By Katy Savage/VTDigger
The Mount Ascutney School Board fired Principal Tiffany Riley after she posted a controversial Black Lives Matter comment on her personal Facebook page.
In the school board’s 50-page decision, released Friday, Oct. 16, board members said Riley’s post was seen by more than 250 people and created “serious disruption” to the school district. Many saw the post as “denigrating, derogatory, or contrary to the movement for social equity for African Americans, including the Black Lives Matter movement,” according to the decision.
The post in question was made June 10 at 10 p.m. In it Riley wrote, “I firmly believe that Black Lives Matter, but I DO NOT agree with the coercive measures taken to get this point across; some of which are falsified in an attempt to prove a point. While I want to get behind BLM, I do not think people should be made to feel they have to choose Black race over human race.”
Riley asked about equity for law enforcement in her post and added, “Just because I don’t walk around with a BLM sign should not mean I am a racist.”
The post was widely circulated with hundreds of comments, including one from Heather Pogue, an educator and parent in Hartland, who took offense to the post. She emailed Riley and Superintendent David Baker shortly after seeing it.
“You began by saying that you ‘firmly believe Black Lives Matter,’” Pogue wrote in June. “Then literally every single thing you say after that contradicts that statement — thus demonstrating that you do not actually value Black lives … BLACK LIVES ARE HUMAN LIVES. If you really do ‘firmly believe that Black Lives Matter,’ you would understand that ‘choosing the Black race’ IS ‘choosing the human race.’”
The next day, Riley deleted the post and made a follow-up comment on June 11, where she said: “While self-reflecting, researching, learning, and trying to make myself more aware of the struggles of the BLM movement, I recently made a public post that unintentionally offended many people. I understand the struggles of the Black lives community and stand with them in the fight against racism.”
Riley was placed on paid administrative leave the next day. The school board issued a public statement, saying Riley’s first post showed “ignorance, prejudice and lack of judgment” and her second post showed “no culpability, expressed no specific contrition or empathy, and showed no humility.” The board stated it was “resolved that [Riley] would no longer lead the school.”
The board voted unanimously to fire Riley on July 27, pending a termination hearing, as required by law. The hearing on Sept. 10 was held in executive session, despite Riley’s attempts to have the hearing open to the public.
Bill Meub, Riley’s attorney, said the board’s decision will be appealed in federal court.
“It was not unexpected,” Meub said. “We see it merely as an attempt to justify improper conduct that was done in June.”
The board found five grounds for terminating Riley, saying her Facebook post was “diametrically contrary” to her job of promoting racial equity in the school.
“It is unacceptable conduct for a principal to promote equality by day and then, on her own time, make a social media post on Facebook, which undermines that work in a way that adversely affects the district, and that is exactly what happened here,” the board said in the decision.
Board members said messages from concerned community members were “pouring in” to them following Riley’s post, according to the decision.
Riley initially “refused” to remove her June 10 post at the suggestion of Baker, the decision said. The board said the superintendent offered Riley a “lifeline” on June 11 to work together on a replacement Facebook post that would mitigate the impact of her first Facebook post, but she didn’t comply.
“She reverted again to wanting to make a statement which contained no actual apology,” the board wrote. “The June 11 post thus played a role in, and likely exacerbated, the impacts caused by the June 10 post.”
The board further said Riley behaved inappropriately with community members and made the post “to air her personal grievances” and “vent frustration over perceived slights directed at her by a school employee and former student.”
The controversy started when Baker and Riley received an email from former student Iyanna Williams on June 2. Williams, one of the few African Americans in the community, asked them to remove an American flag that was painted on a hillside for Windsor High School’s graduation ceremony on June 5, suggesting that the flag had become an anti-minority symbol.
Baker and Riley both told Williams the American flag could not be removed. The former student then asked to display another symbol of equity at graduation. Riley emailed Williams separately and suggested statements like “United We Stand,” “All Means All,” “Stop the Violence” or “Equity for All” could appear at graduation.
