NEW HOME, Texas — Residents of a small West Texas town rallied to support a third-grade teacher whose job is on the line after some parents complained when she showed her students a short video about a doll that is rumored to have evil powers and then reportedly warned the children not to tell their parents about what she showed them. On Monday night, the school board debated whether to renew her contract but a decision has not yet been reached.
As Breitbart Texas reported, Heather Anderson, a third-grade teacher with the New Home Independent School District (ISD) showed several videos to her students while she was grading papers back in March. One of the videos was called “Annabelle the Devil Doll,” part of a Travel Channel series called “Mysteries at the Museum.” This video portrayed in a documentary style the story of a Raggedy Ann doll in Connecticut that was believed to be possessed by a demon.
The children were upset by the video and some reported nightmares. Several parents complained after they were able to get their kids to tell them what happened. Anderson was placed on administrative leave for a few weeks while an investigation was conducted, and was returned to the classroom a few weeks ago. The New Home ISD School Board met on Monday evening for their regular monthly meeting, and the renewal of Anderson’s contract was the main topic of discussion.
New Home is a small, close-knit community just slightly over 20 miles south of Lubbock. The 2010 Census reported a population of only 334, and the New Home ISD serves all the students in one campus, from kindergarten through high school.
Breitbart Texas attended Monday’s school board meeting, held in the school’s library. Many of the people who were there said that they were the second or even third generation of their families to attend school there. Out of a town of only 334 people, there were nearly 50 people at the meeting, showing the strong community interest in the issue.
The prevailing attitude in the room was that Anderson had “made a mistake” by showing the video to the young students, but that overall they believed she was a good teacher and wanted her to stay. Emotions ran high, and several speakers were brought to tears as they described how they had known Anderson for years and how she had helped their children. “This is a community,” said one mother, and Anderson had “made one mistake, and owned up to it…don’t take away what she loves” — teaching children — she asked the Board as her voice cracked. “Heather’s been there for us,” said another mother.
A father of one of Anderson’s students said he had moved to New Home about 14 years ago because it was a “tight, loving, Godly community” and had watched Anderson grow up. When his own daughter was in Anderson’s class, she had been falling behind and at risk for failing the required standardized tests. Anderson, who he called “a good person, a Godly person,” had helped tutor his daughter and she was now doing very well in college.
Many who spoke also drew a distinction between students who were residents of New Home and those who were “transfers,” or students who were districted for a nearby ISD but had chosen to attend school in New Home. As Breitbart Texas reported, one of the children whose parents had complained about the video was not districted for New Home and after this incident, his parents decided to transfer him back to his original district. The boy’s parents told Breitbart Texas that he is doing well in his new school and making friends.
Other parents who were at the school board meeting told Breitbart Texas that another one of the children whose parents were unhappy with Anderson was also a “transfer” who had returned to his home district. In their view, the problem had mostly resolved itself: the unhappy parents had taken their children out of the school, and the ones who remained wanted Anderson to stay.
This divide between the local residents and “transfers” appeared to be a long term issue. Several recent graduates of the school mentioned a former female student who had transferred into the high school from the Cooper ISD for a few years and who, they claimed, had “bullied all the girls.”
When the incident happened, the school had left a voice mail message and send a letter home to the parents, as Breitbart Texas reported. However, at the school board meeting it was revealed that the administration had asked Anderson to write an apology letter as well to the parents, but this letter was never sent to the parents. Breitbart Texas has requested a copy of this letter. Several parents mentioned that Anderson had apologized to them personally and they deemed that satisfactory, but questioned why her letter was never sent.
Several expressed frustration with the principal, Shane Fiedler, and the superintendent, Leland Zant. “This has gone way too far,” said one mother, who felt the situation had been blown out of proportion and now they were having to spend taxpayer dollars on attorneys to advise the school board on how to handle the situation. “Make this right and keep her [Anderson] here,” the mother challenged the Board, as others in attendance clapped.
The Board then left the library for a closed executive session so they could discuss the matter with the attorneys. This is a common practice when there are legal issues for elected officials to consider and not a violation of any Texas or local laws regarding open meeting requirements. As they walked out, one woman shouted after them, “Y’all better do the right thing!”
Anderson’s husband, Shawn Anderson, is on the school board and attended last night with his wife but was not permitted to participate in the closed session discussing his wife’s employment.
