An Eisenhower driver’s ed teacher has been fired after telling a student who wouldn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance that he wouldn’t ride with him. (CBS Chicago)
A second teacher has been disciplined at Eisenhower High School over a student’s refusal to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Vince Ziebarth, who has worked in District 218 since 2009, and was a full-time driver’s education teacher at the Blue Island school since January 2014, said he was terminated March 16 after being told he made "inappropriate comments" to sophomore Shemar Cooper.
At the beginning of the school year, Cooper and his mother, Kelley Porter Turner said that the first teacher tried to coerce him to stand, by grabbing him by his arm.
Porter Turner is now saying that a couple of weeks ago, Ziebarth told her son, "’If you want to drive with me, you have to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.’"
"I brushed it off and let it go," she said, until Shemar came home from school again and said the teacher "wouldn’t let it go."
Ziebarth said, "I told him he can make a choice to sit, "but as long as you choose to sit, you will not sit in my (drivers ed) vehicle. I did not tell him what to do."
Shemar’s other friends drive with the teacher, and when a group went out for behind-the-wheel training, he asked if he could go, too, his mother said.
The teacher reportedly told her son, "’You know what you have to do if you want to come with me,’" Porter Turner said.
"If my son didn’t say anything to me, (the teacher) would have continued — and that’s bullying," she said.
"He violated my son’s First Amendment rights," she added, saying that she emailed an Eisenhower administrator and asked her to "take care of it."
"She called me two days later and said he was going to be terminated," said Porter Turner, who then contacted the news media.
School officials did "not set an example the first time," she said, adding that the first teacher got suspended for trying to force her son out of his chair to stand for the Pledge.
"That first teacher should have been fired. That would send a message that you can’t get away with bullying my son," Porter Turner said.
Shemar is a "good kid" who gets "good grades," she said.
"I tell him to stand up for what he believes in," said Porter Turner, whose voice mail greeting says, "the greatest success in the world is the ability to forgive."
School officials have declined to comment on personnel issues.
Ziebarth told a different story.
He said he had one behind the wheel lesson with Cooper in February.
"I didn’t want to say anything to him then, with other students in the car," he said. But when Cooper later asked when they were going out driving again, that is when Ziebarth said he had a private conversation with Cooper about what it means to stand for the Pledge, and told the student how he felt.
"I told him I stand to honor the sacrifice and bravery of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. It doesn’t mean America is perfect, or that we agree with everything going on," said Ziebarth, whose grandfather was a Marine in World War II, and whose uncle served in Vietnam.
"We had an understanding. He was making a choice, and I was making a choice. His name never appeared on my sign-up sheet again, so I thought it was over," Ziebarth said.
"I thought it was best for everyone. I didn’t want my feelings to seep into my instruction unintentionally," he said.
There are seven other drivers ed teachers and students sign up and choose the teacher they want to ride with because they want students to be comfortable behind the wheel, he said.
After that conversation, Ziebarth said Cooper often "joked" about it with him, smiling and saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Z am I going to ride with you today?’
"I would say, ‘you know the answer,’" the teacher said. "Shemar was absolutely pushing the issue. He is an attention seeker. He purposely joked about it to get attention."
Ziebarth said he had not spoken to Cooper for the past two weeks and added he was surprised to be called to the principal’s office March 15. The next day he said he was told his services were no longer required in the district, without being given a specific reason.
Ziebarth was not under contract, and was not a tenured teacher.
"I was given no options. Had the principal told me I had to allow Shemar in my car, I would have," he said.
"The punishment does not fit the crime," he said, noting that the first teacher got a one-day suspension.
Ziebarth said he was well aware of the first incident because that classroom is next to the drivers ed area.
Initially, Ziebarth said, Shemar quietly sat out the Pledge of Allegiance, but in February, he noticed that Cooper sometimes would sit with a thumbs down or black power gesture, while the Pledge was being recited during second period.
"He had the right to sit there, but he doesn’t have the right to seek attention with his theatrics," he said. "Now, staff is afraid to say anything to that kid. There should not be special rules for just one kid."
"Students rights are important, but teachers have no rights. We are supposed to check our humanity at the door," he said. "I am willing to sit down with the superintendent. He can make this right."
"As teachers, you know the administration does not have your back. They do what is politically expedient. This was not done in the best interest of all students at Eisenhower," Ziebarth said.
The "saving grace" of this whole incident is the "overwhelming" support he has seen from students, he said. An online petition drive to "Get Mr. Z back at Ike" was started by students at change.org, and had over 600 signatures, as of Wednesday morning.
"They have been a beacon of light," Ziebarth said.
And similar to what occurred after the first incident, her son is again being harassed by classmates, who blame him for getting a favorite teacher terminated, Porter Turner said.
Last September, Porter Turner said she was going to take her son out of Eisenhower because he was being harassed by fellow students, and enroll him in an online charter school.
That option did not pan out because the student had to be a Chicago resident or pay tuition. Cooper lives in Merrionette Park.
"I hope my son can get through the next two years and not get harassed," his mother said.