CHICAGO — An outspoken CPS special education teacher has filed a federal lawsuit against the Chicago Board of Education alleging that the board retaliated against her activism by firing her.
Chicago Public Schools officials moved to fire Sarah Chambers, an eight-year teacher at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Little Village and a leader who has advocated for the needs of CPS special education students, in April. She was immediately suspended from her job and was formally fired in May.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court, alleges that the Board of Education wrongfully retaliated against Chambers for criticizing the district and advocating for the rights of her special education students — criticisms she contends are protected under the First Amendment. Chambers' constant advocacy for the needs of CPS special education students made her "a target" for the Board of Education, the suit alleges.
The lawsuit also alleges the Board of Education broke Illinois Whistleblower Act rules when Chambers was fired for what she says was her exposing violations of laws protecting special education students.
“The board's reasons for firing Ms. Chambers are pretexts to hide its true, retaliatory motive,” said Teachers Union attorney Josiah Groff. “We look forward to proving this in court.”
CPS officials contend Chambers was fired for violating Illinois State Board of Education and Chicago Board of Education policies. CPS officials allege that Chambers told Saucedo students in March that they didn't have to take the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test, according to CPS documents, and engaged in other activities that disrupted the testing process.
The Illinois State Board of Education requires the annual standardized PARCC test to be administered in schools, CPS officials said.
In a statement Friday, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said Chambers engaged in other "serious misconduct."
Those charges include "participating in a scheme to remove and transport students without any chaperone who had cleared criminal background checks, without alerting school officials which students would be missing from class and which students were unaccounted for." The charges relate to a School Board meeting where students spoke out in support of Chambers, according to a complaint.
"These are serious and grave actions that did not put students’ interests first," Bittner said.
"Ms. Chambers engaged in misconduct that created cause to move to dismiss her," said Bittner.
Chambers, who said Saucedo parents come from a "strong activist culture" and made their own decision to opt out of PARCC testing, denies she encouraged students to skip the standardized test.
"I'm a distinguished teacher, and I've never been written up before," Chambers told DNAinfo in April. "I truly believe it's because I'm being a leader and advocating for the rights of special education students around the city."
Chambers has been rated as "distinguished" by six administrators at Saucedo, she said.
In Board of Education meetings, protests and in the media, the outspoken teacher also repeatedly has bashed CPS for "systematically slashing special education services." At a town hall meeting in 2015, she presented Mayor Rahm Emanuel with a mock "warrant" for his arrest related to CPS cuts to special education funding, the lawsuit notes.
In February, Chambers complained that a midyear change to special education students' schedules at Saucedo was "causing instability" for students with special needs. At the time, Saucedo teachers held a protest in front of Saucedo to demand that Chambers' original schedule be restored so she could go back to working with her eighth-grade students during a "critical" point in their development.
In response, CPS spokesman Michael Passman said the revised schedule was "necessary to more effectively meet the needs of [special education students] at Saucedo."
The changes at Saucedo were proposed as CPS enforced a "more stringent approach" to identifying and educating students with disabilities, according to a Better Government Association report. Special education spending accounted for more than 15 percent of the CPS budget this year.
Chambers said the proposed schedule changes were never implemented at the school.
"Parents and teachers fought back and were able to stop it," Chambers said.
When news of Chambers' suspension spread, parents and teachers launched a petition online in support of her, urging CPS not to fire the "distinguished, award-winning teacher."
After CPS moved to fire Chambers, many people have publicly defended the teacher, including Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia; Rod Estvan, education policy analyst with Access Living; Rodrigo Anzures-Oyorzabal, advocacy manager at the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance; and CPS special education parents, Saucedo teachers and students.
Saucedo students protested proposed scheduling changes that affected teacher Sarah Chambers' students in February. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
John Toman, a seventh-grade math teacher at Saucedo, said Chambers supported special education students in a traditional, inclusive classroom setting.
"She works before school, after school, on weekends, in the summer. She is one of those teachers who has always gone the extra mile," Toman said. "We need more teachers like Sarah, not less, especially with the shortage of special education teachers. It affects the entire school."
Cindy Ok, a CPS parent who serves on the union's special education task force, said Chambers "advocates for all special education students" in CPS.
"She is a tireless advocate for children," she said.