Tolerated Bullying, A Teacher Forced to Resign and LGBT Students Looking for Answers
An excerpt from a letter from a parent to the Cape Henlopen School District:
"As a parent of a graduating senior I could easily turn my head, let the next few months pass and be done with all of the politics and discrimination. However, as a member of the community, I cannot let this continue for future students and parents. The GSA Club deserves equal and fair treatment and the targeting and discrimination must stop. They want to meet freely...They want to operate and function within acceptable limits that are afforded to all other clubs within CHHS. I am requesting and urging everyone to offer your support and rally for the fair and equal treatment of the Cape Henlopen High School's GSA.
December 10th, 2014"
Late-July is usually the time of year when teachers start to put together their lesson plans, order supplies and decorate classrooms. But Martha Pfeiffer won't be doing anything of that. Because after 29 years of teaching, Ms. Pfeiffer is out of a job. While news of an unemployed teacher is, sadly, not rare these days, what makes Ms. Pfeiffer's situation unique is the events that led to her resignation. What follows is a story about tolerated bullying at a high school, the loss of a beloved teacher and LGBT students facing the reality that they no longer have a much-needed advocate.
Martha Pfeiffer's journey to Cape Henlopen High School in Sussex County, DE was, in a way, unconventional. Recovering from a horrific car accident that left her temporarily paralyzed, she received a phone call from a colleague one day.
"They called me and said that they were getting rid the theatre people at the high school and we really want you to take this position," she said.
Since the high school was only a year old at the time, Pfeiffer built the theatre program from scratch. Using a university model, Cape Henlopen became the only high school in the state of Deleware where theatre was a "career pathway course".
As the years progressed, the theatre program grew in stature. It became ranked as one of the strongest programs in the state, winning multiple awards. Cape Henlopen also became the first public high school to be granted to rights to do School of Rock. Since she took over the program she saw her student accepted to schools such as Carnegie Mellon and Juilliard. All of her work culminated last year when she found out she had been nominated for the Tony's Excellence in Theatre Education Award.
But just as Ms. Pfeiffer was building her program into a juggernaut, it all fell apart over the last year.
"Without Martha, I feel like the future for LGBT students at Cape will be very dim because she was a rock for many students going through hard times." ~ Madison Couture
In 2013, a student approached Ms. Pfeiffer about starting a Gay-Straight Alliance. The desire to start this organization was a response to the negative comments hurled at LGBT student by not only other students but faculty at Cape Henlopen as well.
According to students, one incident involved a faculty member, Alayna Aiken, who taught a class called Human Development, reportedly told students during a meeting of an after-school club that a “homosexual lifestyle is one of the dirtiest and most disease prone things that could happen.” During another encounter with a lesbian student, Ms. Aiken allegedly suggested electroshock therapy to the girl as a way to cure her homosexuality.
When reached by the Washington Blade in 2014, Ms. Aiken denied the accusations.
But Ms. AIken's alleged comments were only a few of the many instances of tolerated or ignored bullying towards LGBT students by school administrators.
I spoke with students who told me that often reports of hate speech and homophobia would be ignored.
One student overheard a school administrator talk about him by saying, "I fucking hate that kid".
Another student reported that a school administrator refused to shake his hand on stage at graduation because of his pro-LGBT stances.
It's one thing to go to a school where abuse like this occurs, but it's a nightmare when the administration does very little to prevent it.
"I wouldn't be alive without that woman. With her being there, it helped me get through a lot of stuff." ~ Adrian D’Antoni
This past spring, years after building a successful theatre program from nothing. Years after seeing her student be accepted to the best theatre colleges in the world. Years after raising tens of thousands of dollars for Broadway Cares. Martha Pfeiffer was given an ultimatum; resign or be fired.
How did that happen? How did a teacher who was nominated for a Tony Educator Award be put in that spot? Well, depending on who you talk to the reasons are wildly different.
On one side, the reason seems to be an issue over a field trip. But many feel it's due to Ms. Pfeiffer's pro-LGBT stances which have gotten a lot of attention over the years.
