Unionville High School teacher sparks an online controversy
● By J. Chambless
The Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board.
By John Chambless
A Jan. 18 Facebook post by Winden Rowe, a former Unionville High School teacher who resigned in December, has ignited a social media storm over what Rowe says are unfair and discriminatory practices by the district administration.
Rowe, who was a Spanish teacher at the high school, wrote on Jan. 18 that she was telling her story, “for everyone who is impacted by a quiet and insidious tyranny that still exists in homes and institutions across America. And it saddens me.”
Rowe said in the Facebook post that she was teaching on Dec. 18 when students in her class were called out of her room, one by one, to go to the school office. She learned from one student that questions were being asked about Rowe's personal life.
After class, Rowe went to the office, where she said she was asked, among other questions, “Winden, do you have a gay best friend?”
Rowe explained in her Facebook post that, “There were times where we would go off topic and spend class time talking about things not relevant to the content. There were questions that I would answer or stories that I would share that had nothing to do with the curriculum. Yes, they had me on a technicality.”
But Rowe said she discussed her male friend because students “would see us in the community and, as teenagers do, insinuate that he is my boyfriend. And I would clarify that he is, in fact, not. And I would also share his sexual orientation, and that many of my friends are in fact not straight. And I would share that with a purpose. I wanted the students that I work with to know that I position myself as an ally in the school and in the community and that there still lies in our culture a racism against our gay, lesbian and transgendered community that is downright shameful.”
Rowe, who is a single mother, asked in her Facebook post, “If I had gone to dinner with my straight friend, or to Disney with my straight husband, would those questions have been asked? And would they have been asked using the person's sexual orientation as a descriptor? No.”
One alleged comment from the administration that Rowe points out is, “Winden, we are concerned as to what kind of image you present to the kids.” The comment “was the most demoralizing, unkind, professional mistreatment that I have ever undergone in my 20 years as a paid employee of any organization,” she wrote in her Facebook post. She decided to resign her position. She clarified that she was not asked to resign, nor was she fired.
Rowe's post, however, was shared on a Unionville High School alumni page on Facebook, and the commentary was soon fast and furious. Rowe talked to a reporter for an online news site, Mic.com, and the resulting story on Jan. 21 added fuel to the online controversy.
On Jan. 25, the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District website posted a rebuttal titled “Response to Ms. Rowe's False Claims.”
The letter, which is credited to district superintendent John Sanville and school board president Victor Dupuis, reads, “We take pride in the open and honest manner in which we communicate with you -- our community. We are always transparent and forthright in addressing all manner of topics.
“It is the district’s policy and practice to respect the privacy of our employees. However, it is also our obligation to defend our school district against false accusations, especially when they rise to the point of concern for our community. Currently there are widely publicized articles and commentary in magazines and online casting aspersions on us. We are troubled by these false allegations and will defend ourselves publicly and legally. It is our right and duty to protect the integrity of our school system and its employees and students.
“In December our UHS administration responded to student concerns that Ms. Winden Rowe, a high school Spanish teacher, had shared inappropriate topics with her class. Stories about how she spends her time out of school, including details about her dating and partying life, were the basis for meeting with her. We were concerned about the nature of these classroom discussions and the amount of time they were taking away from instruction. Ms. Rowe was informed that a letter about this would be placed in her file and she was asked to apologize to students and change her instructional patterns. Based on the positive performance evaluations she’d received in the past, we believed this was a lapse in sound judgment and could be easily corrected.
“We want to be clear that Ms. Rowe chose twice to resign. Administration was shocked that she was opting to leave her job. UHS administration was not seeking nor did they ask for her resignation either time -- the choice was Ms. Rowe’s. The administration's goal was to have Ms. Rowe's Spanish instruction focus to teaching and learning Spanish. Instead, Ms. Rowe decided to resign and asked us to stop our review of her classroom conduct.
“Ms. Rowe then went to social media, blasting the district for allegedly asking her to leave because she told students that her best friend was gay. Nothing could be further from the truth. Again, our concerns did not include the sexuality of a friend, but rather the inappropriateness of discussing an adult recreational lifestyle with students during class time.
“By going public with her ‘story’ and by providing contact information for Mr. Conley, Mrs. Jenkins, and Mr. Reif, Ms. Rowe is engaging in irresponsible and damaging behavior – and we are compelled to respond.”
The issue also surfaced early in the school board's meeting on Jan. 25.
Dupuis addressed Rowe's comments in a statement. “First, was she fired or told that she needed to resign?” he said. “No. She voluntarily resigned. At no time did the district seek or encourage her to resign.
“Second, was Ms. Rowe at any time in a room with administrators when she was not accompanied by another member of the professional teaching staff of the district? No. She always had another individual, who she had selected, in the room with her.
“Finally, was Ms. Rowe's interview process and subsequent resignation in any way related to her own personal sexual orientation, the sexual orientation of her friends and colleagues, her marital status or her parenting style? No. These topics are in no way related to the initiation of the process of or the conclusion of Ms. Rowe's employment, and her choice of resignation,” Dupuis said. “This process has been dealt with by our administrative team in a thoroughly professional manner. We are disappointed in Ms. Rowe's decision to make public statements that present falsehoods and misrepresentations of the actual witnessed and documented events of this process.”
Sanville read from the statement that was posted on the district's website.
There are comments on both sides of the issue posted in online forums. In a Facebook post, Jennifer Fulton, the adviser for the Unionville High School Gay-Straight Alliance, wrote in defense of the administration's handling of the matter. “I believe there is a grave misunderstanding on Ms. Rowe's part and I suggest that everyone consider that there is not one truth, just a perception of truth for each of us. Furthermore, we need to be very careful that what we sign our name to is not libel or slander,” Fulton wrote.
Action at the Jan. 25 board meeting also included passing a preliminary district budget for 2016-17, with total appropriations of $83,649,554. Adoption of the final budget and the levying of real estate taxes will take place in June. The board also approved a retirement contribution exception of $691,865, and a special education exception of $315,632.
Robert Cochran, the district's director of business and operations, explained, “The preliminary budget is required by the commonwealth to determine if the school district is in need of going to referendum or not. Also to determine if a school district needs exceptions under Act 1. This preliminary budget reflects no need for a referendum, but does reflect a need for about $1 million worth of exceptions. What this does is provide the board with the greatest flexibility relative to taxation. We have a Governor who's about to make his announcement on what he is proposing for the 2016-17 budget, yet we still don't have a 2015-16 budget in the commonwealth. That puts us in a lot of uncertainty relative to state funding, and the same for many other districts. Applying for the exceptions does not indicate that we will use them.”
Sanville explained that the board took the unusual step of having a meeting on a district snow day “because, by state law, we are required to pass the preliminary budget this Wednesday,” he said. “Also by state law, if we change our meeting date, we must give three days notice to the public. So we can't do either one, and that's why we are meeting tonight.”
Sanville and other board members thanked the crews who worked to clear school properties of snow, saying crews “were on site at 4 a.m. Saturday. Last night, there were folks working until midnight. And they were at it all day today,” he said. “The reason we canceled school was not because of our facilities, but because there are side roads that were rough to have buses go down. Our folks went above and beyond in a blizzard to make our schools safe, and it's appreciated.”
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.