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Education Reporter

Jury Verdict Overturned in Case of Fired Teacher
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ST. LOUIS, MO - The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Ferguson-Florissant School District's dismissal of high school teacher Cecilia (Cissy) Lacks in 1995 for allowing her students to use profanity in class assignments. The ruling overturns a lower court decision that Lacks be reinstated with back pay, attorneys' fees, and $750,000 in damages. Her lawsuit against the school district claimed that her First Amendment rights had been violated and that she had been discriminated against because of her race. Lacks is white; the school administrator and students were black.

Lacks was fired for allowing her junior English students to use four-letter words and racial epithets in plays that they wrote, performed and videotaped in class. Court records show that such words were used more than 150 times in one 40-minute play. The videotapes came to the attention of the school principal when one of Lacks' students complained about the profanity.

During an investigation, school district officials also found that Lacks had permitted students to read poetry containing profanity and graphic descriptions of oral sex aloud in class, and that she had allowed obscenities to appear in the school newspaper, which was under her sponsorship.

Following the investigation, the school district formally charged Lacks with "willful or persistent violation of and failure to obey school district policies." The superintendent recommended that she be terminated by the school board, and after hearing testimony from witnesses and reviewing the videotapes and other exhibits, the board agreed.

Lacks brought suit in state court, claiming that the school district policy against profanity did not clearly include "creative expression" in the classroom, and that her termination was discriminatory on the basis of race. When the lower court ruled in her favor, the school district appealed.

The higher court found that Lacks had in fact been sufficiently warned about the use of profanity by the school principal, that the school district policy was explicit, and that the district had a right to expect teachers to abide by it. The court also overturned the discrimination charge, noting that Lacks was fired by the school board and not by school administrators. The court ruled that the evidence clearly showed the board made an independent decision to terminate her, and that her race was not a factor.

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