Anthony Fontana is the school board president for Vermilion Parish, Louisiana. He ordered the removal of teacher Deyshia Hargrave, leading to her viral arrest.
Hargrave, a 32-year-old who was the “Teacher of the Year” at Rene Rost Middle School in Kaplan, Louisiana, in 2016, was taken out of a school board meeting Monday night in handcuffs after questioning Fontana, the school board and superintendent Jerome Puyau about a $38,000 pay increase the board approved for Puyau.
Here’s what you need to know about Fontana and the incident:
1. Fontana Told Hargrave She Was Out of Order for Asking Questions About the Superintendent’s Raise, Before Having Her Thrown Out
Deyshia Hargrave stood up to speak out against a controversial 3-year contract extension for Vermilion Parish Superintendent Jerome Puyau during the public comment period prior to the board’s vote at Monday night’s meeting. The school board has been trying to extend Puyau’s contract for several months and has faced opposition from teachers and others in the community, according to Vermilion Today.
“I have a serious issue with a superintendent or any person in a position of leadership getting any type of raise. I feel that it’s a slap in the face to all the teachers, cafeteria workers and any other support staff. We work very hard with very little to maintain the salaries that we have,” Hargrave told the board, a video posted to YouTube by Chris Rosa shows. You can watch the full video above. “As I’ve been teaching the last few years I’ve seen class sizes grow enormously so, I don’t care if the performance targets are met, you’re making our job even more difficult and we are jumping through hoops and we’re continuously, we’re meeting those goals, we’re meeting those goals, while someone in that position of leadership is getting a raise.”
After the vote was held, Hargrave again addressed the board, this time during a period for “audience concerns for the superintendent.”
Hargrave, addressing the superintendent said, “how are you going to take a raise when … when I first started teaching ELA there were like 20, 21 kids in a class and now there’s 29 kids in a class that we are now having and we have not got raises. How are you going to take that money, because it’s basically taking out of the pockets teachers.”
Fontana then interrupted Hargrave, banging his gavel and saying, “stop right now, that’s not germane to what’s on the agenda.” The crowd erupted with, “yes it is.” Fontana told Hargrave and the audience that the raise issue was not part of the discussion of the superintendent’s contract.
“How are you taking the raise when you’re basically taking from the teachers and employees under you, when we have class sizes that are that big. This directly speaks to what you’ve just voted on,” Hargrave told Fontana.
At that point, Puyau begins speaking to Hargrave, but the Abbeville city marshal, Reggie Hilts, who was working security at the meeting can be seen walking toward her, apparently after Fontana motioned for her to be removed.
A video recorded by KATC-TV, which you can watch above, shows what happened as Hargrave was escorted out of the meeting. The Abbeville city marshal, Reggie Hilts, can be seen on video telling Hargrave to leave, pointing toward the door, while someone in the audience says, “he’s addressing her,” referencing the superintendent, who at that point stopped talking.
She was booked on charges of remaining after being forbidden and resisting an officer, but the city attorney has declined to prosecute her, the news station reports.
“I have reviewed the video and I am not going to approve any charges against the teacher,” city attorney Ike Funderburk said. “I talked with the attorney for the school board, and they do not wish to pursue any charges against the teacher.”
The story quickly went viral, and Fontana said he had to lock down the district’s offices on Tuesday because of death threats.
“I told my staff not to answer the phone unless they knew who it was. My staff was scared to death, because they got a call that a man said he was on his way to the school board office, making threats,” Fontana told KATC-TV.
2. He Told Reporters That He Thinks the Incident Was Handled Correctly & Said Hargrave’s Behavior Led to Her Arrest
Anthony Fontana told a local reporter for KLFY-TV that he thought the altercation was handled correctly by officials.
He told KATC-TV, “(The officer) did exactly what he was hired to do. He followed the procedures completely. She’s the one who made the choices that got her arrested.”
Fontana said he has requested security for board meetings over the past several months and Reggie Hilts, who is a city marshal employed by the school board as a school resource officer, has been at the past few meetings.
Fontana told the news station he thinks it was a “set up.”