In addition to her husband, Anderson was joined by her husband’s parents. She declined to speak much on the record to Breitbart Texas under advice of her attorney but did express that she was remorseful and hoped to continue teaching in New Home. The ordeal has been very stressful on her; several of her friends told Breitbart Texas that she had “lost about 30 pounds,” had had trouble sleeping, and had been throwing up earlier that day.
With the Board in closed session, there was little to do but wait, and the vast majority of New Home residents in attendance waited around for hours while the Board met. Breitbart Texas spoke with several of them who were there to support Anderson. Debi Nieman said that three generations of her family have lived in New Home, and both she and her parents graduated from the school here. Nieman does not currently have any children in the school, but said she wanted to be there to show her support. “It’s gone way too far and been blown out of proportion,” she said. Anderson “wouldn’t hurt a child.”
Nieman praised the school’s small classes and described it as a very traditional, tight-knit community. “Everyone watches out for you here,” she said. The school still practices corporal punishment, and several of the students’ lockers in the hallways had bible verses taped to them.
Dabney Bush has a son in Anderson’s class, and told Breitbart Texas he was doing very well. “He’s excelled completely with her,” said Bush. Her daughter had had Anderson as a teacher when she was in Pre-K too, and Bush said that had been a positive experience as well. Their families know each other and go to the same church, Bush added.
Regarding the video, Bush said she was not there and therefore could not say exactly what had happened, but in her view, her son is exposed to more violent content in video games than was in the video. She did say that he had initially had been somewhat upset about the video, but when she pointed out that they did not have a doll like that in the video anywhere in their house, he was comforted by that and seemed to easily move past the issue.
The hours stretched on until nearly midnight when the Board finally came back into the library. The meeting had originally begun at 7:00 pm and about half of the attendees had remained the entire time. The Board said that they had not yet taken a vote and would reconvene at 8:00 pm Tuesday to take up the debate again.
The principal and superintendent both left immediately without further comment, and the Board’s attorneys stayed behind to talk to Anderson and her husband in the hallway outside the library. They were overheard telling her, “you’re still young.” After speaking for a few minutes, the attorneys left. Anderson’s husband told everyone that they had “offered her an opportunity to resign,” which apparently they had previously offered to her. Reiterating that his wife does not want to teach anywhere else, they seemed determined to continue to fight for her job and several supporters mentioned bringing in an attorney for Tuesday’s meeting.
Anderson’s supporters hugged her and wished her well as they walked out of the school, vowing to return on Tuesday with even more people.
Earlier on Monday, Breitbart Texas spoke to several attorneys who believed that Anderson’s showing of the video may have been a violation of copyright law, but doubted that any action would be taken against her. In general, copyright protection applies to all creative works like films and restricts what rights someone has to copy, distribute, or show that film. The DVDs that most people have in their homes are sold for personal use only; they can be shown in your home but are not authorized for commercial broadcast or other types of sharing. Copyright law is governed by federal law, so in this area, the legal issues are the same from state to state.
There are exceptions to copyright law protections called “fair use,” and one of the acceptable types of fair use exceptions is when the use is for an educational purpose. David Hathaway, an attorney at the Dean Mead law firm in Orlando, Florida who practices intellectual property law, told Breitbart Texas that Netflix and similar services are intended to be limited to personal home viewing, and they draft their contracts in a way that protects their content from infringement by other types of uses. The personal use license granted with a Netflix membership would not include the right to show the content in a classroom.
All of the attorneys who spoke to Breitbart Texas agreed that this is a gray area of the law, but the facts that Anderson was not showing the film for purposes of teaching a lesson or discussing it, but merely to occupy — in other words, entertain — the children while she graded papers would make it a tougher case for her to prove. The reports from the children that she would not let them discuss it afterwards further undercuts an argument that this film was shown for an educational purpose.
“I’ve seen this argument go both ways,” another intellectual property attorney who asked not to be named in this article told Breitbart Texas. However, keeping children entertained so a teacher can grade papers “was not the intent of the educational purpose exception,” he explained, “so, in the most technical sense, it’s a violation,” but he expressed strong doubts that any action would be taken for a one time showing. Another attorney who has advised elected officials told Breitbart Texas that these types of cases are rarely pursued against teachers, especially if it is not a widespread or repeated use, because schools are not commercial enterprises.
The New Home ISD School Board will reconvene at 8:00 pm CT Tuesday to determine the status of Anderson’s contract to teach at the school.
[Disclosure: Sarah Rumpf was previously employed by Dean Mead.]
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.