Education

Board terminates Windsor High School principal over Facebook post

Windsor High School parent Deanna Rondos argues with Kira Kelley earlier this year over a controversial Facebook post by Principal Tiffany Riley. The school board fired Riley, and her attorney plans to appeal in federal court. Photo by Katy Savage/VTDigger

The Mount Ascutney School Board fired Principal Tiffany Riley after she posted a controversial Black Lives Matter comment on her personal Facebook page.

In the school board’s 50-page decision, released Friday, board members said Riley’s post was seen by more than 250 people and created “serious disruption” to the school district. Many saw the post as “denigrating, derogatory, or contrary to the movement for social equity for African Americans, including the Black Lives Matter movement,” according to the decision.

The post in question was made June 10 at 10 p.m. Riley wrote, “I firmly believe that Black Lives Matter, but I DO NOT agree with the coercive measures taken to get this point across; some of which are falsified in an attempt to prove a point. While I want to get behind BLM, I do not think people should be made to feel they have to choose Black race over human race.” 

Riley asked about equity for law enforcement in her post and added, “Just because I don’t walk around with a BLM sign should not mean I am a racist.”

After the post was widely circulated with hundreds of comments, Riley deleted it and made a follow-up comment on June 11, where she said:  “While self-reflecting, researching, learning, and trying to make myself more aware of the struggles of the BLM movement, I recently made a public post that unintentionally offended many people. I understand the struggles of the Black lives community and stand with them in the fight against racism.”

Riley was placed on paid administrative leave the next day. The school board issued a public statement, saying Riley’s first post showed “ignorance, prejudice and lack of judgment” and her second post showed “no culpability, expressed no specific contrition or empathy, and showed no humility.” The board stated it was “resolved that (Riley) would no longer lead the school.” 

The board voted unanimously to fire Riley on July 27, pending a termination hearing, as required by law. The hearing on Sept. 10 was held in executive session, despite Riley’s attempts to have the hearing open to the public.

Bill Meub, Riley’s attorney, said the board’s decision will be appealed in federal court.

“It was not unexpected,” Meub said. “We see it merely as an attempt to justify improper conduct that was done in June.”

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The board found five grounds for terminating Riley, saying her Facebook post was “diametrically contrary” to her job of promoting racial equity in the school.

“It is unacceptable conduct for a principal to promote equality by day and then, on her own time, make a social media post on Facebook which undermines that work in a way that adversely affects the district, and that is exactly what happened here,” the board said in the decision.

Board members said messages from concerned community members were “pouring in” to them following Riley’s post, according to the decision.

Riley initially “refused” to remove her June 10 post at the suggestion of Superintendent David Baker, the decision said. The board said the superintendent offered Riley a “lifeline” on June 11 to work together on a replacement Facebook post that would mitigate the impact of her first Facebook post, but she didn’t comply. 

“She reverted again to wanting to make a statement which contained no actual apology,” the board wrote. “The June 11 post thus played a role in, and likely exacerbated, the impacts caused by the June 10 post.”

The board further said Riley behaved inappropriately with community members and made the post to “to air her personal grievances” and “vent frustration over perceived slights directed at her by a school employee and former student.”

Graduation controversy

The controversy started when Baker and Riley received an email from former student Iyanna Williams on June 2. Williams, one of the few African Americans in the community, asked them to remove an American flag that was painted on a hillside for Windsor High School’s graduation ceremony on June 5, suggesting that the flag had become an anti-minority symbol. 

Tiffany Riley, principal of Windsor High School, has been fired.

Baker and Riley both told Williams the American flag could not be removed. The former student then asked to display another symbol of equity at graduation. Riley emailed Williams separately and suggested statements like “United We Stand,” “All Means All,” “Stop the Violence” or “Equity for All” could appear at graduation.

Williams replied on June 3, saying, “Phrases like ‘all means all’ and ‘united we stand’ are politically correct ways of saying ‘all lives matter.’ This statement ‘all lives matter’ has been used to take away from pointed efforts to save Black lives.”

Riley then had an email exchange with Erin Rockwood, a behavioral analyst at the school and parent who hosted Williams in her home, in which Rockwood explained the American flag was problematic. Riley then asked Rockwood if she had a Black Lives Matter flag to hoist at graduation at Williams’ request.

