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Seeing Red

Paul Vallas and the school board come gunning for a teacher--does the fact that she's a communist have anything to do with it?



By Ben Joravsky

In another age, in a different political climate, Carol Caref might have been praised for encouraging high school students to march against the Ku Klux Klan. Instead the Chicago Vocational High School math teacher has been fired--or "suspended without pay" while the system goes through the process of trying to have her "terminated," as one central-office lawyer puts it.

The facts of her case are complicated by her political affiliation. In addition to being a teacher--and a pretty good one, at least according to the evaluations she's received over the course of her 16-year career--Caref's a communist. "I don't try to hide who I am or what I believe," she says. "I'm a member of the Progressive Labor Party, but I'm not trying to convert people. I think it's virtually impossible to convert people to communism--it's not something that someone comes to by listening to a good speech. I don't proselytize. I communicate. In class, we work hard on math. But I make a point of getting to know my students and their parents. If students or parents are interested, I let them know they might want to attend a meeting or rally."

One such gathering was held in Beloit, Wisconsin, on December 6, 1997. The Ku Klux Klan had a permit to hold a rally, and the Progressive Labor Party was one of several anti-Klan organizations going there to protest. "I know some people who say just ignore the Klan, but I think it's important to take them seriously," says Caref. "Remember, they were coming to Beloit just after James Byrd, a black man in Texas, had been dragged to his death from the back of a truck. It was especially important to see people protesting the Klan."

In the days leading up to the demonstration, Caref let it be known that students, parents, and teachers were welcome to join her in Beloit. Only one person, a 16-year-old student I'll call Karen, decided to go. "Karen wasn't a student in my class," says Caref. "But she heard me talking about the rally to another teacher, and she said she wanted to go. I said, 'OK, but I have to talk to your parents.' She said her grandparents were her guardians."

Caref says she called Karen's grandparents and talked to her grandmother. "Karen had already asked her about the rally," she says. "I told her that it was in Beloit and that it wasn't a school-sponsored event. I asked if she had any questions or concerns. She wanted to make sure that we weren't going to be out late. Then she gave me permission to take Karen to Beloit."

On the morning of December 6, Karen met Caref and her comrades at Malcolm X College. There were about 20 people, including seven or eight teenagers from various high schools. They boarded vans and took off for Beloit, arriving just after noon.

It was, Caref says, a typical Klan event. About 20 Klansmen and 300 counterdemonstrators were separated by a wall of police, and the closest anyone got to the Klan members was a fenced-off area about 20 feet away. "We didn't go into the fenced-off area--I didn't even see the Klan," says Caref. "We talked on the bullhorn. We passed out leaflets. I was very cognizant of my responsibility to keep my eye on Karen. However, she's not two years old. I didn't have her handcuffed to me. At one point I remember thinking that I hadn't seen her for a few minutes. Just as I started looking around for her, I heard some commotion. It seemed that some young people were tearing down the temporary wooden fence set up to keep us from getting close to the Klan. The police were arresting people. I looked closer and thought, 'Oh, shit.' They were arresting Karen!"

According to a report filed by the Beloit police, Karen had kicked a cop in the groin. According to a report by an investigator for the Chicago Public Schools, Karen said she was arrested for "arguing with a policeman."

Whatever happened, she was one of several people handcuffed and hauled away to jail. "I immediately went over to where the arrests were taking place," says Caref. "But the cops said, 'Get away or we'll arrest you too.' I went to the police station and talked to a police officer, who said they were holding Karen and the others until the Klan stopped speaking."

Karen was held in a cell for over an hour. "She was released to my custody," says Caref. "I drove her home and asked her if she wanted me to talk to her grandparents. She said that, no, she wanted to be the one who broke the news."

A few days later Caref called the grandmother. "I apologized for what happened, and I offered her legal assistance if she needed it. The grandmother wasn't angry at me. They knew I was concerned about what might happen to Karen, though she did say she wished the whole thing hadn't happened.

"After that I went to see the grandparents in person. We had a friendly conversation. The grandfather said that Martin Luther King had been arrested too and that at least Karen wasn't arrested for drugs. The point is that they understood the distinction. She was arrested in connection to a protest against the Ku Klux Klan. He wasn't saying that he was glad she was arrested, but that he understood the context in which she was arrested."

The Beloit police referred the matter to Cook County juvenile authorities. "Karen's grandmother got a letter from some youth agency saying that they were not going to pursue this at any time," says Caref. "That was pretty much the end of it."

Or so she thought. In January 1999, over a year after the rally, she learned that the matter was being investigated: "Two students came up to me and said there's an investigator from the board--a guy named John Connolly--going around asking students questions about me."

Apparently her name had surfaced in a board investigation of another teacher, Moises Bernal, also a member of the Progressive Labor Party. (The central office later dismissed Bernal without pay for taking students during a school day to a protest against police brutality.)

