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South Chicago, East Side

2 CPS Teachers Won’t Be Fired After District Accused Them Of Encouraging Students To Protest General Iron

The Chicago Board of Education voted to retain the Southeast Side teachers after CPS officials sought to fire them. Instead, the board gave them a warning.

Chuck Stark and Lauren Bianchi (right) speak at a press conference July 27, 2022 after the Chicago Board of Education voted not to fire them. The teachers said Chicago Public Schools sought to oust them in retaliation for their activism protesting General Iron.
Mauricio Peña/Chalkbeat Chicago
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EAST SIDE — The Chicago Board of Education rebuffed an effort from Chicago Public Schools leaders to fire two Southeast Side teachers Wednesday, a move the teachers said was meant to punish them for protesting the city’s attempt to move General Iron into their neighborhood.

The schools board voted unanimously to reject district leaders’ recommendation to fire Chuck Stark and Lauren Bianchi, who teach at George Washington High School in East Side. CPS leaders sought to oust them for various “policy violations,” which included improperly encouraging students to participate in demonstrations, and arranging for them to do so without approved chaperones or parental consent.

The board determined Bianchi and Stark did violate several policies, including those governing student travel and volunteering, “but does not believe that dismissal is appropriate,” the decision read.

The board instead directed CPS CEO Pedro Martinez to issue a warning to both teachers and require them to undergo additional training on board safety policies. The training must be completed by Oct. 15.

Board President Miguel del Valle said the board believes strongly in “culturally relevant education.”

“We will continue to be supportive of all our teachers who promote an education that is relevant and sensitive to the environments of our students, and the overall status of their communities. In no way do we want to move away from that commitment to culturally relevant education in the city of Chicago,” del Valle said.

Bianchi and Stark were frequent fixtures in demonstrations urging Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration not to allow General Iron to move its operations and most employees from Lincoln Park to become Southside Recycling, less than one mile from George Washington High School.

Stark was one of three community members who went without food for a month in protest. Bianchi, an advisor to George Washington’s environmental justice club, participated in protests near the homes of Lightfoot and health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

CPS told one of the teachers about the district’s intent to fire them in Tuesday, according to a letter reviewed by Block Club.

RELATED: 2 CPS Teachers Say They’re Being Fired In Retaliation For Their Activism Against General Iron

Investigators for the district found Bianchi and Stark disregarded safety rules alongside “repeated instances of poor judgment and bias” in their roles as teachers and faculty advisors, district spokesperson Sylvia Barragan said in a statement Tuesday.

The investigation found, according to the district:

  • One teacher offered incentives for students to attend protests far from the school without the district’s knowledge, “with unknown chaperones and without ensuring parental knowledge or permission.”
  • One teacher offered credit for attending protests “that were important to the teacher, while not offering credit for other activities.”
  • One teacher disregarded volunteer protocol “by allowing individuals to participate in unsanctioned activities, including chaperoning and serving as guest speakers in classrooms.”
  • Both teachers “failed to follow student travel protocols with respect to a trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts” for a symposium.

The teachers and Chicago Teachers Union leaders denied wrongdoing.

The board warned both teachers that they must:

  • Comply with the student travel policy whenever arranging travel, directing students to travel opportunities or other opportunities that requires student travel, regardless of whether it is in connection with the school’s regular program or in connection with extracurricular activities
  • Comply with the board’s volunteer policy by ensuring that all non-board employees who participate in your instruction, advising, mentoring or other instructional activities have been approved in accordance with the policy
  • Comply with the staff acceptable use policy and do not share student information with non-board employees without appropriate consent

Failure to follow those rules could result in discipline as severe as termination, board general counsel Joseph Moriarty said.

Credit: Mauricio Peña/Chalkbeat Chicago
Lauren Bianchi speaks at a press conference July 27, 2022 after the Chicago Board of Education voted not to fire her and fellow George Washington High School teacher Chuck Stark.

CTU leaders blasted the potential firings as political retaliation by Lightfoot, who appoints Board of Education members.

“The mayor made up her mind to fire Chuck and Lauren as soon as they engaged in First Amendment activities that targeted [Lightfoot] for making a decision that would harm their community,” union vice president Jackson Potter said at a press conference Tuesday.

Stark thanked the public commenters at the board meeting who defended him and Bianchi, but said after the meeting, “it pains me that so many people had to extend so much time, energy and resources to come to our defense” rather than toward advocating for new buildings at Washington high and elementary schools.

Students, parents and staff have organized for better building conditions at George Washington after a ceiling partially collapsed and injured a security guard last month following a severe storm.

“I would like to make sure that we put energy back into this demand,” Stark said. “I’m very glad that we can move forward right now and put this [firing] issue to the side and focus on the more important issues, which are making sure we have the schools that our community deserves.”

Bianchi and Stark recently completed a four-year “probationary” period as new teachers and are eligible to receive tenure at the start of the next school year, they said.

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Community members, leaders and activists gathered March 4, 2021 in Logan Square to call on Mayor Lightfoot to deny a permit that would allow Southside Recycling to open in East Side.

The effort to fire the teachers came a week after the feds found city leaders violated the civil rights of Black and Latino residents by systematically moving polluters into their neighborhoods, exemplified by the city’s efforts to help General Iron move from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side.

Following a nearly two-year investigation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determined city officials “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin” as they clustered polluting industry in nonwhite communities, federal officials wrote last week to Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Southeast Side environmental groups.

Lightfoot’s office denied any discrimination in its practices.

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