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High school psychologist claims she was fired for trying to save student lives

By David Hudson

A former school psychologist at Mesa Vista School District in Ojo Caliente, N.M., removed from her position after helping students stage a walkout, sued school district officials in federal court last week, claiming she was fired in retaliation for the exercise of her First Amendment rights.

Laurie Spencer Roberts, who worked as a school counselor for Cooperative Educational Services, a nonprofit corporation formed by several public school districts in the area, says she initially tried to dissuade students from protesting in April 1997. However, she changed her mind and later assisted them, because she believed the walkout was a form of "constructive self-advocacy" that could help students deal with the recent deaths of young people in the community, including two suicides.

Roberts says she and other school officials learned that several students had made a "suicide pact" following several deaths, including the deaths of some Mesa Vista graduates. In her lawsuit, Roberts v. Cooperative Educational Services, she alleges that "because of the risk of additional suicides at Mesa Vista, [I] believed that the walkout could be part of the grieving process for the students and a sign that they were working through the recent tragedies."

However, school officials were unhappy with Roberts' involvement in helping to organize the walkout. According to her complaint, school Superintendent Vernon Jaramillo wanted her "out of the district immediately." She was removed from her position at Mesa Vista effective April 15, 1997, and was not assigned to another school district until the start of the next school year.

Her lawsuit alleges: "At all times material to this claim, Roberts exercised her right to free speech on matters of public concern, including but not limited to speech about suicide issues, the need for suicide prevention at Mesa Vista and the rights of students to exercise their First Amendment rights." The lawsuit further alleges that after Roberts exercised her free-speech rights, the defendants retaliated by moving her out of the school district.

Linda Vanzi, one of Roberts' attorneys, told "My client was discharged for exercising her own First Amendment rights in trying to save lives, help the students through a grieving process and assist the students in exercising their own First Amendment rights."

Jennie Lusk, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico, said: "Our client had every right to exercise her free-speech rights to talk to Mesa Vista students about the need for suicide prevention and the students' rights to exercise their First Amendment rights.

"The U.S. Constitution protects Ms. Roberts' right to exercise her own free-speech rights and her property rights to do so without sacrificing her employment. … School districts have a responsibility to respect the Constitution. Through this lawsuit, we ask that the court acknowledge the responsibility of the schools to respect free-speech rights and the property rights of school psychologists and counselors not to be retaliated against simply for doing their jobs during high-stress times."

Calls placed by to various defendants in the lawsuit — including Cooperative Educational Services, the school superintendent and school Principal — were not returned. However, school Principal Robert Archuleta told The Santa Fe New Mexican in an earlier interview: "The parents, the teachers and the students were upset that she [Roberts] tried to heal through this kind of walkout. These are very religious, very traditional communities … They are very strong in their beliefs and they just want to let it rest."

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