Expelled: Texas Education Agency Fires Staffer for Announcing Talk by Barbara Forrest

State science curriculum director resigns

Chris Comer is out of a job. She was a nine-year veteran in the position of director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency (Texas-speak for the state’s “department of education”). The TEA administration essentially forced her resignation.

So, why would TEA do that? Comer forwarded an email from the National Center for Science Education announcing a talk by Dr. Barbara Forrest to several people with the following addition: “FYI”.

The call to fire Comer came from Lizzette Reynolds, who previously worked in the U.S. Department of Education. She also served as deputy legislative director for Gov. George W. Bush. She joined the Texas Education Agency as the senior adviser on statewide initiatives in January.

Reynolds, who was out sick the day Comer forwarded the e-mail, received a copy from an unnamed source and forwarded it to Comer’s bosses less than two hours after Comer sent it.

“This is highly inappropriate,” Reynolds said in an e-mail to Comer’s supervisors. “I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities.

How did that play out?

In documents obtained Wednesday through the Texas Public Information Act, agency officials said they recommended firing Comer for repeated acts of misconduct and insubordination. But Comer said she thinks political concerns about the teaching of creationism in schools were behind what she describes as a forced resignation.

Apparently, not being a team player in the The Republican War on Science is a firing offense at the TEA. Why forwarding an announcement concerning a talk whose topic is highly relevant to the conduct of science education by an internationally recognized speaker should cause TEA administrators a problem escapes me. One is forced to wonder whether Ms. Comer would be looking for a new job if instead she were forwarding emails announcing talks by DI fellows about “intelligent design” creationism.

Let’s take stock here. Will the Discovery Institute come forward to say that the TEA is repressing Ms. Comer’s free speech rights? Will they urge her to become the star of the “Expelled” movie? After all, she did actually lose her job over her stance on evolution in education, as opposed to various people noted as being featured in the film who did not. But the DI is unlikely to do so because Ms. Comer is on the opposite side of the issue from them. They aren’t defending a principle, they are pushing a particular line of propaganda.

In practical terms, I think that state employees do need to be wary of using work email accounts. For example, almost all of my email correspondence is done through a personal email account. I only use my MSU account for a strictly limited subset of things that are directly related to my job. I encourage people to pick up a free email account with one of the services that provides web-based email if they have any doubt about how their employers may look upon their activities.

I heard about Ms. Comer’s case and several other hair-raising instances of the very real oppression faced by advocates of good science education earlier this month at the Dover reunion. At the time, Ms. Comer had requested keeping this quiet, so the story remained untold. With the Austin American Statesman article, you now know about it. There are lots of untold tales of oppression of pro-science people that you will never hear about because the principals simply want to move on with their lives and have the harassment end. The fact of the matter is that pro-science people don’t have to exaggerate instances of harassment, death threats, or termination of jobs due to unfair and unprofessional action of antievolution advocates, as the antievolution advocates have to do to reshape their molehills into mountains.

Update: Here is the email that cost Chris Comer her job:

***

To: Glenn Branch
From: Glenn Branch
Subject: Barbara Forrest in Austin 11/2
Cc:
Bcc: [redacted]
Attached:

Dear Austin-area friends of NCSE,

I thought that you might like to know that Barbara Forrest will be speaking
on “Inside Creationism’s Trojan Horse” in Austin on November 2, 2007. Her
talk, sponsored by the Center for Inquiry Austin, begins at 7:00 p.m. in
the Monarch Event Center, Suite 3100, 6406 North IH-35 in Austin. The cost
is $6; free to friends of the Center.

In her talk, Forrest will provide a detailed report on her expert testimony
in the Kitzmiller v. Dover School Board trial as well as an overview of the
history of the “intelligent design” movement. Forrest is a Professor of
Philosophy in the Department of History and Political Science at
Southeastern Louisiana University; she is also a member of NCSE’s board of
directors.

