Hester copes with Facebook falloutPublished 12:18am Thursday, April 5, 2012
CASSOPOLIS — A year into her Facebook ordeal, Kimberly Hester barely recognizes her life whirling in a media maelstrom that “went viral pretty fast.”
CNN wanted to bring her to New York. ABC, Chicago Tribune, San Diego, the United Kingdom, Pennsylvania.
When the Daily News tried to profile her last October, the Marcellus mother of three, 27, was keeping a low profile on the advice of her attorney.
“I think God has a plan for me,” she said Wednesday after fielding a call from Toronto. “It will take a strong person to do what I have to do. This is only the beginning” of a two-year process that started last April at the former Frank Squires Elementary School in Cassopolis.
She had been an instructional paraprofessional for two years in an emotionally impaired classroom for eight students grades K-4.
“I was only on Facebook a year” when a teacher sent her a joke photo of her pants down — on their own time and not at or during work — showing pants, legs and shoe tips. It could only be viewed by her circle of Facebook friends.
Hester graduated from high school in Lawton and worked for Van Buren Intermediate School District.
“My government teacher taught me to fight for what is right,” she said. “I graduated eighth in my class and was in National Honor Society. I was second runner-up in Miss Lawton. Starting in high school, I worked with an occupational therapist. I have an associate’s from Southwestern Michigan College and went to Western (Michigan University), when I started working for Croyden in special education. I worked in the Alzheimer’s unit of a retirement home before I came here.”
A parent — but not of any of her students — who happened to be a family friend brought the “unprofessional” photo to the administration’s attention.
Her first meeting was with her immediate Lewis Cass Intermediate School District supervisor, Principal Peter Bennett, in Principal Dee Voss’ office at Squires.
“I admitted I posted it,” she said. “He asked me three times to get into my Facebook account. I told him no. I asked for my union (Michigan Education Association). He continued to question me. It’s a process that has to run its course, then I will go to federal court,” presuming May’s non-binding arbitration doesn’t resolve the dispute.
Bennett placed her on paid leave pending further investigation, barring her from Cassopolis or LCISD school property or contact with co-workers. There were seven weeks left in the school year.
“I was suspended 10 days for ‘gross insubordination’ and was told I’m immature, need to grow up and have a horrendous attitude,” Hester said. “My union hired me an attorney and started grievances. When we came back to school in September I was suspended for five days for not obeying a directive to give up the tape” her mother, Lisa, made of the meeting with Bennett.
Next, Hester said, she was assigned to an office at the LCISD administration building across from Special Education Director Louis Chism containing “a computer, a desk and one picture on the wall — the LCISD motto. I did extensive training. Forty-seven online courses. Every one I had to watch something, take a test and get a certificate to ‘better myself.’ Fire extinguisher safety, hardhat safety, chemical hazards. I learned how paraprofessionals do their jobs in Pennsylvania. I had to read a 300-page book called ‘Crucial Conversations’ to learn how to talk to my co-workers. I sped through all this stuff, so they made me read the newspaper. I did that for the first two weeks of school so I would quit. I was put in the severely multiply impaired classroom at Brookside for non-verbal students with four fulltime staff, including (Supt. Robert Colby’s) wife. I swallowed my pride, liked her — we became friends. I didn’t talk about anything, but I was the only one in the building who had structured breaks” to use the bathroom or make copies.
“This was in a written directive,” she said.
The LCISD board denied her grievances. A fall directive instructed her to not to talk to co-workers unless it pertained to a student. She lost access to email.
Hester broke out in hives, went to the doctor, “and I haven’t been back,” she said.
“I went on (family medical leave) for 60 days and was refused my medical benefits, so I filed another complaint. I went on leave in October and it was up Feb. 9,” she said. “Through my union contract, I requested an unpaid leave because of the stress. The school board denied it, but they didn’t fire me. I’m still employed, but I have not been paid anything since October. I read the stories and think, ‘People don’t know the half of what’s happening.’
“Today was the pretrial for my work comp case. I want to make a difference and I have patience, but after Christmas, I couldn’t afford enough pop to take the cans back to have the gas to drive my kids back and forth to school, so they had to ride the bus for the first time. I sat in my church pew and gave it to God and asked him to show me some light in my darkness. A month later I’m all over the internet. Last Saturday I went to a convention in Indiana with 200 women and people are staring at me. It takes 45 minutes to go to the grocery store.”