BATON ROUGE, La. – The West Feliciana Parish school system must pay more than $1.4 million to an English teacher who was suspended and demoted after refusing to change the Ds and Fs she gave to 70 percent of her students, a federal jury has found.
The jury of four men and five women deliberated almost four hours before finding that the school board, superintendent and the principal at West Feliciana High School had harassed Paula Payne, violated her First Amendment rights and retaliated against her.
"This is civics in action," Superintendent Lloyd Lindsey said. "The jury has spoken."
He also said he would talk with the school board about a possible appeal.
Payne said, "I'm just so thankful the truth is known."
Jurors awarded her $1.2 million for mental anguish and $200,000 in punitive damages.
The lawsuit filed two years ago said the 16-year teacher was suspended and demoted because she refused to change the grades and told her story to a television station.
School system administrators said they never asked her to change any grades. Lindsey said she was suspended for five days in November 2004 because she refused to meet with administrators unless a Louisiana Education Association representative was there.
Until she resigned in 2005, Payne taught English at the school in St. Francisville, where students called her class the "House of Payne" because of her high expectations.
In the first six weeks of the fall 2004 semester, court documents show, she gave 70 percent of the school's 180 sophomores a 'D' or an 'F' in English II. The low scores conflicted with those same students' grades in other subjects as well as English grades for freshmen, juniors and seniors.
Payne's lawsuit said principal Michael Thornhill told her that if she would not change the grades, she would be assigned to teach in the behavior modification clinic for troubled students. Louisiana law bars any principal, superintendent or school board member from influencing or altering a student's grade.
In January 2005, the West Feliciana School Board suspended her for 45 days for willful neglect of duty. When she returned to the high school, she was assigned to be a library monitor and given tutoring classes with no students. She taught only two English classes.
Payne now teaches English to inmates at Dixon Correctional Center.
Asked whether she would consider returning to teach in Louisiana public schools, Payne said she would not. She said former colleagues at West Feliciana High School and in a teachers' sorority have told her they had similar experiences.
"I wanted to do something so they know they have rights. They ought to be able to do their jobs without harassment," she said. "Now they know it's OK to stand up for what's right."