For further details, visit:
http://www.centerforinquiry.net/austin/events/barbara_forrest_inside_creationisms_trojan_horse_lecture/
Sincerely,

Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x305
fax: 510-601-7204
800-290-6006
branch@ncseweb.org

http://www.ncseweb.org

Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools

http://www.ncseweb.org/nioc

Eugenie C. Scott’s Evolution vs. Creationism

http://www.ncseweb.org/evc

NCSE’s work is supported by its members. Join today!

http://www.ncseweb.org/membership.asp

***

Update 2007/11/30: Texas Citizens for Science has a page giving more details on the Comer case and internal politics at the TEA. Apparently, TEA policy was that unconstitutional intrusions of religion into classrooms had to be treated “neutrally”. Does this mean that all employees were essentially fitted with administrative gag orders such that they could not even point out that fact that the courts have consistently found religious antievolution unconstitutional? It sure looks that way.

The Associated Press has a story that has been picked up by the New York Times.

Update 2007/12/03: Ralph Blumenthal has an article in the New York Times on Chris Comer and the TEA. It looks like he did his homework.

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21 thoughts on “Expelled: Texas Education Agency Fires Staffer for Announcing Talk by Barbara Forrest

  1. harold

    I understand that some people don’t want to fight back; I can identify with that at a personal level – it can be very stressful for a person of limited means to take on something like this.

    At the same time, we should encourage fighting back. In this case, Comer should be paid damages and reinstated, and Reynolds should be fired*, and a good lawsuit might well achieve those results.

    *I’m assuming there’s no backstory of actual serious bad behavior by Comer here, despite the predictable claims.

  2. Julian

    I think the reason for the extreme reaction to her email, which realistically is in no way different than about 100 other emails that are probably popped around TEA a day (I know the UT establishment had bunches like this), can be found in who initially reported it to her boss. Debbie Ratcliffe used to be Bush’s deputy legislative director and was one of his ideological appointees to the U.S. Department of Education according to the article. I guess they must have made it too hot for these folks in Washington, so they decided to come try it here in Texas.

  3. Dave S.

    They did cite a few other “reasons” in the story, but it doesn’t seem at this point as if any of them rise up to a fireable offence. And at least one person made it clear that forwarding this message was by itself sufficient to fire Ms. Comer in her eyes.

    I wonder when Ben Stein will show up with the cameras in tow?

  4. Jedidiah Palosaari

    Yup. I left my job (wasn’t fired) because the school I was at began teaching official classes in ID, done by the director, and I felt there was an ethical conflict as a biology teacher. There were other reasons for leaving, but I would have stayed. But the board had no respect for my knowledge of biology (at the time, the only one with biology training in the school), and had approved this without consulting or informing me. This was after a long two years of antagonism over the issue. I would have liked to have stayed. So I also, have lost my job for teaching evolution.

  5. BWE

    I wrote this as part of the closing post in a debate with a creationist but it seems to fit this story well.

    The salient feature of this lie is its intent to perpetuate ignorance. These ridiculous attempts to justify a system that is morally, ethically and spiritually corrupt appear simply crazy to those not infected by the demon. But to those honest but ignorant followers of the ideology, the justification serves the dual purposes of isolating the faithful and ensuring the continued flow of money into the coffers of the larger beast. As a society coping with the massive problems of overpopulation, pollution, global warming, totalitarianism looming in the United States and other serious concerns, we have a moral obligation to expose the fraud and try to help those who struggle with the inconsistencies they are being asked to live with.

    This is a part of a serious culture war.

  6. Phoenix Woman

    Wanna know what’s really interesting?

    Lizzette Reynolds, the Republican BushBot and Creationist nutter who led the witchhunt against Comer, was on sick leave that day, yet still managed to send her rant to Comer’s boss LESS THAN TWO HOURS after Comer forwarded the e-mail.

    Amazing, that she was sick enough to stay at home that day yet somehow well enough to be online.

  7. Austringer Post author

    I don’t know about that. I installed the software, modified the theme, and entered my initial post on this weblog two days out from major emergency surgery, lying flat on my back in my hospital room.