"There was no reason to investigate me," says Caref. "There had been no complaint filed about me taking Karen to Beloit. The grandparents didn't complain. My principal didn't complain. Karen didn't complain. I think what happened is that the investigator was called in to investigate because Moises and I are communists. They were looking for something to pin on us. It was a witch-hunt. It was, let's see what we can do to get these communists out of the school.

"I called Thomas Sherry, Connolly's boss, and I asked him, 'Am I being investigated?' He said yes. I said what for? He said unauthorized field trips. I said, 'What are your procedures for the investigation?' I was particularly interested in the fact that they had interviewed students without the permission of their parents. He claimed there are no written procedures. I said, 'Oh, you can just do whatever you want?' He said yes. So I filed a grievance through the union saying I wanted the investigation stopped or at least I wanted to be notified as to what it was about."

In response, the Chicago Teachers Union received a letter dated April 26, 1999, from Timothy Brandhorst, then director of the Chicago Public Schools' Bureau of Labor and Employee Relations. "According to Mr. Thomas Sherry of the Department of Investigations in the Office of Schools and Regions, the grievant [Caref] is not being investigated by the Department of Investigations," Brandhorst wrote. "Even if she was the subject of an investigation, the grievant would likely not receive written confirmation of such an investigation while the investigation was still pending. Such is the nature of a confidential investigation."

"I thought, well, OK, I have it in writing that I'm not being investigated--then this is over," says Caref. "Boy, was I wrong."

Almost nine months later, on January 19, 2000, she got the news that her case was very much alive. "I was on a bus set to go on a field trip when one of the security guards came out of the school and said the principal wanted to see me in her office," she says. "I went into the office, and the principal said that the board had told her to hold me."

A few hours later a board employee showed up with a letter from school-system CEO Paul Vallas, ordering Caref to the central-office detention center, commonly known as Camp Beverly. She spent two weeks at Camp Beverly, reporting there instead of to CVS for her school-day shift. Then she got a notice from Vallas telling her that she was being dismissed without pay for "conduct unbecoming a teacher."

The two-page document covers a lot, including allegations that seem to have nothing to do with the trip to Beloit. Among other things, it says Caref violated board rules that require "teachers to prevent the introduction or discussion of questions of a sectarian or partisan character in the schools" and prohibit "any conduct which is cruel, immoral, negligent, criminal or causes psychological or physical harm or injury to a student."

These charges raise difficult questions about what constitute appropriate out-of-school activities for teachers and their students. Should teachers refrain from taking kids to any sectarian or partisan events? Whatever you think, you have to wonder whether the CPS policy is really directed at teachers who espouse unpopular ideologies such as communism. Would Vallas be so quick to punish a teacher for taking students to the Million Man March or a Promise Keepers rally? Teachers did take students to both events, but they weren't punished.

Vallas's notice also says that Caref "did not inform [Karen's] grandparents that the rally was to be held out-of-state" and that she "provided misleading information [to the grandmother] that the rally was school-related, and failed to inform her that the rally would involve confrontational tactics and risk of injury to participants." Finally, it accuses Caref of hosting "parties at your home which were attended by students, without parental approval. These parties included coed 'sleepover' parties at which you attempted to persuade students to join the Progressive Labor Party."

Caref, who hasn't taught in the public schools since, says Vallas's document is riddled with inaccuracies and distortions. "Contrary to what he wrote, I informed the grandparents that the rally was out of state, and I told them it was not school related. I also talked to them about the arrests after I got back. It's true I didn't tell them in advance about a risk of injury, but that's because I never even assumed there would be an injury. That stuff about the sleep-over parties is completely false. I've had pizza parties at my house, but parents were invited and no one slept over. I found out later that a couple of students had told the investigators that they had heard about a party, so the investigators threw it in their report, and Vallas wrote it in his letter. That's worse than absurd--that's outrageous. They're just throwing stuff at me. Talk about proselytizing. They're going around the school interviewing students without their parents' permission, rounding up all sorts of rumors and hearsay about me, and then using it as official charges without any attempt to corroborate. They had no witnesses to testify to these charges. They just put any old accusation in there to make me look bad because they want me out."

On September 13 the matter moved to the next step in the board's dismissal process. Caref was given a hearing at board headquarters before a hearing officer hired by the state board of education. A day or two before the hearing she got a second notice showing that half of the charges against her, including the one about the sleep-over party, had been dropped.

Karen (now 18) wasn't called to testify, and the board didn't introduce any evidence to show that she was psychologically harmed by what had happened. John Connolly, the board investigator, testified that it seemed to him that Karen was "upset" when he interviewed her about what had happened in Beloit. Thomas Sherry stated that he didn't "author the statement" quoted in the Brandhorst letter about Caref not being investigated. And the grandmother acknowledged that in retrospect she didn't realize that the KKK would be making speeches or racial slurs at the rally.