Williams replied on June 3, saying, “Phrases like ‘all means all’ and ‘united we stand’ are politically correct ways of saying ‘all lives matter.’ This statement ‘all lives matter’ has been used to take away from pointed efforts to save Black lives.”
Riley then had an email exchange with Erin Rockwood, a behavioral analyst at the school and parent who hosted Williams in her home. Riley asked Rockwood if she had a Black Lives Matter flag to hoist at graduation at Williams’ request.
When no Black Lives Matter flag appeared at the graduation ceremony, Rockwood and Williams sent lengthy emails to Baker and Riley on June 8 and 9, saying they were disappointed. Williams said she was reaching out to a Select Board member to hold Riley to higher standards.
Riley posted her Facebook comment the next day.
Kabray Rockwood, Erin’s husband and a coach at the school, also shared the post on his Facebook page, saying he was disappointed in the post and couldn’t support Riley as an administrator. Rockwood is African American.
Revealing text exchange
Riley had phone conversations with David Baker the next morning. Riley texted Assistant Principal Kate Ryan the morning of June 11, explaining her frustration with the Rockwood family, saying: “Is it OK to say I’m over the Rockwoods?”
That text message among others were revealed with the testimony. “Kabray completely twisted a FB post I made on my personal FB page,” she continued. “My post was related to my frustration with being harassed by Iyanna and Erin about the American flag painted at graduation and the school not hoisting a BLM flag.”
Riley told Ryan she was refusing to take her Facebook post down, despite Baker’s requests.
In the decision school board members said the text exchange showed Riley lacked professionalism in interacting with the community. “A school principal who is unable to check her frustration with a school community family, such that she uses social media as an outlet to vent that frustration, is not conducting herself in a professional manner,” the decision states. “Even if a principal is offended by constructive criticism, she fails to effectively lead the school if she chooses to deal with that criticism by making reactive posts on social media.”
However, Meub said Riley’s Facebook post had nothing to do with the Rockwoods or anybody else in Windsor.
“She was watching the TV and seeing these violent demonstrations,” Meub said. “She was opposed to the violent demonstrations and it was distracting to the Black Lives Matter message.”
Meub said Riley has always fought for equity and was misunderstood.
Riley became combative
School board chair Elizabeth Burrows said one of the most convincing pieces of evidence the board used in its decision was a 26-minute telephone call Riley recorded between herself and Baker, which was part of the testimony.
Burrows said Baker “was insistent the post be taken down” in the phone call but rather than comply, Riley became combative.
In the call on June 11, Baker called Riley’s post a “huge mistake” that hurt her credibility.
“Your statement was inflammatory; it was incendiary and quite frankly it was racist,” Baker told Riley in the recorded call.
Baker further told Riley her post hurt a number of people in Windsor and she was being defensive instead of embracing her mistake. Riley shot back at Baker.
“I am actually a little appalled that you are not standing up for me,” Riley told Baker. “I am a little offended that you, my leader who has known me for seven years, would even sit here and suggest that there is some racist in me. I am a little offended by that.”
Baker offered to help Riley craft an apology.
Riley told Baker in a June 11 text message that she had spoken to a Black U.S. Marshal friend of hers in Florida about her Facebook post. “It’s important to note he said my post is not racist at all. His wife is an equity professor at the University of Florida and will help me with my response,” Riley texted to Baker. “I trust his judgment on this issue more than anyone.”
“I think that’s fine,” Baker responded. “Just remember that you don’t work for that Marshall [sic] and you don’t work in Florida. You need to be responsive to your school board and to me. So far it’s not going well.”
Riley released a statement Friday night, Oct. 15, in which she said: “I did not know that talking about ‘all lives’ was ‘code’ for opposing the nonviolent messages of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black lives have always mattered to me, which is why I had been leading equity training in the school.”
Riley, who lives in Reading, was assistant principal at Windsor High School for two years before becoming principal five years ago with a salary of $113,000 a year. Just before the controversy, Riley was given a two-year contract extension with a pay raise.
Riley sued the board on June 26, claiming she was wrongfully terminated. The case was put on hold until the board’s decision was released. It will now be picked back up again.