  8. raven

    It is obvious that the Texas Thought Police had this woman on their hit list. Director of Science Curriculum. Known evolutionist.

    The email is innocuous and just a pretext. They would have nailed her for breathing or feeding stray cats or just made something up.

    It is also quite clear that she will be replaced by a creationist. Count on it. This is just politics, she was in the way of a complete creo takeover of the Texas State school system.

    Is anyone keeping score of who and how many have lost their job for teaching evolution?
    1. Richard Colling at Olivet was being persecuted for teaching evolution
    2. The guy at the Iowa community college was fired, for being unable to keep a straight face when a student said the earth was 6,000 years old.
    3. This woman, Chris Comer.
    4. I’ve heard of a case of a woman prof at Permian college Texas whose job was teaching evolution. She left after being harrassed and beaten up by a student.

    Not really my field, so there must be many more I’m not aware of. This is pure McCarthyism or Galileoism. “Have you ever been or are you now an acceptor of the fact of evolution.”

  9. carlsonjok

    They did cite a few other “reasons” in the story, but it doesn’t seem at this point as if any of them rise up to a fireable offence.

    Which is what Comer meant when she said “None of the other reasons they gave are, in and of themselves, firing offenses.” And, certainly, that is true. Individual incidents that lead up to disciplinary actions rarely are firing offenses….in and of themselves. It is a pattern of such behavior that lead to termination.

    I have been a people manager in both union and professional environments, and I come at this with what is probably a different perspective than y’all. And I see enough in the article, and the disciplinary action memo, to give me pause before making Comer a cause celeb. If we take the article as true, then there is a pattern of acting contrary to her supervisor’s direction. A pattern that she does not deny. Furthermore, the part of the Statesman article addressing her comments about the acting commissioner are problematic. She states, on one hand, that she doesn’t remember making the statement and, on the other hand, she was misconstrued. You can’t have it both ways. If your position is that you don’t remember making a statement, then you cannot dispute that someone’s interpretation is not what you meant. Additionally, the answer to her question “is that so horrible?” is yes, it was. In any organization, you just do not make public statements undermining your superiors and expect nothing to happen.

    Now, I will gladly concede that perhaps this was all a pretext by anti-evolutionists to silence a pro-science voice ahead the curriculum review. But, as a professional manager, I am stating that the statement of record are not as clear cut as you might like them to be. If I was Comer, I wouldn’t feel real good about my chances in arbitration if her superiors at TEA can document the allegations laid out in the letter. And, as a manager, I am willing to bet they can.

    The ID folks made a mistake by swarming to the rescue of Guillermo Gonzales and his (now revealed) mediocre record at ISU. The same trap potentially awaits us here.

  10. carlsonjok

    For what it is worth, I have just read the report from Texas Citizens for Science and it certainly paints a fuller picture which is more sympathetic to Chris Comer. That employees are fired for violating policies and directives is not exactly news. And that is where my concern started. But, the piece of the puzzle missing from the Statesman article was a better description of the objectionable policies. I think the TCS report does a better job of putting it together as a setpiece.

  11. BWE

    Now, I will gladly concede that perhaps this was all a pretext by anti-evolutionists to silence a pro-science voice ahead the curriculum review. But, as a professional manager, I am stating that the statement of record are not as clear cut as you might like them to be. If I was Comer, I wouldn’t feel real good about my chances in arbitration if her superiors at TEA can document the allegations laid out in the letter. And, as a manager, I am willing to bet they can.

    The ID folks made a mistake by swarming to the rescue of Guillermo Gonzales and his (now revealed) mediocre record at ISU. The same trap potentially awaits us here.

    You really take the fun out of ganging up on fundies there carlsonjok. Now I need to read the rest of the darn information.

  12. Nigel D

    I have two comments to make here:

    (1) This incident is an utter disgrace. Lisette Reynolds should be locked away (preferably in a nice soft cell where she can’t do anyone any harm).

    (2) Boy, you guys have some dumb employment law in the US. IIUC, there is no country in western Europe in which an employee may legally be fired for a “first offence”. Certainly where I work we are obliged to issue two written warnings prior to a person being sacked.

