CEDAR RAPIDS — A Cedar Rapids high school teacher who came under scrutiny for the way a black baby doll was treated in her classroom was unfairly fired last fall, a District Court judge says in a ruling reversing the decision.
The board of the Cedar Rapids Community School District voted to terminate Tammy Ryan’s teaching contract at Metro Alternative High School after the black doll was found suspended from the ceiling in her classroom in spring 2018.
“Upholding the termination of Ms. Ryan’s teaching contract would be fundamentally unfair and penalize her for a single oversight,” District Court Judge Kevin McKeever said in the ruling, “ending a career which the evidence shows has been largely dedicated to repairing racial inequities for a single instance of insensitivity.”
The reversal could lead to Ryan, 54, teaching again in the district.
Ryan, who was a special-education teacher, told The Gazette on Friday she is interested in discussing her options.
“There’s a lot of good people in the district,” she said. “This experience was obviously horrid, but there are still a lot of good people. I choose to remember them.”
District spokeswoman Akwi Nji said the district is aware of the ruling.
“The district respects the judicial process and, after the board of directors has fully reviewed and evaluated the decision, will support the board’s decision regarding next possible steps,” Nji said.
Ryan was fired from the district after a photo of the doll, hanging from the classroom ceiling, spread on social media.
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Her students at Metro, where most students identify as a racial minority, had taken to hiding a black baby doll toy around her room as a game, the ruling said. As Ryan told The Gazette in an exclusive interview last year, the students moved the doll from place to place until one student tied a ribbon around its waist and suspended it horizontally from the ceiling.
While Ryan saw the doll as “flying,” others saw it differently — an allusion to a lynching.
The incident was disruptive, the ruling continued, as many students came to see the doll as evidence that white teachers didn’t care about minority students.
Ryan soon was placed on leave and the district investigated the incident.
The ruling states district leaders concluded termination was the only appropriate response because the incident was extreme and would have lasting effects on Ryan’s reputation among students and staff. They also worried, according to the ruling, of “the message” it would send if they did not fire her.
Ryan’s firing was recommended by then-Superintendent Brad Buck, who told the school board she had used the doll inappropriately and been a poor role model for students.
But, the judge wrote, the doll had not been interpreted as a racist image by students until one framed it that way on social media, and “holding a teacher responsible and at fault for failing to account for a subjective perception not yet held by anyone is an unworkable, unfair standard.”
To terminate Ryan for the incident “would discard her as collateral damage of a societal problem which she has, throughout her career, made every effort to avoid contributing to and sought to alleviate,” the ruling stated.
Ryan said the decision came as a relief.
“What mattered to me the most, personally, was how he recognized that I spent much of my life trying to represent many people without a voice — being an advocate as a teacher, working with minority populations from the very beginning and wanting to give help and power to the extent that I could,” said Ryan, who had a 26-year teaching career when she was fired. “I’ve reread those parts over and over. Finally, I felt like somebody had heard me.”
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The decision to restore Ryan to teaching “makes clear that a single instance of failing to anticipate a student’s perspective should not end an otherwise unblemished career,” said Christy Hickman, a lawyer for the Iowa State Education Association who represented Ryan.
The board approved Buck’s recommendation in a 4-1 vote. Nancy Humbles, whose term expires in 2021, is the only member still on the board who voted in favor of the firing.
John Laverty, Kristin Janssen and Mary Meisterling — who all declined to run again in elections held this week — also approved the termination. The only dissenting vote was from Gary Anhalt, whose term expires in 2021.
Ryan said she doesn’t harbor any ill will toward the board. Instead, she hopes the legal decision will give school leaders an opportunity to further discuss racial relations with the Cedar Rapids community.
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