On the afternoon of June 14, Crystal Spring received a voicemail message from Steven Barrett, Executive Director of HR Operations at Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), stating that she is removed from administrative leave effective immediately, and that her status is now as an active MPS employee. The voicemail included a personal apology from Barrett.
“I want to thank you, this community, for standing up for me,” said Spring, in response to the decision. “Thank you for the texts and letters and phone calls and messages of supporters—I read and listened to every single one. The community’s voice helped make this change. You ensured that I didn’t lose my livelihood, my career, my life’s passion.”.
*LAST EDITED AND UPDATED 7:40 PM, JUNE 12
Beloved Washburn Black Box Theatre Teacher Fired
MPS Endorses MPD Account of Arrest; Teacher Says She Was Monitoring Police
By Shannon Gibney
****BREAKING: MPS sent the following text to Spring and her union rep late this afternoon (June 12): “After reviewing the matter with the Superintendent and senior staff, we are pulling Ms. Spring’s discharge off the board agenda. We will place her on administrative leave pending adjudication of the charges.”
Placing someone on administrative leave pending the outcome of a legal matter is provided for under district policy. Union leadership viewed this as a positive development in the case.******
On June 8, 2016 award-winning Washburn theater teacher Crystal Spring received a letter recommending she be terminated from Washburn High School by the Minneapolis Public Schools District (MPS), “…due to concerns relating to conduct unbecoming a teacher,” as expressed “under the terms of the Teacher Tenure Act, Minn. Stat. 122A.41, sub. 6.”
If this recommendation is accepted at the June 14 MPS board meeting, Spring would have the right to challenge the action, under the Teacher Tenure Act 122A.41.
The essence of MPS’ dispute with Spring seems to hinge on their interpretation of the Minneapolis Police Department’s (MPD) account of a May 19, 2016 arrest, as well as the fact that Spring did not inform management of it.
Thirty-year-old Spring was recognized less than a month ago at the 2016 Minneapolis Celebration of Teachers for her “exceptional work being done with students at Minneapolis Public Schools,” (Achieve Mpls) and was recently featured on Twin Cities Public Television’s (TPT’s) MN Original series for creating the very successful Social Justice Black Box Theatre Program at Washburn High School. She is a protege of St. Paul Central High School Touring Theater Teacher Jan Mandell, and has been teaching for eight years.
The incident that spurred the firing occurred the evening of May 19, 2016. Spring was driving near Franklin and Clinton in Minneapolis at about 10:30 pm, coming home from student performances at TPT. She said, “I hear a man yelling, he’s on the side of the road being arrested. I wasn’t clear what was happening. I didn’t see a lot of people around. So, I stopped and pulled over, sat watching in my car because I was concerned for his safety. One cop asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m watching.’ He told me to move my car, which I did. I pulled into an alley and got out of my car. I stood on the sidewalk, and they were in the street with the man, who was African American.
“The police asked me again what I was doing, and I said that I was watching. They told me again to move my car, and I said, ‘I will.’
Then they put the man in the police car, and drove into the Wendy’s parking lot. And I looked up and saw about five people observing what was happening from the Wendy’s parking lot.
“Then I drove my car to the Wendy’s and parked in a far parking space. I got out with my phone in my hand, and walked over to where the officers were continuing the arrest, and the police asked me again, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I said again, ‘I’m watching.’ My phone was taken out of my hand, he started to put hand cuffs on me, and I was told, ‘You’re under arrest. You’re going to jail tonight.’ He looked at my phone. I said, ‘I don’t understand what’s happening right now.’ He said, ‘Oh, you don’t understand? I’ll call my deputy.’ I told him he was hurting me, and he said, ‘I don’t care. Hand cuffs aren’t made to be comfortable.’ I asked if I could get my phone and keys, and he said, ‘I don’t know.’
“I was placed in the squad car with the man in custody. They moved me to two or three different cars. Fifteen minutes later, the deputy came and they took pictures of my hands in hand cuffs. He read me my rights and said that they had witnesses saying that I was running in the streets and yelling, and they had this all on tape. He asked me for my version, and I gave it. I told him I was a teacher and had just finished a 14-hour day. He said, ‘It sounds like you’ve had a long day and made a bad decision. You’re going to jail tonight.’”
Spring’s termination letter was signed by Steven Barrett, Executive Director of HR Operations at MPS, and CC’d to Washburn High School Principal Rhonda Dean, Mike Leiter, MFT; Human Capital; and Employee Relations.
In the letter Barrett writes, “…the District became aware of your arrest on Thursday, May 19, 2016. In that incident, you allegedly approached police officers involved with taking someone into custody. You parked your vehicle near the incident and confronted the officers on several occasions despite being told to step back. You then proceeded to follow the officers across the street and began to confront witnesses who were being interviewed by the officers, telling them not to cooperate with the officers and accusing the officers of being racist. Witnesses at the scene corroborated the officers’ account of your behavior. You were arrested and charged with obstruction of legal process and disorderly conduct.”