    A friend of mine works in France, and the company he used to work for was bought out by a US company. The American bosses decided they didn’t need the office in France so they closed it and made all the employees there redundant. They should have checked up on French employment law first – it cost them a huge amount in redundancy settlements (my friend received 13 months’ salary as the initial redundancy settlement; plus, in France, the unemployment benefit is about two-thirds of the salary you were on before losing your job; plus, in France, there is a bonus payment when you find a new job, which is one reason that taxes are so high in France).

  13. Nigel D

    BTW, I should have made clear in my previous comment another thing: I know that she wasn’t actually fired (she was “forced to resign”), but it appears that Lisette Reynolds considered that email a sackable offence. In the UK there is something called “constructive dismissal” which amounts to forcing someone to resign their job. It is a civil offence, so would require the filing of a personal lawsuit.

    Further clarification of my previous comment: if someone commits a criminal offence while doing their job (e.g. fraud), they can be sacked straight away without any comeback on the employer.

  14. anonymous

    FACT: people that work for a state agency are “at will” employees

  15. Austringer Post author

    Anonymous,

    Employees in Texas are treated as “at will” employees. That doesn’t mean that other states do so (the only other state with that policy is Virginia), nor does it mean that what the TEA is doing is correct. Even employers in one of the two “at will” states cannot abrogate an employee’s civil rights with impunity.

  16. Jill

    I just called Lizette Reynold’s office to complain and I was the first person who had called, so they aren’t getting a lot of complaints yet.

    Here’s the number
    Lizzette Reynolds 512-936-6060

  17. raven

    Austringer:

    Employees in Texas are treated as “at will” employees.

    In this case it doesn’t matter. She is clearly a victim of religious persecution and discrimination. As such this is so illegal that she would have excellent chances in court.

    The head of the Texas State Board of Education, Don McLeroy is a religious extremist, avowed creationist and associate of the DI, and a religious bigot who considers himself the judge of who is a real Xian and who is a Fake one. He has been trying for years to get rid of evolution teaching in public schools. They are where the ultimate responsibility for her dismissal lies.

    Chris Comer wasn’t creationist enough or orthodox Christian as McLeroy refers to fundie Xians. She was in the way of their attempt to rewrite Texas science standards with a fundie religious slant. It is guaranteed that her replacement will be a creationist.

    A court case would be illuminating. I bet the email and paper trail between the leadership of the Texas school system would read something like a cross between a Stalinist show trial and a Catholic Inquisition.

    PS: There is a lead lining here. I’ve read some of McLeroys bigoted ravings. He appears to have little scientific knowledge about biology. He is a religious bigot. He also seems to be pretty dumb.

  18. Austringer Post author

    Austringer:

    “Employees in Texas are treated as “at will” employees.”

    In this case it doesn’t matter. She is clearly a victim of religious persecution and discrimination. As such this is so illegal that she would have excellent chances in court.

    So I take it that you agreed with my previous statement that

    Even employers in one of the two “at will” states cannot abrogate an employee’s civil rights with impunity.

    ?

  19. iburl

    Deputy Commissioner, Statewide Policy & Programs,
    Lizzette Reynolds (Acting) (512) 936-6060

  20. Tim Fuller

    Culture war? Yeah, I’ll go with that, but it’s even a lot sillier than that (although no less scary). What they’re trying to do is introduce the idea that superstition IS scientific. On a Venn Diagram there is complete overlap between the dark forces of ID and the folks who think we found WMD in Iraq.

    If ID would even chance a scientific prediction maybe they could get James Randi to test them for the million dollar prize.

    Enjoy.

  21. Kenneth

    Has anyone checked the educational credentials, work history, and political connections of the new appointees at TEA? This should be a story in itself.

    Where did NCLB and Reading First (under investigation) start?
    A) TEA
    B) UTHSC-H
    C) UT System
    C) All of the above

    *The Reading First Initiative was established through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

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