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School Board fires Windsor principal over BLM Facebook post

  • Tiffany Riley

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/16/2020 3:50:31 PM
Modified: 10/17/2020 12:30:57 PM

WINDSOR — The Mount Ascutney School District Board this week affirmed its decision to fire Windsor School Principal Tiffany Riley following a Facebook post she made that was seen as critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling the post “hostile” in nature.

“However, speech need not rise to the level of ‘hostile’ in order for the disruption it causes to outweigh any First Amendment protections which might attach to that speech,” the board wrote in its decision, dismissing arguments from Riley and her attorney that the loss of her job over a Facebook post would violate of her free speech rights.

The unanimous decision, signed Wednesday but released Friday afternoon, detailed the circumstances leading up to Riley’s June 10 post as well as the aftermath. In the decision, board members said the post caused “severe disruption” within the K-12 school and led to extensive media coverage and complaints from members of the community, with some students and parents questioning whether the school was a “safe space” for students of color.

In the June post Riley wrote, “I firmly believe Black Lives Matter, but I DO NOT agree with coercive measures taken to get this point across; some of which are falsified in an attempt to prove a point.”

She also wrote that “While I want to get behind BLM, I do not think people should be made to feel they have to choose black race over human race.”

In a statement she released Friday evening, Riley said she had been prohibited from speaking by the school district while she was still an employee (she continued to receive her $113,000 salary until she was fired on Wednesday).

“I have been pained by the negative responses that my post generated; I am truly sorry. Unfortunately, my post was misunderstood and misinterpreted. I wish that I had had the opportunity to speak with the community about my post to better articulate and explain what I intended to communicate when I made my ambiguously stated post,” she wrote.

Riley, who had served as principal since 2015, also said the public controversy had been “extremely traumatic and stressful for me and my family.”

“Black lives have always mattered to me, which is why I had been leading equity training in the School. The statement that ‘All lives will matter when Black lives matter’ captures my sentiments about the message of the Black Lives Matter movement,” she wrote.

The post that cost Riley her job followed a controversy involving the American flag and Black Lives Matter. After someone painted an American flag on the Windsor School grounds, in the area where graduation would be held, an alumna emailed Riley and Superintendent David Baker on June 2. The alumna requested they remove the painting, saying some would see it as exclusionary to students of color, or that they include Black Lives Matter signage or language during the high school graduation, according to the decision.

Though Riley, Baker and other staff members discussed including Black Lives Matter signs during the graduation, the idea didn’t come to fruition, leading the student and another member of the community to email the superintendent and Riley, upset that it hadn’t been included.

Riley made the post following that email. Seeing the post and its shares on social media, Baker reached out to Riley, asking that she take it down and calling the language of the post “racist” and “inflammatory.” Riley disagreed but eventually put out another post on June 11 saying, “I recently made a public post that unintentionally offended many people. I understand the struggles of the black lives community and stand with them in the fight against racism.”

The board voted to put Riley on paid administrative leave the following day.

Board members claimed that her post was not an apology and in fact, “likely exacerbated the impacts” of the June 10 post, according to the decision.

“The Board felt (Riley) continued to take a defensive position and refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong with the June 10 Facebook post and how she had handled the entire situation around the request to add an inclusive message at graduation,” board members wrote in the decision.

The board voted to fire Riley on July 27, pending a termination hearing required by state law. The hearing, which led to Wednesday’s ruling, was held Sept. 10.

In their decision, board members gave several reasons for upholding the July 27 termination vote. They wrote that the June 10 post itself was “inconsistent” with the expectations of a principal, which include fostering a community of inclusivity.

“Even if the post does not advance racist views, it fails to advance equality for non-white community members,” the board wrote.

They wrote that the post and Riley’s lack of a “bona fide apology” also had a substantial negative impact on the community.

“Her actions caused outrage and led community members to believe that the principal of their community school held racist beliefs. Her actions led parents, alumni, and colleagues to question whether Windsor School is a place of inclusion for minority students and a place where appreciation for equity is fostered in non-minority students, staff, and families.”

The board also accused Riley of not working with Baker on an appropriate apology, calling her decision a “clear misjudgment” that showed she wasn’t suited for the responsibilities of a principal.

And they also wrote that Riley “exhibited a consistent effort to evade blame, a refusal to admit fault, and a failure to see both sides of the issue.”

Bill Meub, an attorney representing Riley, said he expected the final termination decision from the board, though he did not agree with it, and that they plan to appeal.

He added that board members tried to “find additional justification to try and improve their decision.”

“They use this concept that she has disrupted the school,” Meub said. “I think they overreacted in June and have tried to correct and fix it.”

The decision made clear that Riley had sought to have the termination hearing open to the public, but the School Board declined to do so.

School Board chair Elizabeth Burrows declined to comment on the case and said other members of the board would not comment further following the decision.

Meub and Riley have 30 days to appeal the board’s decision to fire her in Vermont Superior Court.

Following the board’s decision to place her on paid administrative leave, Riley filed a lawsuit against the board, accusing it of violating her First Amendment rights. The lawsuit was put on hold while board members came to a decision about Riley’s employment.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.



The following PDFs are the decision signed on Wednesday by the Mount Ascutney School District Board, and a news release distributed by Tiffany Riley on Friday night. Continue reading the story after the PDFs.




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