Paula Payne, high school English teacher at West Feliciana High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has been a teacher for 16 years. She has the reputation of being a tough teacher with high expectations. Her students refer to her class as the "House of Payne." She also has creative ideas in teaching her lessons. For example, she asked students to dress in togas for class when studying Shakespeare. She also began a Renaissance Festival at the high school. [Penny Brown, Theadvocate.com, March 30, 2007]
One would think that in the era of No Child Left Behind and the new emphasis being placed on rigor and relevance, Payne would be considered a model teacher by her principal. She was not.
Fall of 2004
In the first six weeks of the fall semester, Payne gave 70 percent of her English students a D or an F. 180 sophomores were not doing well in English II. How were the students doing in other classes? Much better. How were freshmen, juniors and seniors doing in other classes? Much better. Information that the jury heard about how rigorous her classes were is not available. Was she unreasonable in her expectations or do other instructors have exceptionally low expectations? That is something the jury had to take into consideration.
The State of Louisianna bars any principal, superintendent or school board member from tampering with grades submitted by a teacher. However, Payne maintains that she was told to change her grades by principal Michael Thornhill or she would be assigned to teach in the behavior modification clinic for troubled students.
Louisiana Education Association
A reasonable teacher in this vulnerable position would contact her local education association and seek legal advice. In November of 2004, Payne was asked to meet with administrators and she agreed but she wanted to be accompanied by members of the LEA, Louisiana Education Association. Superintendent Lloyd Lindsey and Thornhill refused to meet with her if a representative was present from the LEA. She was suspended for five days because she refused to meet with administration alone. It is standard procedure for a representative of an Education Association to meet with a teacher and a teacher's right to do so. Payne also told her story to a local television station that aired the story making this a public issue.
In January, she was suspended for 45 days by the West Feliciana School Board for willful neglect of duty. After the 45 days were served, she returned to work but was no longer the English II instructor. Her new position was library monitor and tutoring--except there were no students to tutor. She was reduced to teaching only two English classes. Payne resigned at the end of the school year.
Payne sought legal advise from Jill Craft, her attorney, and filed a suit two years ago. Just last week, the case went to trial and a four-man, five-woman jury awarded Payne $1.4 million. $1.2 million for mental anguish and $200,000 in punitive damages.
After the verdict, Payne said, "I'm just so thankful the truth is known there. It's wrong for an administrator directly or indirectly to force a teacher to change grades. Teachers have rights, and they should be treated with respect."
The jury found the school guilty of the following:
- violating Payne's First Amendment rights
- harassing her about altering the grades
- retaliating against her for refusing to do so
- speaking about the matter to the media
School administrators claim that they never demanded she change any grades. And, they claim that they did not retaliate against Payne for refusing to meet with them without an LEA representative. Obviously, the jury believed Payne's version of the story.
Payne now teaches English to prisoners at the Dixon Correctional Center. She has no plans to return to teaching in Louisiana public schools.