Two CPS teachers who protested General Iron face firing for encouraging students to do the same

The Chicago Teachers Union says the teachers are being retaliated against for embarrassing Mayor Lightfoot. The Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote Wednesday.

Teacher Chuck Stark speaks at a protest near Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s home at the end of a hunger strike he participated in last year. CPS proposes firing him for activities related to General Iron protests.
Teacher Chuck Stark speaks at a protest near Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s home at the end of a hunger strike he participated in last year. CPS proposes firing him for activities related to General Iron protests. Tyler LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times
Teacher Chuck Stark speaks at a protest near Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s home at the end of a hunger strike he participated in last year. CPS proposes firing him for activities related to General Iron protests.
Teacher Chuck Stark speaks at a protest near Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s home at the end of a hunger strike he participated in last year. CPS proposes firing him for activities related to General Iron protests. Tyler LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

Two CPS teachers who protested General Iron face firing for encouraging students to do the same

The Chicago Teachers Union says the teachers are being retaliated against for embarrassing Mayor Lightfoot. The Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote Wednesday.

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Two Chicago Public Schools teachers face firing for their roles encouraging high school students to protest the proposed move of General Iron to the Southeast Side, an action that their union says is retaliation for embarrassing Mayor Lori Lightfoot during the years-long debate.

George Washington High School teachers Chuck Stark and Lauren Bianchi were two of the most visible activists fighting the planned relocation of the metal-shredding operation from Lincoln Park to East 116th Street along the Calumet River.

On Wednesday, the Chicago Board of Education will decide whether to accept a recommendation from the district to fire the two teachers.

A number of students from the high school — located a little more than half a mile from the newly built shredding facility — participated in protests. After several years of demonstrations, the Lightfoot administration in February rejected the permit that would allow the operation to open.

“An investigation uncovered several significant policy violations by the teachers, including violation of safety policies concerning the transportation of students,” CPS said in a statement. The teachers’ actions showed “repeated instances of poor judgment and bias in their instructional roles and in their faculty adviser roles.”

However, Thad Goodchild, a lawyer for the Chicago Teachers Union, called the investigation, which is laid out in a more than 400-page report, “a witch hunt” and “a sad example of vindictiveness of the mayor’s office.”

Goodchild said he believes the mayor orchestrated the actions against the teachers. Without going into specifics, he said the report focused on “bizarre technical” policies and did not include what he considered offenses that should lead to firing. Neither CPS nor the union would release the investigative report.

A spokesman for Lightfoot didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In a news conference last week, Lightfoot reacted angrily after federal officials found actions leading up to the planned relocation of General Iron from a predominantly white neighborhood to a Latino-majority community was indicative of discriminatory practices by the city. That pattern of racial discrimination took place before and during Lightfoot’s time in office, the Department of Housing and Urban Development said.

Stark, a biology teacher, and Bianchi, a sociology teacher, say CPS previously asked for their input on teaching environmental racism and civic engagement of students.

Both were in the thick of the General Iron protests.

Stark took part in a month-long hunger strike last year that gained national attention. Bianchi was one of four people arrested outside Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady’s home at a demonstration in December. The teachers took part in multiple marches and other demonstrations.

“This news comes as a shock because neither of us has done anything wrong,” Bianchi said in an interview.

Added Stark: “It definitely hurts. … I feel like I’ve been unfairly targeted.”

Both teachers have taught at the Southeast Side school for four years.

Bianchi also publicly criticized CPS last month for much-needed maintenance at George Washington.

“Why does the most powerful person in the city feel threatened by two school teachers?” Stark asked.

Bianchi said she believes Lightfoot is trying to “send a chilling message” to public school teachers in Chicago to not engage in such activities.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.