"What did [Karen] tell you when she arrived home, if anything, about the rally itself?" the board's lawyer, David Hemenway, asked the grandmother.

"She didn't want to talk about it," the grandmother replied, "but I did get out of her that she could not stand to hear the Ku Klux Klan refer to our race [African-American] as they did. That was upsetting. She felt that the policemen should have been protecting them instead of the Ku Klux Klan. She said that she didn't do anything, but they broke down the fence and they just--it was like a herd of people. The police caught her by the arm, and basically that was all. She didn't tell me that she kicked a policeman in the groin. I read that in the report."

Under cross-examination by Michael Radzilowsky, Caref's lawyer, the grandmother testified that Caref had indeed told her that the rally was out of state and that "Ms. Caref did not portray the rally as a Chicago Vocational High School or Chicago Public Schools event." The grandmother said that overall she was satisfied with the way Caref had handled the incident. "She called and offered assistance and apologized," she stated. Asked by Radzilowsky if she thought Caref should be fired, she replied, "No, I don't. I don't know--I don't think that, but I don't know what the school policies are."

"Everything in the investigation was slipshod," Radzilowsky said in closing. "For 16 years my client was never reprimanded for anything. She is a damn good math teacher. But because she is a communist someone decided that they had to fire her."

Hemenway was just as forceful in his final remarks. He acknowledged that some facts were wrong in Vallas's initial notice but said one overriding fact remained: "If this teacher hadn't taken this student to the rally this student wouldn't have been arrested." (I called Hemenway for comment. He directed me to the board's main office, where a receptionist sent me to a press aide, who told me to call Robert Hall, another lawyer for the board. Hall said he had no comment while the case is being heard.)

The hearing officer has 45 days to render a decision, which is actually only a recommendation to the school board. The board members can overrule him if they choose. If she's fired, Caref can appeal and take her chances with the Cook County circuit court.

In the meantime, Caref has taken a part-time job as a paralegal in Radzilowsky's office, and she's teaching math part-time at a community college. "The way I look at it there are at least 150 students at CVS who I could be teaching if not for this nonsense," she says. "They're the ones really being deprived. And why? Because I'm a communist, because the board can't stand to have its political viewpoint challenged in any way. They're using me to send a larger message. Look at what's been revealed in my case. That rule against sectarian or partisan questions--what's that all about? They have rules and regulations they're ready to use just in case they want to punish someone."

George Schmidt Waits and Baits

George Schmidt knows a thing or two about battling Paul Vallas and the central office. Schmidt's the high school English teacher who got himself in a lot of trouble almost two years ago when he published portions of the Chicago Academic Standards Examinations, standardized tests required by Vallas. "The time has come to debate the educational integrity of the claims of the Vallas administration," Schmidt wrote by way of explaining why he was publishing the tests in the January 20, 1999, issue of Substance, a monthly newspaper put out by him and several other teachers, including his wife, Sharon Schmidt.

Vallas clearly wasn't in the mood for discussion, even though Schmidt wasn't the only teacher who complained that the tests were poorly written wastes of time and money. Within a few weeks Vallas suspended Schmidt without pay, while the board sued him for $1 million, claiming he had "carelessly, negligently or willfully violated the spirit of keeping test material confidential and secure" and had "misappropriated [the board's] trade-secret rights of confidentiality and security." According to the suit, $1 million is what it cost the board to re-create the test.

Since then Schmidt has had a hearing before a state officer, who recommended to the board that he be fired. The board unanimously voted to fire him, and he promptly appealed to the circuit court.

Schmidt claimed the First Amendment as a defense. Judge Charles Norgle, who originally heard his case, said he couldn't. Schmidt appealed Norgle's ruling. The case has since been taken over by another judge, and it could be years before a trial begins. "I'm in it for the long haul," says Schmidt. "The board's got thousands of dollars to spend in legal fees--win, lose, or draw."

Ironically, Schmidt has been a greater pain in the neck for Vallas and school board president Gery Chico since he was fired, because he has more time to spend writing about them for Substance. "I go to almost all the meetings," he says. "I even go to the press conference Chico holds with the beat reporters before each board meeting. He likes to tell them what a great job he's doing. Sometimes he holds them in the 37th-floor conference room of his corporate law office with the sweeping view of the northwest side--you know, the view that reminds you who runs what. A few months ago he said something about inheriting a system with valedictorians who can't read. Sharon and I didn't let him get away with it. We challenged him to name one--just one--valedictorian who can't read. He said something about it being in the Sun-Times. Rosalind Rossi was there for the Sun-Times, and she said she didn't write it. We kept at it, and he said, 'We'll find the newspaper article and get it to you.' Guess what? I'm still waiting."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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