When no Black Lives Matter flag appeared at the graduation ceremony, Rockwood and Williams sent lengthy emails to Baker and Riley on June 8 and 9, saying they were disappointed neither Baker nor Riley attended a Black Lives Matter rally. They questioned why a Black Lives Matter flag didn’t appear at graduation. Williams said she was reaching out to a selectboard member to hold Riley to higher standards.

Riley posted her Facebook comment the next day, which was widely circulated. Kabray Rockwood, Erin’s husband and a coach at the school, also shared the post on his Facebook page, generating numerous comments.

Kabray, who is African American, said he was disappointed in the post and couldn’t support Riley as an administrator.

Riley had phone conversations with David Baker the next morning. Riley texted Assistant Principal Kate Ryan the morning of June 11, explaining her frustration with the Rockwood family.

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“Is it OK to say I’m over the Rockwoods?” Riley asked Ryan on June 11 in the text message revealed with the testimony. “Kabray completely twisted a FB post I made on my personal FB page. … My post was related to my frustration with being harassed by Iyanna and Erin about the American flag painted at graduation and the school not hoisting a BLM flag.” 

Riley told Ryan she was refusing to take her Facebook post down, despite Baker’s requests.

Text exchange was revealing

In the decision school board members said the text exchange showed Riley lacked professionalism in interacting with the community.

“A school principal who is unable to check her frustration with a school community family, such that she uses social media as an outlet to vent that frustration, is not conducting herself in a professional manner,” the decision states. “Even if a principal is offended by constructive criticism, she fails to effectively lead the school if she chooses to deal with that criticism by making reactive posts on social media.”

However, Meub, Riley’s attorney, said Riley’s Facebook post had nothing to do with the Rockwoods or anybody else in Windsor.

“She was watching the TV and seeing these violent demonstrations,” Meub said. “She has always asserted that what she (posted) was based upon what she saw. She was opposed to the violent demonstrations and it was distracting to the Black Lives Matter message.”

Meub said Riley has always fought for equity and her statements were misunderstood. 

“The whole issue of social media is not designed for clarity,” Meub said. “She had gone out of her way and was hurt by what was going on, but that was not in any way what motivated her post.”

Riley became combative

School board chair Elizabeth Burrows said one of the most convincing pieces of evidence the board used in its decision was a 26-minute telephone call Riley recorded between her and Baker, which was released as part of the testimony. 

Burrows said Baker “was insistent the post be taken down” in the phone call but rather than comply, Riley became combative.

In the call on June 11, Baker called Riley’s post a “huge mistake” that hurt her credibility.

“Your statement was inflammatory; it was incendiary and quite frankly it was racist,” Baker told Riley in the recorded call.

Baker further told Riley her post hurt a number of people in Windsor and she was being defensive instead of embracing her mistake. Riley shot back at Baker.

“I am actually a little appalled that you are not standing up for me,” Riley told Baker. “I am a little offended that you, my leader who has known me for seven years, would even sit here and suggest that there is some racist in me. I am a little offended by that.”

Baker offered to help Riley craft an apology and suggested Riley take the post down or turn off the comments. 

Riley told Baker in a June 11 text message that she had spoken to a Black U.S. Marshal friend of hers in Florida about her Facebook post.

“I trust his judgment on this issue more than anyone,” Riley texted to Baker. “It’s important to note he said my post is not racist at all. His wife is an equity professor at the University of Florida and will help me with my response.”

“I think that’s fine,” Baker responded. “Just remember that you don’t work for that Marshall [sic] and you don’t work in Florida. You need to be responsive to your school board and to me. So far it’s not going well.”

‘Your own white privilege and guilt’

In a text message exchange with Baker on June 12, Riley further accused Baker of not supporting her. She said Baker called her and her husband racists. 

“I can’t help but wonder how much of your own white privilege and guilt plays into that because that is not who I am at all,” Riley told Baker. 

Baker responded, saying, “As I said to your irate husband last night, I never called either one of you a racist. But I do call that post racist. We are all learning and we all make mistakes. I will never support that post. It does not reflect my values or the values of our school district. It is that simple.”

The board also said Riley was dishonest. She repeatedly said that she had been called a racist when there was no evidence of that. 

Riley wrote an email to the school board on June 11, trying to explain the Facebook post.