“The other four board members, now three, have been committed to getting rid of the superintendent. No matter how good the policy might be, they would be against it to cast disfavor on the superintendent to prevent him from getting a contract,” Fontana told the news station. “The whole issue, from day one, was that they were not going to give him a contract.”
If a teacher has the authority to send a student, who is acting up and she can’t control, out of the classroom to the principal’s office, under our policy we have the same rules. We have certain rules: three minute speech, it has to be civilized, it can’t get off target, it has to be related to the issue before the board. That’s not what was happening last night.The marshal did his job. He went over there to settle it down. He couldn’t settle it down. She’s the one who made the choice to continue speaking. He was taking her out. He wasn’t arresting her. He was escorting her out, telling her don’t come back tonight. It escalated out in the hall and she ended up getting arrested.
Others, including two school board members, disagreed.
At the end of Monday night’s school board meeting, one of the board’s members, Laura LeBeouf, who has clashed with Fontana, addressed the incident.
“What happened here tonight shows the way that females are treated in Vermilion Parish,” LeBeouf said, KATC reports. Someone in the crowd can then be heard saying, “terrible, terrible, terrible.”
LeBeouf added, “I have never seen a man removed from this room. I have never.”
Another board member, Sara Duplechain, told The Associated Press, “No reason for anyone to be treated this way. So far in 3 years, only women have been removed from board room meetings.”
Debbie Meaux, the president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said in a statement to Heavy that they were notified of the incident shortly after it occurred and their attorney, Brian Blackwell, is working with Hargrave, who is a member of the association.
“As an organization that advocates for the dedicated school employees of Louisiana, we firmly denounce the mistreatment of Ms. Hargrave, a loving parent and dedicated teacher serving the students of Vermilion Parish. It is every citizen’s right to speak up for their beliefs. Any action that infringes upon this right is unlawful and unacceptable,” Meaux said in the statement. “We will continue to support the right of every single school employee to take an interest in, and ultimately stand up for, the best interests of their schools and their students.”
The ACLU of Louisiana also spoke out against the arrest.
“Deyshia Hargrave’s expulsion from a public meeting and subsequent arrest are unacceptable and raise serious constitutional concerns,” the ACLU said in a statement. “The Constitution prohibits the government from punishing or retaliating against people for expressing their views, and the fact that a schoolteacher was arrested at a public meeting of the school board is especially troubling. The ACLU of Louisiana will continue to investigate this incident and defend the constitutional rights of all Louisianans. We urge anyone whose rights have been violated to contact us.”
3. Fontana Was Elected to the School Board in 2006 & Has Said He Will Not Be Seeking Re-Election This March
Tony Fontana, a Republican, was first elected to the Vermilion Parish School Board in 2006, according to Ballotpedia. His term expires in March 2018 and he has already said he will not run for re-election.
“I wish to inform the voters of Vermilion Parish and in particular those who reside in School Board District E that I will not seek re-election to the School Board,” Fontana said in a letter to the editor published by Vermilion Today on December 6. “I want to sincerely thank all the voters of District E for allowing me the privilege of serving you and all the people in Vermilion Parish as your School Board Representative for over a quarter of a century.
“I pray that giving this notice early will give those who might want to represent District E enough time to put together an organization for the 2018 election,” Fontana said.
Fontana, of Abbeville, had been re-elected without opposition in 2010 and in 2014.
4. He Filed a Lawsuit Against Another Board Member During an Ongoing Dispute That Centers Around the Budget & Superintendent
The board voted 5-3 in favor of the contract, with LeBeuouf casting one of the votes against. Kibbie Pillette and Duplechain also voted against the new contract. Fontana, Chris Gautreaux, Stacy Landry and Chris Hebert voted in favor.
The board had previously been deadlocked 4-4 in other votes and some members of the board gave him a negative assessment in 2016. Things changed in December after the death of school board member Luddy Herpin, according to Vermilion Today. Herpin had voted with LeBeuouf, Pillette and Duplechain on the superintendent’s contract in November. But after his death, the other faction had a majority and were able to appoint someone who sided with them, JB Moreno, rather than Herpin’s wife, who was nominated by LeBeuouf, according to Vermilion Today.
