Ironton BOE reverses course on renewing teacher contract

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Durstein was previously fired in Huntington for bigoted posts

(Additional reporting by Mark Shaffer)

The Ironton school board voted on Monday night not to renew the contract of a teacher who had been the subject of controversy due to bigoted posts that had previously cost her a job at Cabell County Schools in West Virginia.

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Mary Durstein had been employed by Cabell County since 2001 and, in March 2017, her employment as a teacher at Huntington High School was terminated by that district’s board due to a series of posts and retweets she made on Twitter ridiculing African-Americans, Muslims, the Black Lives Matter movement and former President Barack Obama.

Durstein’s posts and firing generated headlines, not just locally, but also received coverage from national and international media.

In December of 2017, the West Virginia Department of Education notified Durstein that she was being investigated because of “several comments on your public Twitter account, which were derogatory towards Muslims, the President of the United States, African-Americans and Jews” according to a letter sent to Durstein by the West Virginia Department of Education regarding their investigation of her.

The letter also said that “In addition, you taught World Studies, which included a section on Arab Empire, thus calling into question your abilities to perform your job” and that her comments were linked to her teaching job and created a hostile working environment at the school for non-Caucasian staff members and students. The letter said her comments violated two policies of the school, including the Employee Code of Conduct and Anti-Harassment and Violence policies.

The letter also said that if Durstein “should seek employment in the public school system, it is your responsibility to disclose the fact of our investigation to prospective employers regardless of whether their application or interview process calls for such disclosures.”

In January 2020, the investigation was closed without action and Durstein’s West Virginia teaching license remained valid.

In October 2019, Durstein filed suit against the Cabell County Board of Education, the state superintendent of schools of West Virginia Department of Education and the Cabell County Schools assistant superintendent.

Her lawsuit said that the board had violated her First Amendment rights by making her delete her Twitter account, that the assistant superintendent violated her First Amendment rights by not allowing her to talk to the media to defend herself publicly and that the state superintendent should be barred from revoking or suspending her teaching certificate because of the tweets, which she said were on her personal account while off duty and while school was not in session.

The case was against the state superintendent was dismissed in December 2019 and the other cases are still before court.

A meeting about settling the case is set for Aug. 5.

Since her firing, Durstein was approved as a substitute teacher at Fairland schools in July 2018, Dawson-Bryant schools in July 2021 and Ironton in 2018. In fall of 2021, she was hired on a one-year contract as a seventh grade history teacher at Ironton Middle School.

At April’s meeting, the Ironton board voted unanimously to renew Durstein’s contract for another year, a decision that generated backlash at Monday’s meeting. About 30 people attended the board’s meeting at Ironton High School, many of whom signed up to speak against the board’s decision to keep Durstein on staff.

The first on that list was Samantha Lafon, a 2021 graduate of Ironton High School. She said she was there because, “this community will always hold special place in my heart.”

“This teacher’s story is not hard to find,” she said. “Simply typing her name into Google will bring you a multitude of articles about her past — from ABC, CBS and many education websites all feature her and what she did.”
Lafon said she did not hold it against anyone who was unaware of Durstein’s actions and voted for renewal, but took issue with those who “did know about her past and voted to keep her teaching young minds in the school district anyway.”

She spoke of those who said, “everyone makes mistakes and people should get a second chance.”

“And people are correct,” she said. “People change and it is not fair to judge someone’s professional career based on an isolated incident. And, as a black woman, I can assure that I hope and pray this teacher has had a change of heart and forever regrets those malicious tweets that she put out for the world to see.”

But she said, “with mistakes come consequences.”

“There is no place in education for someone to even have the slightest chance to make a child feel ‘less than’ or another child feel it’s okay to treat their peers in such a manner that was presented in those postings,” Lafon said. “I need faith restored that we are being led by a board and superintendent that value diversity, inclusion and simply professionalism.”

Sitting with Lafon was another 2021 graduate of Ironton, Kiandra Martin, who said while she is no longer a student and does not have children in the schools, “being part of very small minority community in Ironton, this has kind of been dropped on my front door.”

She said the fact that Durstein was a history teacher made her posts “unacceptable.”

“Considering politics and race are talked about in history class every day and considering African-American history is taught almost slim to none in history classes today,” she said.

She questioned the board members’ vote to keep Durstein employed.

“If this is the administration’s fault for not thoroughly looking into her, then shame on you,” Martin said. “If her background was known, and it was still decided to keep her in our school system, then shame on those who decided to keep her.”