“I have been accused of being a racist for not hoisting a BLM flag, ridiculed for not attending a BLM rally that the Rockwoods organized last Sunday and accused of being a poor leader and role model, all from the Rockwood family,” Riley wrote in an email to the board on June 11.

Riley later admitted in testimony that she exaggerated the matter to the board.

“My feelings are being hurt that Erin, somebody who knew me well, would think that I didn’t care about Black Lives Matter and didn’t take the matter seriously, and it came off from a place of hurt,” Riley said in the September testimony. 

Riley released a statement Friday night in which she said she said she spent her career trying to create more equity in education.

“I dedicated my entire life to get college degrees, additional training, and experience necessary to do my job well,” Riley said. 

Riley also further explained her position on the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“When I wrote my post, I did not realize people would interpret my June 10th post to mean I was choosing ‘a side’ or in any way opposing the Black Lives Matter Movement,” Riley wrote. “I did not know that talking about ‘all lives’ was ‘code’ for opposing the nonviolent messages of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black lives have always mattered to me, which is why I had been leading equity training in the school. The statement that ‘All lives will matter when Black lives matter’ captures my sentiments about the message of the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Riley maintained that she has been a leader for social equity. She was part of the state’s Equity Practitioners Network, a two-year program that helps educators address racism, white supremacy and inequity.  Riley wrote a final reflection essay for the network on June 1, in which she addressed the murder of George Floyd.

“Discrimination, racism and hate are pervasive,” Riley wrote. “I worry about our future, the division of our nation, and the lack of basic human kindness that exists in the world. As we are getting ready to send our graduating seniors out into the world, I am a bit saddened to think of the challenges that lay ahead of them.”

Riley, who lives in Reading, was assistant principal at Windsor High School for two years, before becoming principal five years ago. She was paid $113,000 a year. Just before the controversy, Riley was given a two-year contract extension with a pay raise.

Riley sued the board on June 26, claiming she was wrongfully terminated. The case was put on hold until the board’s decision was released. It will be picked back up again.

First Amendment rights?

“This is about trying to define, what are your First Amendment rights?” Meub said. “She believes she had the right to write on her own Facebook. Their argument is that what you wrote on your Facebook caused some disruption in the school so that’s a basis to terminate you. We say that, ‘that’s not true.’”

Meub argued the hearing was uncalled for because Riley was effectively terminated in June.

“We didn’t even think the hearing should occur because we think she’s already been terminated and it’s simply putting her through an experience for them to be able to get to the end result that they’re justified in terminating her.”

In the testimony, Meub said the superintendent had “thrown his principal under the bus” and said the superintendent should have communicated the BLM requests to the school board.  Riley said she was used as a “sacrificial lamb” to deflect criticism the board and Baker was receiving. 

Riley said the school board placed her on leave without reaching out to her or giving her a chance to explain.

Since the incident, Riley has continued to post political messages on Facebook.

On Aug. 26, Riley reposted a Wall Street Journal op-ed called “Living his Mother’s American Dream” about U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, and his police reform bill. 

“It’s difficult to post anything these days because the visceral reaction it causes if someone has a differing position or point of view,” Riley wrote. “I happen to find Tim Scott very inspirational.”

Riley deleted the Facebook account earlier this month, which she used separately from her personal account to share news with parents and community members.

The Riley ouster has caused controversy in Windsor and garnered national attention.

“She did nothing wrong,” said Hartland parent Brandon Dyke, after learning Riley had been fired. “She explained her views that all lives matter, which is a true fact.”

However, Heather Pogue, an educator and parent in Hartland, took offense to the post. She emailed Riley and Baker shortly after seeing it.

“You began by saying that you ‘firmly believe Black Lives Matter,’” Pogue wrote in June. “Then literally every single thing you say after that contradicts that statement — thus demonstrating that you do not actually value Black lives … BLACK LIVES ARE HUMAN LIVES.  If you really do ‘firmly believe that Black Lives Matter,’ you would understand that ‘choosing the Black race’ IS ‘choosing the human race.’”

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Katy Savage

About Katy

Katy is a former reporter for The Vermont Standard. In 2014, she won the first place Right to Know award and an award for the best local personality profile from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. In 2013, she was named Rookie of the Year by the Vermont Press association. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Katy lives in Chester.

Email: [email protected]

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