Education

Woodland teacher placed on paid leave after kneeling during national anthem at school rally

A Facebook post by a Woodland High School parent shows teacher Windy Pappas kneeling during the national anthem at a homecoming rally on Friday. The post by Amy Plunkett was supportive of Pappas and generated more than 500 reactions.
A Facebook post by a Woodland High School parent shows teacher Windy Pappas kneeling during the national anthem at a homecoming rally on Friday. The post by Amy Plunkett was supportive of Pappas and generated more than 500 reactions.

Update: Pappas returned to teaching Tuesday. This article has been updated with terms of her removal.

A Woodland High School chemistry teacher was removed from the school Friday for kneeling while the national anthem was played at a school assembly.

Windy Pappas had posters reading “Black Lives Matter” and “It’s okay to disagree with any sign here!!!” as the national anthem played during Woodland High’s rally to kick off homecoming week on Friday morning. She had an orange shirt – one of the school colors – and had her right hand over her heart as she kneeled, based on a photo circulating on social media.

The rally proceeded without incident, but administrators later came to her classroom and escorted her to the school parking lot, she told The Daily Democrat.

Pappas declined to comment Monday, citing a pending investigation.

Woodland Joint Unified School District spokeswoman Callie Lutz confirmed that the high school emailed and left a recorded message for students’ families on Sunday, but said the district would not comment on Pappas’ employment situation out of respect for her privacy. Lutz later clarified that Pappas had been placed on paid leave, not suspended.

In the message, Woodland High principal Karrie Sequeria said teachers are expected to behave under the “Tinker Standard,” named for the landmark freedom of speech case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The standard allows students to express themselves freely so long as they do not cause a substantial disruption or impede the rights of others.

“While teachers do retain certain First Amendment rights in their capacity as an instructor, such rights are limited by Education Code and case law,” Sequeria said. “Their personal, political or religious beliefs are not appropriately expressed at school or in the classroom. Instead, the appropriate and legal instructional role is one of neutral facilitator – one who facilitates student discussion and intelligent analysis of current events.”

The First Amendment entitles teachers to protected speech if it is not in a school-sponsored platform, ACLU of Northern California senior staff attorney Michael Risher said. Past California cases have found teachers were within their rights to wear political buttons at back-to-school nights or circulate petitions in a teacher’s lounge, since they were not actively instructing students.

Staff are expected to attend rallies to supervise students and are assigned where to sit or stand, Lutz said. While most students attend rallies, the school also offers a separate location for those who choose not to. If Pappas attended the rally as a chaperone and didn’t offer an educational lecture, Risher said, imposing a suspension for her protest could prove difficult.

“Homecoming is not a part of the school curriculum. It’s essentially a social or spirit event, and that would certainly weigh in favor of her expressing her political views at that sort of event,” Risher said. “I don’t think anyone would confuse her personal expression here with expressing the views of the school, and that matters in this context.”

Several students and community members took to social media to express support or opposition of Pappas after she was escorted off campus.

The administrator of an unofficial Woodland High School page on Facebook on Friday posted her support for Pappas, saying “I applaud her for her actions and for taking a stand for what she believes is right.” That elicited more than 200 reactions and more than 100 comments as of Monday.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then of the San Francisco 49ers, began kneeling during the national anthem in fall 2016 to protest oppression of blacks and other minorities. Just 1.1 percent of Woodland High students are African-American, according to state data, but 67.2 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino.

Editor’s note (Oct. 17): Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story said Woodland High School’s colors were orange and black. The official colors are orange and white, though teams also wear black as a secondary color.

Benjy Egel: 916-321-1052, @BenjyEgel

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