Deyshia Hargrave had a question for the Vermilion Parish School Board: Why was the superintendent getting a pay raise when teachers like her and other school employees hadn’t had one in years?
“I feel like it is a slap in the face of all the teachers, cafeteria workers and any other support staff we have,” she told the board in a public meeting Monday. “We work very hard with very little.”
What happened next might have stayed in the tiny Louisiana town of Abbeville, about 150 miles west of New Orleans. But captured on videotape and viewed nearly 2 million times on YouTube, it became an international incident. The school board reportedly received death threats from around the world, as local parents and teachers planned their own protests.
As the superintendent, Jerome Puyau, began to respond to Hargrave, a city marshal approached the middle-school English teacher.
“You are going to leave or I am going to remove you,” the marshal said. “Take your things and go.”
“Excuse me,” she said to him.
“Is it against policy to stand?” she asked the board as the marshal attempted to grab her arm.
Hargrave then grabbed her purse and began to exit the meeting room as members of the audience protested. “This is the most disgraceful and distasteful thing I have ever seen,” one woman said as Hargrave made her way out.
Seconds later, the crowd expressed alarm when a man announced Hargrave was being handcuffed.
The camera then showed Hargrave lying on the floor of the hallway.
“What are you doing?” Hargrave screamed as the marshal handcuffed her hands behind her back. “Are you kidding me?”
“Stop resisting,” the marshal said, hustling Hargrave toward an exit after lifting her to her feet.
“I am not. You just pushed me to the floor,” Hargave responded. “Sir … I am way smaller than you.”
Hargrave was arrested for “remaining after being forbidden” and “resisting an officer,” said Ike Funderburk, Abbeville’s city attorney and prosecutor. Funderburk said he viewed the video shortly after the meeting and called the attorney for the school board. They agreed they did not want to prosecute.
“I’ve been practicing law for more years than I care to admit, and I have attended hundreds, if not thousands, of public meetings,” Funderburk said. “I found no criminal activity, and I’m not going to prosecute somebody when I find no criminal activity.”
He said that it appeared that the school board president, Anthony Fontana, had given Hargrave permission to speak and never told her to relinquish the floor.
Fontana did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment. In a Wednesday interview with the local KPEL-FM radio station, Fontana said that Hargrave was at fault.
The board’s agenda Monday night, Fontana said, was simply to vote up or down on the superintendent’s contract, not to ask questions or discuss the issues of the contract.
“Let me tell you this: She’s a schoolteacher,” he said. "If a child gets up in her classroom and starts talking in the middle of the class and she tells the child to sit down and the child doesn’t sit down, what does she do? She removes the child from the classroom and sends them to the principal’s office. We have rules.”
The Louisiana Assn. of Educators, a teachers union, is working with Hargrave on possible legal action.
“It is every citizen’s right to speak up for their beliefs,” the union said in a statement. “Any action that infringes upon this right is unlawful and unacceptable.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana is also investigating the incident.
“Deyshia Hargrave’s expulsion from a public meeting and subsequent arrest are unacceptable and raise serious constitutional concerns,” the ACLU of Louisiana’s interim executive director, Jane Johnson, said in a statement. "The Constitution prohibits the government from punishing or retaliating against people for expressing their views, and the fact that a schoolteacher was arrested at a public meeting of the school board is especially troubling.”
The superintendent, who was making $110,130, will now make $140,811, according to a local television report. Teachers in Louisiana make an average of $49,000.
Laura LeBeouf, a school board member and retired educator, said that until recently the eight-member board had been evenly split on the issue of hiking Puyau’s pay. But a board member’s death in November changed the board’s makeup.
“Our teachers have not received a raise in 10 years,” she said, explaining why she voted against a raise. “Why should we be spending an excess?”
LeBeouf said it was not the first time a woman had been removed from a board meeting. Since she joined three years ago, she said, about four or five women had been escorted out, or sent letters informing them they’re banned from attending future meetings.
“I have never seen a man escorted out,” she said.
Still, LeBeouf said, this was the first time a woman attending a meeting had been handcuffed.