Roma high school teacher on paid leave for BLM, LGBTQ imagery

ROMA — A decision at Roma High School to place a teacher on paid leave because of content posted on her remote learning site that supports LGBTQ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked calls to reinstate her and an online debate over the propriety of the content.

The content, which included a Black Lives Matter image, images supporting LGBTQ rights, a picture of what appears to be a protest and a suggestion for students to submit their preferred pronouns became common knowledge Friday when Marian Knowlton of Poteet, a Republican candidate for Texas House District 31, posted a screenshot of the page on Facebook and criticized the content.

“This is from a public school in one of the counties in House District 31!” Knowlton wrote on Facebook. “Our education system has been radicalizing our children for years and it continues to do so, from elementary through higher education. This is not an isolated occurrence, it is a national pattern. A concerted effort to teach children what to think, not how to think. Leftist indoctrination. Parents, I urge you to take a look at your child’s classroom, virtual or onsite.”

The post received dozens of comments, some supporting Knowlton’s criticism and others supporting the teacher.

The district referenced the incident in a statement Tuesday, saying the move was prompted by a review of parent and community complaints regarding the content.

“After reviewing the complaints, the District is working closely with the teacher to find a resolution that will ensure all parties involved reach an outcome that best benefits the expectations of our parents and needs of our students. The teacher is not being reprimanded in any way for her work or decisions,” the statement read in part.

The district did not specify which teacher had been put on leave, but a change.org petition calling for ninth grade English teacher Taylor Lifka to be removed from administrative leave had almost 10,000 signatures Tuesday afternoon and Lifka’s last name can be seen in the screenshot on Knowlton’s page.

“Please sign this petition to let the school district know that inclusivity and acceptance are not taboo ideas that deserve censorship; that high school students can and should be allowed to discuss the realities of the world instead of being sheltered inside a sanitized bubble; and that by reprimanding the teacher for trying to create a safe space for her students, the school is not being neutral, but is actively taking a stance that is antithetical to justice,” part of the petition read.

Lifka was a member of Teach For America’s 2017 corps, according to a 2018 story in The Monitor, but is no longer with the organization.

Attempts to reach her for comment were unsuccessful as of press time.

On her classroom’s homepage on the Roma High School website, Lifka wrote that she had fallen in love with Roma after her two years teaching there for TFA, prompting her to stay.

“The beauty of Roma exists in the vibrant border culture and the tight-knit community that supports and honors one another through both the celebrations and the challenges of life,” she wrote.

Joseph Cloward, a former teacher at the district, said he worked with Lifka for a year and described her as committed and competent. Cloward says news of Lifka being put on paid leave prompted him to send a letter to Roma ISD Monday expressing concern.

“I think what I was asking for is for the district to be really, really clear about whether or not it intends to be a safe and inclusive space for all students, particularly for Black students, for female students, for LGBT students,” he said. “I think all that’s come across right now is that teachers that are supportive of those students will be punished if they are outspoken in their support of those students, and I think that’s the wrong message for the district to be sending.”

Echoing the sentiment of the petition, Cloward described the content on the website as being about inclusivity and acceptance rather than politics.

“I don’t think that the messages in the pictures on social media are ones that have to be explicitly political in a partisan sense, they seem to be pretty typical ways to let students know that they are in a space where they will be welcomed and should feel safe regardless of their race or gender or sexual orientation,” he said.

Knowlton said the content did represent a political position, noting that she had been accused of racism and homophobia for posting the screenshot.

“If this is about inclusivity, why don’t we see anything about Judeao-Christian values on it, why don’t we see anything about the Bible on it, why don’t we see the other side?” she said Tuesday. “We only see one point of view on here, and I didn’t mention that at all, but that’s where the thread started to go.”

Knowlton said she got the screenshot from a concerned educator and shared it to raise awareness on what’s happening in Texas classrooms.

“I think that parents need to know what their children are looking at, what they’re hearing in the classroom,” she said.

Knowlton said early Tuesday afternoon that she had only heard of Lifka’s leave through social media. She said that wasn’t necessarily her goal in making the post.

“I don’t know really, I haven’t thought that far ahead,” she said. “I was told that she was given the opportunity to remove the content and she refused, so if she’s refusing something that the district is directing her to do, then that’s certainly a policy decision that the district makes.”