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Crookston Times - Crookston, MN
  • N.D. students, parents protest firing of school janitor

  • A group of elementary students in Williston involved in an effort to reinstate a school janitor say their First Amendment rights are being threatened by teachers who are deterring them from signing a petition meant to rally support around the fired man.
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  • A group of elementary students in Williston involved in an effort to reinstate a school janitor say their First Amendment rights are being threatened by teachers who are deterring them from signing a petition meant to rally support around the fired man.
    The effort is in support of Manuel Aguilera, a janitor who the district fired in April under the argument that he was confrontational to other staff, the Williston Herald reported. But Aguilera, the students and their parents dispute the district's claim.
    The children and their families say students are only collecting signatures during breaks as agreed with the superintendent, but that teachers at McVay Elementary School are using various tactics from keeping the rest of the student body from joining the effort, such as telling pupils they cannot sign the petition because they are not 18 years old.
    "They're scared to sign the petition," said Sabrina Hanson, one of the students collecting signatures. "One kid wouldn't sign because teachers told him he couldn't unless he was 18."
    The newspaper reported that Superintendent Viola LaFontaine met with parents before the petition began circulating, and told them it was OK to collect the signatures as long as it didn't interfere with classes.
    A letter written by LaFontaine states that leading up to his dismissal Aguilera had already been ordered to communicate more professionally with staff and improve his work. The letter states plainly that Aguilera had been argumentative and confrontational, but specific events are not mentioned.
    LaFontaine declined to comment about the specifics of the termination citing privacy laws. Aguilera has filed a formal grievance against the school arguing that he was harassed at work.
    "They point at my face and say 'do your job,'" he said, even in front of the children.
    He said it made him feel stressed. "I felt it in my heart," Aguilera said. "It got in my soul."
    The families' First Amendment challenge may be backed by a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the justices sided with a group of students who had been forced to remove armbands they were wearing in support of finding a truce in the Vietnam War.
    "I want my kids to learn to stand up for themselves," said Krystine Heifort, a McVay parent. "There is nothing wrong with what they're doing."

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