Sheila Goudeau, by all accounts, was a good teacher. In fact, she was the only nationally certified teacher at Riveroaks Elementary School, and she was a nominee for teacher of the year.
But that didn’t qualify her to grade her students, according to a suit she has filed against the East Baton Rouge, La., school and its administrators.
According to the civil rights suit filed in federal court in Baton Rouge, Goudeau was asked to teach fourth grade last year by the school’s principal, Shilonda Shamlin, in order to help raise grades and have students prepare for the state mandated Louisiana Educational Assessment Test (LEAP), which all students in the state must pass to move on to the next grade.
After she took the job, the suit alleges, Shamlin ordered that no student was to get a failing grade and that teachers were not to record any grade lower than a "D."
Goudeau’s attorney, Craig Sterling Watson, said the suit doesn’t specify why Shamlin gave the orders, and he said Goudeau still doesn't know. He said Goudeau complied with the orders and didn’t fail students, but she complained about the orders and filed a grievance with the school district.
At that point, the suit claims, Goudeau was monitored, harassed and disparaged in front of her students.She has since transferred to another elementary school in the district.
The suit seeks unspecified damages for Goudeau's severe and extreme mental pain, suffering, and anguish; physical pain, suffering and anguish; loss of sleep; loss of quality of lifestyle; loss of reputation and standing in the community; humiliation and embarrassment; medical expenses; counseling; wages; and loss of earning capacity from the principal, the school district, and current and former school superintendents of the district.
Principal Shamlin did not reply to repeated requests for comment. Domione Rutledge, general counsel for East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, said the school district couldn’t speak about the allegations “because it still hadn’t been served with the papers.”
Lawsuits like the one Goudeau filed are rare, said Perry A Zirkel, a professor in education and law at Lehigh University says. He explained that while courts generally agree that a teacher's right to grade is protected by the First Amendment, they also find that administrators have the same right and can change grades as they like.
“So the teacher wins the right to give a D and the school has the right to change it to an A,” he said.
But the suit has already served one purpose. It brought about a wave of criticism aimed at the principal and school administrators and showed that the school staff was bitterly divided. When a story about the lawsuit appeared in The Advocate, a Baton Rouge daily, a chorus of complaints charged that Shamlin ruled the school with a heavy hand and demanded regimentation of studies and classrooms.
“It's a crippling work environment at Riveroaks and the school's reputation is well-known throughout the parish," wrote an anonymous poster to the newspaper's website. "Just consider the teacher turnover at the school. There is almost an entire new staff hired each year. This year won't be any different.”
But another responded, "Mrs. Shamlin has done more to improve the quality of education at Riveroaks in the last four years than any other principal. Ask any parent that has had more than one child there over the years. She cares about the students and has high standards for them and the teachers."
The case is unlikely to go to trial for some time, Watson said.