Tuesday, 23 April 2002 18:04

Rally Backs Teacher Fired for Election Bid

Written by Justin Blum | The Washington Post

Several dozen students, activists and elected officials rallied yesterday to decry a federal law that requires the dismissal of a social studies teacher from the District's Dunbar Senior High School because he ran for D.C. Council.

Teacher Tom Briggs, 41, has received notice that he will be fired effective today for violating the Hatch Act, which bars federal workers from participating in partisan political activity. Because of a change Congress made in 1993, the law applies to District public school teachers.

At yesterday's rally, which was punctuated by chants of "Free D.C.!" and "Statehood!" students said they were being deprived of an outstanding teacher and baseball coach. They said Briggs was a demanding teacher who regularly helped students with personal problems.

"Tom was one of the best teachers we had," said Denella Watson, 17, who took three classes from Briggs. "The school is not going to be the same without him. . . . He's respectful. He treats us like we're adults."

An hour before the rally, the D.C. Board of Education held an emergency meeting to approve a resolution calling on Congress to alter the Hatch Act so that it would not apply to District teachers and to allow the school system to rehire Briggs. Board members said they called the emergency meeting because they neglected to vote on the measure at a regularly scheduled meeting last week.

Briggs, who has been on administrative leave since last week, said he planned to reapply for his job today.

School officials said they thought that, under the Hatch Act, Briggs could not be given his old job back. But they did not rule out the possibility of hiring him for another position. A federal official who enforces the act said last night that she was unsure whether Briggs could be hired as a teacher at another District public school.

Briggs said he was not interested in working in another school system and wanted to keep teaching at Dunbar, near his house in the Shaw community in Northwest Washington.

"I've dedicated my life to teaching these kids," Briggs said through a bullhorn. "This has been my life. And it is unfair that the United States government has made the decision that it is their right to legislate to us when we have no vote within that body."

In 2000, Briggs ran as a member of the D.C. Statehood Green Party against council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and lost by a wide margin. At the time, Briggs was warned by federal officials that he was violating the Hatch Act.

The head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the act, initiated a case against Briggs. A federal panel heard the case and concurred. In March, federal officials instructed the school system to fire Briggs. School officials said they had to comply.

A former congressional staff member has said that during revisions to the Hatch Act in 1993, a provision exempting District teachers was somehow dropped. Teachers in other parts of the country are exempt.

School board members demanded that Congress change the measure.

"It puzzles me how people could criticize the school system for its limitations and then remove a perfectly good teacher from the classroom," said board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz (At Large), who was joined by at least three other board members and D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4).

Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on the District, is "willing to look at if there's a legislative remedy that's appropriate," said her spokesman, John White.

At yesterday's rally, held on a patch of grass on New Jersey Avenue NW, across from Dunbar, students lamented what school would be like without Briggs.

"I think it's a very stupid law," said Marcus Montgomery, 17, who described Briggs as a "fun and exciting" teacher. "When I needed help, he helped tutor me. I could come before, after class. . . . He helped me mature."

Teacher Tom Briggs gets a hug from 11th-grader Alicia Brown as students and other supporters protest his firing from Dunbar Senior High School.

Read this article online at The Washington Post.

Read 765 times Last modified on Friday, 14 July 2017 19:11

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