Former Va. Beach teacher sues school district, says she was wrongly fired

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – A teacher who was fired from Kempsville High School is suing Virginia Beach Public City Schools because she believes her firing was due to her race and because she taught a lesson on stereotypes in May 2018 that was misinterpreted when photos of the lesson went viral.

According to court documents, the former teacher, Deborah Aho Smith, is seeking $1,750,000 in compensation from VBCPS in the civil suit for breach of contract by nonrenewal, breach of contract by dismissal, race discrimination in violation of Section 1981 and race discrimination in violation of Title VII.

Smith states in documents filed in court that as part of the discussion and lesson, students wrote stereotypes about certain groups of people, including black people, Asians and Hispanics, on large posted notes in the classroom. During this classroom activity, black students in the class reportedly wrote a number of offensive stereotypes and words under the “Black” group (alluding to there were multiple lists for groups of people with stereotypes and offensive names under).

Smith in the court documents states that a picture taken of her teaching the lesson went viral on social media and in the news, causing some to believe she was “creating a racially hostile work environment for students in the class.”

The picture allegedly showed offensive names and stereotypes under the “Black” group.

In the documents filed, Smith — who is a white woman — alleges that it was a beneficial assignment and that no one felt it was inappropriate.

Smith also in the documents states that an African-American teacher taught a similar lesson, and that when she was speaking with Kempsville High School Principal William Harris, he told her that VBCPS would have taken no action against her if comparable photos would have been taken of the African-American teacher teaching the same lesson.

VBCPS does know of the lawsuit, stating that it will not comment on pending litigation.

“Ms. Smith and I both feel the issues raised by her lawsuit are very important — not just for her, but also for teachers everywhere, and indeed for students who benefit from good teachers such as her,” said Smith’s attorney Raymond L Hogge, Jr., who did not comment any further on the lawsuit.

Smith worked for VBCPS from 2013 through August 12, 2018, and was under contract when the incident occurred on May 15, 2018. She taught English at First Colonial High School until she received a similar job at Kempsville High School.

She also worked at Bayside Middle School when she started teaching in the district.

Smith believes that her lesson falls in line with a book that teachers in the school’s English department were asked to teach, “American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang, which involves a plot that references stereotypes and how they can impact societies. She allegedly taught the lesson plan to all three of her 10th grade English classes.

Court documents say that Smith, who is 58 years old, planned to continue teaching at Kempsville High School until she was going to retire at age 65 and that she “met or exceeded the legitimate job performance expectations” of VBCPS.

You can view the court documents filed by Smith and her attorney in the photo gallery below. 

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