Puyau had been operating without a contract for a year. The issue of Moreno’s appointment was brought up by Hargrave during Monday night’s meeting. Previously, Fontana told Vermilion Today that the process of finding a replacement board member was political, because the other group was trying to stop Puyau from getting an extension.
Moreno was not known to the other board members except for Hebert, who nominated him, according to Vermilion Today, but told the public he plans to run to hold the seat full time in March. “Mr. Herpin was a good man,” Moreno said at the December meeting. “He was a man of integrity. I don’t mean to hurt the family. It is nothing personal, but I do apologize.”
The issue was discussed at a December meeting:
Tensions were high in the summer, when four members of the board (LeBeuouf, Pillette, Duplechain and Herpin) boycotted two meetings over budget concerns.
“I didn’t want to reach this point, but I have no choice,” Pillette told KADN-TV. “Our backs are up against the wall. If we can’t represent the people in our districts. We soon just get off the board. We soon just abolish the board and let School Board President Anthony Fontana and Vermilion Parish Superintendent Jerome Puyau run the system.”
The board did meet in August, KADN-TV reported.
On August 21, board member Duplechain called police on Fontana after an incident at the school district’s office, according to Vermilion Today. No one was arrested.
Four days later, Fontana sued LeBeuouf, accusing her of sabotaging the board and lying about actions she alleged he took.
“Her actions and/or inactions constitute as Malfeasance in Office,” the suit claimed, according to KADN-TV.
Fontana, an attorney, announced in December that he will not be running for re-election, according to Vermilion Today.
“It’s not about the budget, they want to get rid of the superintendent plain and simple. It’s vengeance and it’s mean spirited,” Fontana told KADN in August during the height of the dispute.
“A significant number of board members that every time there’s anything to do with me, if it’s my contract, if its the budget, they’re against it. It’s not what’s best for kids,” Puyau told KADN in August.
Puyau was hired as the district’s superintendent in 2013. His previous salary was $110,130, which will go up to $148,811, The Daily Advertiser reports. According to the newspaper, citing Louisiana Department of Education statistics, teachers in Vermilion Parish earned an average of $47,041 per year in 2015-16, just below the state average of $48,462. Puyau’s salary will be the 32nd highest out of 69 superintendents in Louisiana.
Puyau told the newspaper he wants to make changes.
“We’re going to be presenting to the board a proposal on how we can increase the salary that we want to provide our teachers, but it’s going to take our community support it,” Puyau said after the meeting. “We have shown that we have taken the right steps. Our schools do very well, and our board agreed that I’m doing a good job. We have that stability, so now we have to move forward and increase the salary for our teachers.”
Puyau has worked for the school system since 1991, spending 15 years as a teacher before becoming supervisor of maintenance in August 2006. According to The Daily Advertiser, the school system has been one of the top-rated in the state during his time, and recently was awarded an “A” grade and an overall score of 106.3, signaling high test scores.
But members of the board and some teachers have criticized his leadership.
“This superintendent is an intimidator,” Pillette told KATC-TV in 2016. “That is his style of leadership.”
Fontana has said those criticisms are politically motivated.
“They have never given a factual basis as to why they don’t like him,” Fontana told KATC last year. “They have never talked about the good things happening in the school system. He gets no credit for anything.”
5. Fontana Runs a Law Firm & Led a ‘Historic’ Whistleblower Case Against the Catholic Church for Its Coverup of Sexual Abuse
In his day-to-day life, Tony Fontana is an attorney who runs the Anthony Fontana Law Firm in Abbleville. He is a personal injury attorney and has been “Compassionately serving the needs of victims and their families since 1972,” according to his firm’s website.
The firm says on its website, “We handle personal injury cases in Abbeville, Vermilion Parish, and all of Louisiana. Practice areas include sexual abuse, child custody, child support, motorcycle accidents, 18 wheeler accidents, slip and fall cases, medical malpractice, maritime law, wills & successions, divorce, adoption, felony and misdemeanor criminal defense.”
Fontana was a major part of a “historic” whistleblower case against the Catholic church in Louisiana over its coverup of sexual abuse of children by priests.
His work on that case was profiled by Minnesota Public Radio’s Madeline Baran on a radio documentary called “Betrayed in Silence” in 2014.