After a white elementary school teacher confronted a group of boys she said were surrounding and bullying a black fourth-grader, the Arizona teacher got fired over the incident.
But now 70-year-old Pam Aister, a 35-year classroom veteran, is battling back against the Fountain Hills School District with the help of a civil rights attorney and a community activist — both of whom are black.
Aister came to the aid of 9-year-old Malacai Washington at Four Peaks Elementary School last May after she said she saw him surrounded by four boys who appeared to be bullying him.
"I said to them, 'He's in my room now. He had transferred into my room. He's in my room now. He's not alone. If you are picking on him you are picking on me,'"Aister told KTVK-TV in Phoenix.
Washington told the station that going to school at Four Peaks was "hell on earth," adding that the bullying included near-daily taunts with racial slurs, including the n-word.
"And also, they called me 'monkey' because I have big ears," Washington told KTVK.
But a parent soon complained that Aister threatened her child during the incident, which Aister flatly denied.
"I did not threaten them," she told KTVK. "I did not touch them. I never threatened them."
But an investigation concluded there was no evidence of racial language used during the incident, that Aister should have reported bullying if she saw it, and that she should be terminated or suspended, the Arizona Republic reported.
The investigator's report detailed several points that seemed to cast the dispute in a different light.
First, according to the Republic, one of the black students in the group was taunting the other four students because his class had won a contest against the other students' class, the Republic said. Aister believed that the four students being taunted were making racial comments to the student who was taunting them, the paper said, citing the report.
However the report also noted that the group of fourth-grade boys — one of whom was Washington — consisted of three whites and two blacks, which would seem to indicate that one of the students allegedly bullying Washington is black.
The report noted that Aister "verbally chastised the students," directing her words to one particular student, telling him that "he should watch what he says and what he does because she will be watching him. She said that should cure his racist ways."
Hearing officer Prudence Lee determined that Aister had “possession and use of power in an inequitable way that resulted in the intimidation of students, causing them unnecessary anxiety and fear,” the Fountain Hills Times reported.
So the district's board voted 4-1 to fire Aister in late September, saying in a statement: "So what is most unfortunate is that a group of young students is made to sit by as they are unjustly labeled and maligned as racists, bullies and now liars. Such mistreatment of these students, or of any student, is wholly inconsistent with the district's values and missions."
The hearing officer added that in 2011 Aister was placed on an improvement plan because her interactions with some students were "negative, demeaning, sarcastic and inappropriate," the Republic reported.
Aister disputed the report to the board and denied she warned the student to watch himself, according to a copy posted on the website of the Fountain Hills Times, the Republic said. She also questioned the report's timeline as well as parental accounts, adding that the 2011 improvement plan was "a distortion," the Republic reported.
[sharequote align="center"]"It was like we were wiped off the face of the earth.”[/sharequote]
In fact Aister told the Times the investigator's report was “very distasteful and one-sided.”
“Nothing there included anything I said, anything my student said, or anything my student’s mother said,” she told the paper. "It was like we were wiped off the face of the earth.”
Aister's attorney Benjamin Taylor told TheBlaze on Friday that he's pursuing every legal means to protect his client's rights.
Attorney Benjamin Taylor right says he's pursuing legal options for Aister pic.twitter.com/njMjFR8dYS
— Mary Beth Faller (@MaryBethFaller) October 14, 2014
Community activist Rev. Jarrett Maupin, who's filed complaints on Aister's behalf with state legislators and the U.S. Department of Education, said she and Washington got raw deals.
"You've got two victims here," Maupin told KTVK. "You have Malacai, who has been victimized and had to move to the Creighton School District, and you've got Ms. Aister who can no longer practice her passion."
Maupin added that this situation calls attention to preferential treatment district wide.
"The Fountain Hills School District does not belong to two or three parents who are disgruntled because someone finally called attention to the fact that they have children who behave badly," he told the station.
Meanwhile Aister is generating support in the community — and outside of it. A petition at change.org to reverse her firing has drawn more than 125,000 signers as of Friday.