“This behavior is especially troublesome on multiple levels,” the letter continues. “You had no connection to the parties involved in the police action. You did not know the circumstances of why the police were taking someone into custody. Yet you determined that repeatedly confronting the police officers, and shouting accusations about the officers to potential witnesses to the police investigation, was necessary.”
Commenting on the letter, Emily Flower, Minneapolis NAACP member and community activist said, “It’s troublesome to me that Mr. Barrett and HR have made comments with no factual basis when there has been no determination or opinions given from the courts. Police accountability is in the best interest of society. Citizens being punished for seeking a higher level of police accountability is abhorrent. It is disappointing that MPS is taking action without any evidence or comprehension of this situation.”
Jordan Kushner, Spring’s lawyer for the criminal charge against her, said, “It is disturbingly unenlightened and uninformed to make such a severe decision based on a police report. You would certainly expect an understanding of due process here. The purpose of the court proceedings is to determine whether or not the allegations in the police report can be proven. The decision to automatically take the word of a police officer over a school teacher makes a disturbing statement that the district doesn’t think their school teachers have any credibility.”
Kushner said that there is also one more important issue that must be addressed: “Even if you were to accept the statements in the police report, Ms. Spring was still exercising her right to free speech. The Supreme Court has a landmark case called City of Houston vs. Hill that struck down an ordinance to make it illegal to verbally interfere with police. It’s well understood that the citizen has an absolute right, that the public can watch and even criticize the actions of police officers. I intend to raise those issues in the court proceedings. It’s disturbing that the district apparently has no concept of the right to free speech.”
A Social Justice Theater Revolution
Although Spring is ostensibly a theater teacher, the kind of theater she teaches is highly specialized, with an emphasis on social justice and youth expression. “Students develop all original material based on their own life experiences and changes they want to see in their community,” said Spring. “Students learn communication skills, self-advocacy, and critical thinking skills. It’s important for them to learn how to be catalysts for change in their own lives and their communities.” Several of Spring’s students have gone on to professionally pursue careers in social justice arts and education. “This program has reached students with cognitive and physical and emotional learning disabilities, it has reached students from every class background, it’s cross-cultural, reaches those with all kinds of sexual identities, religious backgrounds, etc.,” she added.
Bella Dawson, a 16 year-old junior at Washburn High School, said that the Washburn High School Black Box Theatre program that Spring has created and cultivated is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon at the school. “Honestly, it’s a safe space for students. There’s no space like it, especially for students of color. It’s a family, really. …To end this theater program would be like ending a family. I think with Ms. Spring and the depth that she has, she doesn’t just do the, ‘Hi! Hello, I’m going to talk at you for an hour,’ she actually tries to make a connection with students, which is something that is very rare and authentic to her. Academically, it brings students back to their roots. It gives them a purpose. You’re actually learning about yourself, learning about other people in order to become a better scholar, or a better person. We don’t have another space like it.”
Eliza Rasheed, a theater teacher who runs a similar program at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus in St. Paul Public Schools said, “We are teaching students how to engage multiple perspectives on identity, on the world, through creative and civil discourse. It saves lives. Many kids come to school because they want to do theater.”
Rasheed continued, “What Crystal is doing provides a space where students can speak their truth without being judged. How can we talk to each other without walking out on each other? How do we hold each other up through the difficult and challenging times? How do we practice that? We do it in theater classes. In theater we explicitly name these things and ask students to try and try again, to learn from their mistakes and build resilience. Her curriculum is a blueprint for the racial equity work that MPS is trying to get at. It has the four ‘R’s:’ It is Real, it is Relevant, it fosters Relationships, and it is Rigorous. Students are really engaged in the Black Box Theatre model.”
MPS pushing out educators who effectively serve students of color?
A teaching staff with a partnering program commented anonymously on the environment for progressive teachers in MPS. “I have been working in partnership with MPS since 2008. I have worn many hats from year to year, but one thing that’s remained consistent at Washburn High School is the pushing out of teaching staff who effectively serve students of color. The inequities are apparent from floor to floor, students and staff are well aware of it, and the efforts to change that have been stalled or stopped continuously. This is another attempt to stop an amazing and brave staff member from doing the hard work that it’s going to take to make change, to move the needle even a little bit on a daily basis. As the school has become whiter, this has become a bigger problem.”
She added, “I’ve sat on the sidelines for my own safety, and in spite of being encouraged to get licensed by staff that I’ve collaborated with who see my strengths and willingness to engage and effectively reach all students. It’s disheartening to watch these patterns unfold, and increases my doubt that this is a system that can be fixed, and that those who are in positions of power in the school level and the district level are even interested in making that change.”
Spring is at a loss for what she will do professionally going forward. “At 19 I discovered that this is my life’s work and my life’s passion. And I have been blessed to be living out the legacy of Jan Mandell’s work in social justice theater and youth voice for the past eight years at Washburn. It breaks my heart that this transformative and life-changing program will be terminated along with me,” she said.
Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, and activist in Minneapolis.