Free speech? Not at Niles schools

Published 7:49 pm Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My day job is teaching civics to freshmen at Dowagiac High School. One of the most important lessons I try to convey is that our democracy is, like a muscle, very powerful but subject to atrophy if not exercised. Since my students are not old enough to vote, we focus on what they can do, exercise free speech.

After my experience with Niles Community Schools this past year, I feel I must now add an addendum to my free speech lesson — that free speech can have a substantial cost.

The cost for my “free” speech was my job coaching women’s cross country at Niles High School. I have coached for the past eleven years and have built the program significantly and feel I have had a positive impact on many young runners over the years through the team as well as the running camp I organized and ran for elementary and middle school students in the summer. For the first 10 years of doing this, all of my evaluations were excellent and I was never reprimanded or had any serious complaints from anyone.

This past season went much the same as before, with no complaints or concerns voiced, until six months after the season ended and I had spoke at a Niles school board meeting in favor of giving the teachers at Niles a fair contract and asking the board to stop threatening them with severe pay and benefit cuts.

Within a few weeks of this meeting, six months after my season ended, I received an email from Mr. Jeff Upton, the new this year athletic director, stating he wanted to schedule an evaluation. I thought this odd, as evaluations have always been done immediately after the season ends. When I talked to other coaches and was told Mr. Upton had never done, or requested, an evaluation of them, I began to get a little suspicious.

When I came in for my evaluation Mr. Upton presented me with a letter and told me he was firing me. The letter laid out three reasons for the firing: that I lacked communication skills as evidenced by my habit of communicating with Mr. Upton by email when he preferred face to face or phone calls (it should be noted that Mr. Upton scheduled this meeting and did most communication to me via email), that I had turned over names of five girls in January as uncollected uniforms for him to either collect or bill (past practice), and that I didn’t start my practice until 3:45 because I teach in a different district.

I have always understood that coaches are at will employees and have no union protection, but I never thought that a school district would be so petty as to fire someone for exercising their civil rights. I believe, however, that this is exactly what happened.  Mr. Upton, probably aware that I had written opinion pieces in local papers critical of his brother, Congressman Fred Upton, seemed to have a pre-conceived bias toward me.  When I spoke my opinion to his bosses, the ones responsible for giving him the job, he either decided, or was told, that I had to go. Sadly, this is the dirty little secret to free speech, if the powerful don’t like what you say, it will cost you.

Dan VandenHeede