A Texas art teacher says she was fired for wearing a Black Lives Matter mask, but school administrators say she "effectively resigned" by refusing to follow the dress code policy.
Lillian White, a teacher at Great Hearts Western Hills, a K-12 charter school in San Antonio, said she started wearing her handmade mask with the slogan "Black Lives Matter" to in-person teacher training days once the school reopened in July during the coronavirus pandemic.
"I've been wearing these masks, you know, since the pandemic started. I started making them and just hadn't even thought about it. I wore them to work for about a week and a half before anyone even said anything," White said in an interview.
White said she got a text message on July 31 from Assistant Headmaster Heather Molder instructing her to wear a different mask. Because parents would soon arrive on campus, Molder said, White should refrain from wearing her Black Lives Matter mask because the school chooses not to discuss "the current political climate."
White said that after she got the message, which she shared with NBC News, she knew it would be an uphill battle with her employer. Molder has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
"Well, my heart rate rose immediately," she said, commenting on her initial reaction to the text message. "This isn't going to be just a brush-it-under-the-rug kind of thing."
The school asked her to change her mask and subsequently sent her home on four separate occasions, she said. White said she was terminated from Great Hearts Western Hill on Sept. 5.
Great Hearts Texas Superintendent Daniel Scoggin rebutted he claim, saying that White was not terminated but that she quit by refusing to adhere to the school's regulation.
"The administration of the school worked with Ms. White for weeks, reminding her of the dress code and providing remote work assignments. When at last she wrote to the administration that she would not comply with the dress code, the school was advised by counsel that she had effectively resigned her position by stating that intention and the school so informed her," Scoggin wrote in a statement.
White, however, maintains that she was terminated.
"I didn't once say, 'I quit.' I didn't say, 'Here's my letter of resignation.' I was perfectly willing to continue showing up on campus," she said.
But White said she never once considered agreeing to the school's requests.
"I was so stressed out thinking about even the possibility of backing down it just made me so sick to my stomach," she said. "This doesn't seem like an issue that anyone should have to compromise on. And if I'm compromising, then what am I actually getting done?"
White said her mask was part of a larger effort to promote equality and to endorse her plan to diversify the school's curriculum.
"So none of it has anything to do with anything that's not racial discrimination," she said. "That's one of the main things that I want to change, is have some representation in what these kids are reading, have some representation of joy in what these kids are reading."
Scoggin said the school is committed to supporting the Black community.
"Great Hearts was founded and exists today to serve the innate dignity and worth of every human being," his statement said. "We stand with the Black community and all who are suffering. Great Hearts deplores bigotry and its crushing effects on all those subjected to it. Great Hearts is committed to an America where racism, violence, and injustice do not happen, because such acts find no home in the hearts of a great people."
White said she will not stop advocating for racial justice initiatives. In August, she started a Change.org petition demanding that the school implement staffwide anti-racism training, create a more diverse curriculum and declare support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The petition has garnered nearly 4,000 signatures.
White said that even though she sent multiple emails about her action plan and her petition to senior school officials, the administration has been silent about her proposed racial justice initiatives.
"While I regret not being able to stay with [my students], I do not regret standing up for this decision. ... They should see that there are going to be consequences to the decisions you make. But regardless of how strenuous it can be on you, it's worth it if you know it's right," she said.