Under overcast skies and in a light drizzle, some 250 to 300 teachers, parents, community members and elected officials gathered in Magdalen Square in Abbeville Thursday afternoon to show their support for teacher Deyshia Hargrave.
“Deyshia’s mistreatment highlights the issues that educators face worldwide,” said Suzanne Breaux, president of the Vermilion Association of Educators.
“Educating is what we do. It’s who we are. We are relevant and we will not be silenced any longer. Can you hear us now?”
Hargrave was handcuffed and arrested by an Abbeville City Marshal deputy Monday night after opposing a $38,000 raise for Vermilion Parish School Superintendent Jerome Puyau, when teachers had received no increase for at least eight years.
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Many in the crowd carried signs reading “Drain the Swamp,” “Don’t Silence Me Man,” and “Raise Up Our Teachers.” Other signs and T-shirts read: “standbydeyshia.”
"We're hoping that this brings about change, that we can feel safe in asking questions and getting some answers," said Jessica Riebel, who teaches with Hargrave at Rene Rost Middle School in Kaplan.
"Deyshia always searches out for the truth," Riebel continued. "She separates wrong from right at all costs. She asks hard questions, and she expects answers, as we all should."
Hargrave, surrounded by her colleagues, said the local support has meant the most to her throughout the week.
"My fellow teachers, family members and my community made me feel OK when I thought that I had lost the connection with my kids, possibly my job, my career," she said. "They were there. I just want to make sure that doesn't go unnoticed."
Hargrave said she wants the incident to help citizens "heal our fears" when it comes to speaking out publicly about concerns.
"I have been taught to stand up for what is right, even when doing that is difficult, and I will continue to work toward that," she said. "I want my daughter and my students to be proud of me. I want change to come from this...Today, my heart is broken for many reasons, but my will is not. I hope and pray my experience will empower you, my students, young women everywhere to know that you have a voice."
During the rally, the Abbeville City Marshal released the following statement:
“Abbeville City Marshal Jeremiah Bolden has called for a third-party (independent) investigation of a recent incident that transpired during a Vermilion Parish School Board meeting. The Abbeville City Marshal office will have no further comment at this time until an independent investigation has been completed.”
The incident has drawn widespread criticism from educators and citizens across the country. Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said several people have reached out to her to see how they can support Hargrave.
Meaux urged teachers at the rally to take seven actions:
- Be there for the students of Vermilion Parish and all over the world
- Go to lae.org/standbydeyshia and sign the petition to support Hargrave and freedom of speech
- Attend the next school board meeting. The next regular Vermilion Parish School Board meeting is at 6 p.m. Jan. 18.
- Keep in touch with union representatives for follow-up action
- Remain professional: “When they go low, we go high.”
- Stay strong behind the Vermilion Association of Educators
- Continue to love and care for their students
Jacob Gaspard, the parent of three daughters, said the situation should serve to highlight the work of educators. One of Gaspard’s daughters is a student of Hargrave.
“My daughter gets nervous … When she’s nervous, she said Ms. Deyshia calms her fears. As a parent, that means a lot to me,” Gaspard said. “I want someone teaching my kid, when something’s wrong, to stand up and say something … Every one of you all will stand up and stand with her. We’re going to make changes, and things are going to happen and it’s going to be awesome.”
State Sen. John Milkovich of Shreveport, who is also a Constitutional lawyer, drove to the rally to support Hargrave.
“It’s somewhat ironic that when it comes to problems in the trenches, teachers can be trusted to show up and be seen, but when it comes to solving problems teacher are not trusted to be heard,” Milkovich said.
“People on boards who think they know more than teachers' need to do some remedial work in social studies, geography, and the U.S. Constitution," he said.
“This is not Stalinist Russia. In America, it’s not a criminal offense to disagree with public officials. Citizens do not lose their First Amendment rights when they become teachers. It’s time for teachers to be seen and heard!”