Carissa Collins spoke as a parent of an Ironton student. She said, even though they had moved outside the district, she had decided to keep her son in Ironton, because she felt it was necessary that he be exposed to diversity.

“That was really important,” she said. “With the decision the board made, even though it is public knowledge what she said, what she thought and what she believes, it is really making me question my decision. Did we make a mistake keeping our child at Ironton? If you think I’m only parent who feels this way, you’re wrong. I can’t believe were even having this discussion in 2022.”

Susan Taylor spoke as a grandmother of a student at Ironton Middle School. She asked the board who voted to renew the contract, to which it was confirmed the vote was unanimous.

Taylor said students need to “know this world is a place to be great and Ironton gives them that.”

“That’s what I need from my board, because what do our children deserve? The best!” Taylor said. “Our children absolutely deserve the best and she is not the best.”

Several faculty members also criticized the board’s decision in April, including Daniel Murphy, a teacher at Ironton Middle School.

Murphy said, “as a minority,” he had to “think about his job” and possible “retaliation” in such matters.

“I’m the breadwinner for my family, but, today, it does not matter,” he said.

Murphy described himself as “a privileged person of forgiveness,” but said, in mistakes he has made, “I accepted it and I had to turn around and show remorse.”

He said remorse could also be shown by “changed behavior.”

“When kids come from her class to my class, I hear what they are saying, and it’s not positive,” he said. “I’m not judging her for her past, but I can judge her for her present.”

Robert Pleasant, a former Ironton board member, described Durstein’s posts as “purposely offensive and degrading and showing hostility toward race and religion.”

He said her history had been brought to the board’s attention in October 2021 and, at the time, he felt the “the board thought there was sufficient reason to support taking some action. But something changed by April 2022.”

He took issue with those he said sought to diminish her comments or pointed out they were made five years ago.

“The words we speak show people who we are, whether we speak them or tweet them, our words mean something,” Pleasant said. “Words have power to young minds. And her words create division.”

As for forgiving Durstein, Pleasant said he had considered the matter and thought of mistakes he has made in his own life.

“I’ve made comments or mistakes I later had to acknowledge, and I took ownership,” he said. “But nowhere has she showed remorse or apologized or recognized the harmful impact of her words.”

Pleasant said Durstein had a constitutional right to express her views, but “does not have the right or privilege to teach impressionable children.”

He concluded by asking the board members to reconsider their vote.

Durstein was not present for the meeting and no speakers were present supporting her.

Following the public comment, the board then met in executive session for an hour and a half, inviting Pleasant in for the first half.

When they reconvened, they then voted to rescind last month’s vote on the contract, followed by a vote not to renew Durstein’s contract. Both votes were unanimous.

Following the vote, board vice president Mark Fields said, “We don’t always get it right and I don’t always get it right.”

“I want to take responsibility for how we got here and I certainly don’t want to put that on anyone else,” he said.

Fields said he wanted to provide an outline of the process, so that the public would know, “We didn’t just sit down and look at all of this stuff and go, ‘This is just a great idea.’”

“None of us knew when Mrs. Durstein came into the district as a substitute what was going on,” he said. “Again, that’s not an excuse and maybe we should have, but we just didn’t.”

Fields said Durstein had been a substitute in the district for four years and “there was never one issue.”

“When we were made aware, she was under contract and, right or wrong, the board – we got into the legalities of things and said, ‘OK, what is the right thing to do?’” Fields said. “We ended up at the end of the year – here was a person, it had happened in a different district, and I was still hung up on the legalities. It was five years ago, she earned the job. We hired her because we thought she did a great job.”

Fields said he did not approve of Durstein’s words or actions.

“What she did or said was not OK with me, either,” he said. “But you look back and you see – different state, different district, here we are – and her colleagues say she’s terrific.”

He said those who spoke on Monday made clear the concerns.

“I’ll say, I was wrong,” Fields said. “I can clearly see – you guys being here tonight – I can clearly see the impact it’s had on everyone in the present. Hopefully we can move on from this.”

Mark Lafon, student services director for Ironton schools, who had spoken out earlier in the meeting said the room did not cheer the board’s vote because, “We don’t know what is next.”

“We just know what happened,” he said “That’s why the room is silent, but we are thrilled with the decision you made.”

At this point, many in the crowd applauded.

“We don’t want to fool ourselves, thinking, ‘This is it.’” Lafon said. “What we do together is what matters next. I appreciate your leadership for stepping up and getting it right. We have more to do and let’s get to it. Let’s not have this thing happen again.”