Encino, Calif. teacher Lauren Vaughn is claiming in court that Westmark School officials fired her for truthfully speaking out about the school board chair offending students and parents with racially insensitive attire at a Tom Hanks-led fundraiser.
The incident occurred eight years ago but caught a second wind in March when video surfaced of James Montgomery, a local investment banker and chair of the Westmark School Board, on stage wearing an Afro wig, an animal print costume and blackface. He was taking part in a charity auction held at St. Matthew's Parrish School, where Hanks and Montgomery's children attend, and auctioning off a stuffed gorilla.
Hanks was severely criticized for the showing after the Daily Caller, a conservative-leaning news site, released the video earlier this year. While Hanks said he was blindsided by Montgomery's stunt, the actor publicly apologized.
"For many years I emceed the annual fundraising auction for my kids' school," he said in a statement in March. "In 2004, I was blindsided when one of the parents got up on the stage in a costume that was hideously offensive then and is hideously offensive now. What is usually a night of food and drink for a good cause was, regrettably, marred by an appalling few moments."
Now, Vaughn is suing Learning With a Difference Inc., dab Westmark School, then-board chair Montgomery and Head of School Muir Meredith.
In the complaint, Vaughn says that Montgomery's behavior was "racially offensive and egregiously inappropriate," and parents and students complained to administration for the appearance, to relative indifference. When local news station KTLA picked up the footage, Vaughn elected to speak to the station on condition of anonymity, with her image blurred and voice altered for fear of retaliation.
Because Montgomery's "despicable conduct had brought dishonor and disgrace to Westmark at the school and among the wider community," Vaughn decided to be interviewed by the station in an effort to disclose the school's "highly inappropriate and unacceptable reaction."
"It was shocking... because schools at their best try to teach ideals of acceptance and diversity and tolerance," Vaughn said in the March KTLA interview. "To see a leader in our community portraying a racial stereotype at a school left me speechless. It's a caricature of a minority group. Our students at Westmark are a marginalized group. They've struggled in school. Many of them have been made fun of or bullied or called out for being different, and he's the chairman of our board and he's doing that."
Montgomery has since apologized for his appearance and "any offense" he caused. Meredith, head of the school, said in the first KTLA report that feelings are mixed, as Montgomery had done "amazing things" for the school.
Vaughn claims in the suit that Meredith also expressed support for Montgomery in staff meetings following the incident, condemned the anonymous teacher who spoke out against him, and vowed to "hunt down" the offending person for discipline. Vaughn says that a month later, Meredith placed the teacher on indefinite administrative leave for engaging in "misconduct that is both unprofessional and detrimental to the interests of the school."
Vaughn was subsequently demoted, then terminated, despite previously renewing her contract. She seeks punitive damages for discrimination and wrongful termination, among others, as well as compensatory damages for lost wages and benefits.
Westmark, founded in 1991, is a private school that was later purchased by nonprofit Learning With A Difference. The school specializes in classes for students with language-based learning differences like dyslexia and ADHD, and is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
The Westmark case echoes an incident in New York lat month, in which Waverly High School's pep rally was marred by a controversial skit featuring white students wearing blackface and satirizing domestic violence. The skit was performed by three white male students who re-enacted a 2009 domestic abuse incident when singer Chris Brown assaulted then-girlfriend Rihanna.
A similar incident in May led to a student being taken out of the classroom for dressing like Martin Luther King, Jr. and wearing black face paint. The Colorado Springs second-grader put on the costume for a school project, but school officials thought the ensemble was disrespectful, and demanded that the student wash his face.
In January 2012, parents of students at Beaver Ridge Elementary School in Norcross, Ga. expressed outrage over the school district's response to reports of using examples of slavery in math word problems. The word problems in questions include references to slavery and "beatings."
In March 2012, students at another Georgia school were given a math problem that referenced slavery, upsetting students and parents. Nearly 140 fourth grade students at James A. Jackson Elementary School contained an extra-credit question that read, "A plantation owner had 100 slaves. If three-fifths of them are counted for representation, how many slaves will be counted?"
In February 2012, Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa received criticism for a class assignment on the Cold War. Based on a worksheet handed out in a social studies class, many questioned whether the lesson promoted communism over capitalism, calling it "communist indoctrination."
A Washington, D.C. teacher was fired from Center City Public School's Trinidad campus in March 2012 for sending home violent, morbid and traumatizing math problems to third graders. Questions included story lines about baking humans in ovens and a child waking up screaming after thousands of fire ants made a nest in a human brain.
A teacher was suspended and handed disciplinary action in March 2012 for a question she wrote on a vocabulary quiz that some argued was racist. When district officials reviewed the test in context, however, the charges against her were rescinded.
Sawgrass Elementary School in Sunrise, Fla. made the news in April 2012 when a second grade student was included in a class photo despite not having turned in a parental consent form. Instead of retaking the photo, the photographer resolved to paste a brown-colored smiley face over the boy's face.
A letter sent home with students at Western Union Elementary School in North Carolina didn't sit well with parents in March 2012. The note asked students to wear "African American attire" or animal print for a Black History Month event, calling into question educators' choice of words and cultural sensitivity.
In April 2012, flyers with an image of Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis in a Ku Klux Klan robe sparked controversy in the community. The bill was in response to a contentious school redistricting plan that would have closed several schools in a number of Atlanta's black neighborhoods.