integration and immigrant rights.
“This is a city that prides itself in opposing racism and supporting activism, and it’s exactly people like Yvette Felarca who should be in the schools,” said Felarca’s attorney Ronald Cruz.
After a video of Felarca at the protest surfaced, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School received an anonymous threat in July claiming that if no actions were taken against Felarca, someone would come to the school and harm students. Additionally, a former Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School student has created a petition asking the administration to fire Felarca, which received more than 500 signatures.
Felarca said she feels she must stand up and fight the school district on its actions in order to ensure more just treatment of district employees in the future.
“My concern is, frankly, that if I don’t make this fight, more good teachers will be driven out,” Felarca said. “I have no other choice, and I am both obligated and honored to play that role.”