Back in 2018, Stafford County third-grade teacher Rebecca Whitford entered into a hostile and bureaucratic nightmare that was worthy of a novel by Franz Kafka. He’s an early 20th century German writer whose characters were often subject to all sorts of never-ending traumas at the hands of the bureaucracy and other forces. In the case of Rebecca Whitford, just like one of Kafka’s stories, there seemed to be no logical justification for what was happening and no way to win.
Whitford, charged with the breaching Standards of Learning Exam security, had no one to stop the wheels of bureaucracy from taking away her job and then hurting her long-term career and reputation.
That damage is done. Fortunately, thanks to a bill introduced by Del. Bob Thomas, R-28th, and supported by the Stafford and Virginia education associations, others with similar charges may at least face alternative punishments. In the case of Whitford, the only alternative was firing and losing her license.
But first a little background. Who is Rebecca Whitford and how did this whole travesty of justice unfold?
To do that you have to go back to 2017. Whitford, a respected teacher with 25 years of experience, was working with other teachers on preparing for the Standards of Learning (SOL) third-grade exams. Somewhere along the way she sent a text message saying that a “little birdie” had suggested various focus areas might be stressed on the exam.
That’s when the dam burst. Whitford was called to the principal’s office to meet with both the principal and the SOL representative. She was presented with her text message and asked to explain herself.
Alas, for all practical purposes, she was already convicted. Apparently, in their minds, reference to this “little birdie” (and there was no evidence this was a real person) was a gross violation of the confidentiality rules of the SOL. Whitford was almost immediately suspended.
Now, before we proceed, what about this text message? It suggested the exam would likely focus on counting money, doing fractions and multiplication.
Unless I am mistaken, that, for the most part, is the third-grade math curriculum. It’s a little like saying that Dr. Henderson’s examination in his college class on differential equations will be about differential equations.
It was a reminder, but in terms of being deemed secret, inside information, it was a laughable accusation. Nonetheless, the wheels of bureaucracy are hard to stop when set in motion.
In order to fire Whitford, the school board had to get involved, and to my surprise, no one in this normally opinionated body said much of anything.
There was a hearing, and she had a good case. She also had 26 witnesses testifying to her character.
But in a meeting attended by only four members of the board, just barely a quorum, she was fired. A little while later the Department of Education took away her license for 12 months. It was a terrible miscarriage of justice.
However, there was something more to this case. This is where Bob Thomas’ bill is comes in. When the Stafford school system took this route, they didn’t have many options as to the sanctions Whitford could face.
Mind you, the case shouldn’t have been brought in the first place, but once it was, firing and the loss of her license was the only punishment provided under the law.
There was no range of punishments that varied with the severity or circumstances of the offense. This is the basis of what’s called “the Rebecca Law.” It adds another penalty short of firing and license revocation.
While it’s too late to help Whitford, this enhanced flexibility might help somebody else. It’s an accepted principle of jurisprudence that punishment should be based on the severity and circumstances of the offense.
That’s the case Thomas tried to make, but getting the legislature, particularly in committee, to tinker with issues regarding teacher discipline is a challenge. They tend to prefer to leave it as is and what’s more weren’t comfortable with simply a limited or verbal reprimand.
According to Thomas, for the bill to pass, the alternative penalty had to be writing and visible to other school systems.
In other words, it has to be in the teacher’s permanent file. That was the compromise. After which it all but sailed through the House and Senate and received the governor’s signature.
In the case of Rebecca Whitford, Stafford County lost a good teacher.
Personally, I think it was a dubious case to begin with, but in future instances, when a charge like this is made, thanks to Thomas’ bill, now law, there will be some alternatives.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford County School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU and can be reached at StaffordNews@insidenova.com.