Vince Ziebarth — a driver’s education teacher at Eisenhower High School in suburban Chicago — issued an ultimatum to 15-year-old student Shemar Cooper: Start standing up during the Pledge of Allegiance or don't take any more lessons in my car.
“All I told him is that, based on his actions, he has a choice with his actions," Ziebarth — known to his students as Mr. Z — told WBBM-TV. "I was exercising my right to make a choice as well.”
Ziebarth told the Chicago Tribune he was fired on March 16.
Driver's ed teacher Vince Ziebarth wasn't given a specific reason for being fired. (Image source: WBBM-TV video screen cap)
"I was given no options," he told the paper, adding that he wasn't tenured or under contract — and wasn't given a specific reason for being fired. "Had the principal told me I had to allow Shemar in my car, I would have."
There are seven other driver’s education teachers that Cooper could have taken lessons with, Ziebarth told WBBM.
While school officials have declined to comment, it appears Cooper's mother, Kelley Porter Turner, may have played a role in Mr. Z's fate.
Turner told the Tribune that after hearing about Ziebarth's ultimatum, she emailed a school administrator and asked her to "take care of it."
"She called me two days later and said he was going to be terminated," Turner told the paper.
"If my son didn't say anything to me, [the teacher] would have continued — and that's bullying," she told the Tribune, adding that Ziebarth "violated my son's First Amendment rights."
Mom Kelley Porter Turner said her son "does not believe in America. He says America is a very racist country." (Image source: WMAQ-TV video screen cap)
As for her son's position on the pledge, Porter told WMAQ-TV that "he does not stand because Shemar does not believe in America. He says America is a very racist country, there is no freedom or love for black people."
It wasn't the first time an Eisenhower teacher butted heads with Cooper over the pledge.
Porter told WBBM after her son's Spanish teacher insisted last fall that he stand for the pledge, Cooper replied that “America sucks,” and Porter made him apologize. But she added to the station that the Spanish teacher and other staff members began harassing her son and that the Spanish teacher tried to pull Cooper from his seat to stand for the pledge, then pulled him from class and reprimanded him.
That teacher later was reprimanded, WBBM reported, adding that Turner insisted the teacher was suspended.
"That first teacher should have been fired," Turner told the Tribune. "That would send a message that you can't get away with bullying my son."
She also told WBBM that Ziebarth should have known better:
Why did he think he’s invincible, that he can harass my son? He got what he deserved. I’m not being mean, but think about it. September 2nd, when this whole incident originally started, the teacher was suspended. You know, they had to go through this humiliation, being embarrassed, being put on the news. The teachers should have learned their lessons then, you know? Don’t violate children’s rights.
“One of the kids actually stood up in the classroom and yelled at Shemar, ‘You got Mr. Z fired!’ and he and my son got into a big argument," Turner told WBBM. "So I’m just hoping it doesn’t escalate any further."
Ziebarth told the Tribune he had a private chat with Cooper in February about what the pledge means.
"I told him I stand to honor the sacrifice and bravery of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country," Ziebarth told the paper, which noted that his grandfather was a World War II Marine and his uncle served in Vietnam. "It doesn't mean America is perfect, or that we agree with everything going on.
"We had an understanding," he continued to the Tribune. "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."
In fact, Ziebarth told the paper that Cooper often "joked" about the issue with him after their talk, asking, "Hey, Mr. Z, am I going to ride with you today?"
"I would say, 'You know the answer,' " Ziebarth told the Tribune. "Shemar was absolutely pushing the issue."
A change.org petition to bring Ziebarth back to Eisenhower has almost 1,000 signatures as of Friday morning.
“This is our time to stick up for him for all the times that he stuck up for us,” senior Jessica Belseth told WMAQ.