ABBEVILLE, La./January 11, 2018 (AP)(STL.News) — Waving signs heralding free speech and chanting “Stand by Deyshia,” about 100 people gathered in a light rain Thursday to rally to support Deyshia Hargrave — the Louisiana teacher ejected from a school board meeting and roughly handcuffed in a video-recorded arrest after she questioned her superintendent’s pay raise.
Hargrave, near tears at times, thanked supporters who stood by her after the arrest and emphasized the need to speak out on important issues.
“I hope and pray my experience will empower you — my students, young women everywhere — to know that you have a voice,” Hargrave told the crowd. “Use it. Many, many women suffered tremendously and sacrificed greatly for us to have this voice. … And this is for the boys, too. You matter.”
She was backed by fellow teachers wearing black T-shirts that read: “#standbydeyshia.” Signs held by members of the crowd included one reading, “We will not be silenced.”
Earlier, Hargrave told The Associated Press she believes Vermilion Parish School Board President Anthony Fontana should resign. She declined to suggest any discipline for Reggie Hilts, the deputy city marshal who handcuffed her on the hallway floor after she left the meeting and marched her out of the building.
“He needs training,” the middle school English teacher said. “Whether he needs to lose his job, I don’t know.”
She declined, at first, to say with certainty whether she would file a lawsuit in the matter. “We’ll see how it goes,” she said when asked again. “But I clearly feel my First Amendment rights were violated, and I feel like, yeah, there will be a lawsuit filed for that.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and her teachers union are investigating the case.
The turmoil followed the board’s 5-3 vote Monday night approving a new three-year contract raising Vermilion Schools Superintendent Jerome Puyau’s salary by roughly $30,000, to about $140,000 annually, with incentive targets that could add 3 percent a year.
Video of the meeting shows that Hargrave addressed the superintendent directly after raising her hand to speak and being recognized.
She questioned Puyau’s raise, given that teachers haven’t received an increase in 10 years, despite growing class sizes and other demands.
Fontana then declared that her comment wasn’t “germane” to the vote on the contract, and banged his gavel in an attempt to silence her. According to school board member Kibbie Pillette, Fontana then beckoned off-camera to the officer, who interrupted Hargrave while she was speaking and ordered her out.
“I’m going,” she said, making her way out. The officer followed her into the hallway, where moments later, a camera recorded her on the floor with her hands behind her back, being handcuffed and complaining that the officer had pushed her down.
Asked by the AP on Thursday who’s directly to blame for the incident, Hargrave said “Anthony Fontana.”
Fontana has not returned calls for an interview with the AP, but has defended his actions and that of the officer.
Hilts was accused along with another officer of slamming an ailing 62-year-old man’s head onto a concrete slab in 2011. He left the city of Scott’s police force later that year, for unrelated reasons the police chief said. Scott denied using excessive force, and the man’s federal suit was settled in 2016.
Now a local pastor and a resource officer at J.H. Williams Middle School in Vermilion Parish, Hilts hasn’t spoken publicly about Hargrave’s arrest.
“He’s a very good guy, he’s a pastor, respectable citizen here, and is well-respected in the community,” Puyau told the AP. “Students and teachers love him.”
A teacher who attended Thursday’s rally agreed.
Alicia LaSalle is a second-year teacher at the school where Hilts works as a resource officer. LaSalle said Hilts is on hand to stop altercations or other problems among students in. She adds that Hilts has a good relationship with students and teachers. “Honestly, he is very well liked at our school,” she said.
“I agree she should not have been arrested,” LaSalle said. “Personally, I don’t think he would have arrested her if it was up to him.”
Puyau, who said he began receiving hate mail and threatening phone calls as the video spread on the internet, wouldn’t comment on who ordered the teacher’s removal, but said he’s not happy with how things played out.
“It was not good in any way,” he said. “We are a good community. It took everybody by surprise. I’m having a hard time with this, but we care about our teachers and our support staff.”
Associated Press reporter Kevin McGill contributed to this story from New Orleans.
This story has been corrected to show that Fontana’s first name is Anthony and that he is the Vermilion Parish School Board president.