Tempest brewing over school district employees truck

Delaine Fragnoli
Managing Editor
11/24/2010

Many residents of and visitors to Quincy have seen it. It’s hard to miss when it’s parked on the street. “It” is an old Ford pickup with numerous racist images and slogans. Sometimes it flies a Confederate flag. The slogans range from the merely crude — “Liberals suck and blow at the same time” — to the disturbing.

The line “At lest (sic) you can eat the hog” appears on one bumper. It is an allusion to a line from the movie “Glory”: “I’d rather own a hog than a n-----; at least you can eat the hog.”

The truck is offensive enough that authorities report multiple complaints about it. Sheriff Greg Hagwood said he had discussed the truck with other law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, he said, no matter how repulsive the messages, the truck owner is not doing anything illegal.

But one of the truck owners may have crossed the line when she took the truck onto school district property.

Yvonne Bales, business director for Plumas Unified School District, sometimes drives the truck to work and parks it in the district office parking lot.

The district property faces Church Street between Jackson and Main streets in downtown Quincy. The parking lot sits on the corner of Church and Jackson. Adjacent to the lot on Jackson is the Plumas County Community School.

Here is where things get really sticky: J.C. Eaglesmith, a Native American, teaches a multi-racial student population at PCCS. Eaglesmith is currently in the middle of a complaint process with the school district. He is alleging he was discriminated against because of his race during his tenure as coach of the Quincy High School basketball team.

Eaglesmith has made discrimination claims before. In the early and mid-90s he filed suits against Mendocino County schools and the Boy Scouts of America.

Eaglesmith said in an e-mail that Bales’ truck was parked within view of his classroom Nov. 3. He and several of his students took pictures of the truck.

This was not the first or only time Bales had taken the truck to work. According to two district employees, who requested anonymity because they feared retaliation, Bales regularly drove the truck to work.

School Superintendent Glenn Harris said later that Bales saw Eaglesmith and his students taking pictures of the vehicle and she approached them.

Harris reported the group told Bales of their concerns and she went back into the district office and told Harris of the incident, and said she’d driven her husband’s truck to work.

Eaglesmith e-mailed the pictures to former Quincy High School teacher and teacher’s union representative Piers Strailey, who forwarded them to Feather Publishing.

Strailey brought the truck to the attention of PUSD board members during public comment at their Nov. 9 meeting. Board members did not respond — they couldn’t because the issue was not on the agenda.

Strailey followed up with a formal complaint Nov. 12, alleging “racial hatred, discrimination and sexual harassment.”

He has asked the district to terminate Bales. He alleges the messages “constitute discrimination against and harassment of ” Eaglesmith.

When first approached by Feather Publishing, Harris called the truck’s presence on school property a First Amendment issue and said he couldn’t do anything about it.

When pressed about district policy, Harris said he would have to have his administrative assistant research the question.

After further questioning, he said he needed to consult legal counsel.

Following a series of exchanges with PUSD attorney Michelle Cannon, Harris issued a statement Nov. 16: “The district believes the various statements on the vehicle are impermissible on school/district grounds … Speech that can be considered ‘hate speech’ or ‘fighting words’ or obscene, libelous, disruptive or otherwise not relating to matters of public concern, may be restricted.

“And in this case, we believe the statements expressed on the vehicle fall into several, if not all, of the above categories and should therefore be prohibited from district property.”

Harris also referred to a federal Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights dictum that says, in essence, discrimination in an educational setting takes precedence over free speech rights.

According to Harris, the remedy — effective immediately — requires that “the pickup in question or other vehicles with disruptive hate messages not be allowed on district property.”

Harris said Bales “has been cooperative, supportive and understanding of the issue throughout the entire process.”

Harris gave Bales a letter spelling out the district’s position and prohibiting her from bringing the truck onto school property.

Bales declined to comment on the controversy.

Harris’ assistant eventually supplied two board policies, one which prohibits discrimination against district employees, “whether verbal, physical, or visual … that creates a hostile work environment.” A district employee who engages in discrimination “shall be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.”

The second policy concerned student speech and its limits when “‘fighting words’ or epithets” are involved and there is “an actual danger” resulting from the speech.

After Strailey filed his complaint, Harris reviewed it and sent it to the human resources department. Harris said the district couldn’t comment further on an ongoing personnel matter.

 

Reporting by Linda Satchwell

 


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