During a field trip to go see shows on Broadway, Ms. Pheiffer was in a lot of physical pain. Due to her injuries from her car accident, sitting on a school bus coming from Deleware is just a nightmare and then having to sit in Broadway theatre seats for additional two hours can be torture, not matter how good the show is. So during intermission, Ms. Pfeiffer couldn't take it anymore and asked the house manager if she could stand in the back for the rest of the show, she was told no.
So rather than endure the immense pain in act two, she notified the students she was going to leave the show, go back to her hotel to take a pain killer and to have them let the parent chaperone to have the group of 9 students meet a block away with another group of students coming from a different show. Everything went fine and that was that.
However about a month later, Ms. Pfeiffer was notified that because she "left" the group of students unattended(even though they were with a parent chaperone), she would be removed from her position. The Washington Blade reported,
“There was a group of parent chaperones and they had another teacher with them,” Gregory told the Blade. “And so she was in pain and she told the mother chaperone who was in her group, ‘I’m in pain. I need to take medication and I know you will be able to find the bus and get the kids back on the bus,’” Gregory recalled Pfeiffer telling her.
“So she did not ride home on the bus with the students because she couldn’t,” Gregory said. “She was in that much pain. And these were 17 year olds and 18 year olds anyway,” said Gregory, who noted that at no time were the students left unescorted by an adult.
Gregory and other parents familiar with the New York trip said they were shocked when they learned that at (Superintendent) Robert Fulton’s request, the Cape Henlopen District school board voted to fire Pfeiffer for cause at a school board meeting in January. The vote to fire her came after Fulton suspended her while officials were conducting an investigation into her handling of the New York trip, sources familiar with the school said.
It should be noted that reportedly, no students who were on the field trip were interviewed during the investigation. It should also be noted that reportedly on a different field trip to New York with a different class, a chaperone left a group of freshmen alone in the city and when they tracked her down, she gave them a map and asked them to meet her at the theatre. She wasn't forced to retire.
The Washington Blade goes on,
"After consulting with representatives of the Cape Henlopen Education Association, which serves as a teachers union, Pfeiffer reportedly agreed to an offer by the school district that allowed her to resign and retain her benefits and teaching license, which could have been in jeopardy if she were fired.
The resignation offer came while Pfeiffer was suffering from sharp abdominal pain that a few days later was diagnosed as acute appendicitis that required emergency surgery for an appendectomy. Friends said that in the midst of the appendicitis attack she had to decide whether to accept the resignation offer or reject it and request a hearing to appeal the firing by a deadline one day later. Under what Pfeiffer considered duress she accepted the resignation offer, people familiar with the situation said."
So why would this high school be so quick to fire a successful teacher? Well, it might be because of Ms. Pfeiffer's support for LGBT issues and how it affects her students. As the faculty adviser for the school's Gay Straight Alliance, Ms. Pfeiffer has fought hard to protect the rights of her students. She made a lot of noise when graduating members weren't allowed to wear stoles signifying their GSA membership when students from other clubs were. She's also complained about the treatment of the club such as them being told they could only meet twice a month and other clubs can meet three times a month. All while the GSA had around 100 members.
"They were just waiting. They were waiting for me to screw up," she said.
Her students agree. Many of them have voiced how they feel the school has been out to get her.
So now, Martha Pfeiffer is fighting back. While it might not be enough to save her job, the word needs to be spread, the is a serious issue with how Cape Henlopen deals with LGBT rights and protections for their students who identify as such.
While she certainly is concerned for her own well-being, it is surpassed immensely by the concern she has for her LGBT students who don't have an advocate at the school.
"I'm worried for their safety," she said. "I'm worried for their emotional safety. The theatre was a safe space for those kids. I doubt things will get better because the students don't trust the adults. I'm worried about self-harm."
From my standpoint, and from everything I've seen, I would agree that there is a serious issue at Cape Henlopen High School. Abuse is occurring and it's being either ignored or tolerated by school officials and that is just simply wrong.
It's always unfortunate when a faculty member is lost, but when one seems to have been systematically pushed out, it's downright evil.
I call on the school officials in Cape Henlopen to seriously reconsider their decision making on this issue and take serious necessary steps in addressing and solving their bullying issues. Because God forbid anything happen, the blood will be on their hands.