HISD teacher repeatedly written up for wearing protective gear to classroom

HOUSTON – A high school English teacher has accused school administrators of bullying and retaliation because of her decision to wear medical scrubs to work.

“I wear scrubs and a scrub cap,” said Abarca, an English teacher at James Madison High School in southwest Houston.

Abarca has worn scrubs to work since Oct. 22. That also marked the day she said the school’s principal sent her home because she refused to change her clothes. Abarca said she wears medical scrubs as personal protection equipment, not only to protect her students but also her young children at home.

“I have been wearing consistently my scrub cap but because it mimics or impersonates a health professional I am not allowed to wear it,” she said, referring to the first disciplinary write-up she received on the matter.

A “memo of concern,” dated Oct. 22, warned Abarca, “scrub tops are approved for you to wear. It is a distraction to the students and staff and inappropriate to your job assignment.”

It was OK for Abarca to wear a scrub top but pants and the cap were in violation of the school’s dressed code, the letter stipulated.

“I was wearing jeans with my scrub cap and (the principal) was still writing me up, so I figured I’d go in my full safety attire in what I feel comfortable and safe in,” Abarca said.

Madison High School’s principal and the assistant principal have written Abarca up for said violation six times total, according to disciplinary documents obtained by KPRC 2. The most recent was Dec. 4, which also stipulated who decided dress code on campus.

“It is up to the supervisor to interpret what appropriated dress is on their campus,” according to the disciplinary write-up.

Abarca’s dress code debate isn’t the first battle of the like to brew on Madison’s campus.

As KPRC 2 reported in April 2019, Carlotta Outley Brown, principal, established a dress code for guests and parents, which prevented them from entering the building or being on school premises, while wearing a satin cap or bonnet on their head. The dress code stated “shower caps” of any kind were not allowed and hair rollers were no longer permitted.

READ: Madison HS sets dress code for parents after KPRC2 report on mother’s outfit

Abarca has filed a grievance against the disciplinary write-ups she has received. She said she fears school administrators are working toward her termination.

The Houston Federation of Teachers agrees.

“HISD policy says you are to dress neat and appropriate for your job assignment. Principals are not the end of the line within the district. That would be the superintendent and the board,” said Sonia Gonzales, an attorney with the Houston Federation of Teachers.

“Her principal has been in her opinion harassing her and retaliating against her for this,” Gonzales continued.

For her part, Abarca said she initially was reluctant to report her case.

“I filed this grievance because (the principal) is refusing to listen or have compassion with the teachers or how they feel,” she said.

Abarca accused school administrators of creating a culture of fear that extends beyond her battle.

“It’s not just about me anymore. It’s about the staff members and it’s about all of us feeling safe,” Abarca said.

HISD responds

Officials at HISD issued the following statement about this story to KPRC 2:

“While the district cannot comment specifically on personnel matters, the district can confirm it continues to take steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools. School campuses are stocked with PPE and other protective equipment including masks, sanitizer, and plexiglass. We also offer gowns and gloves for employees in close proximity to students and on a case by case basis. Employees are required to wear attire appropriate to their particular job assignments. The district’s safety measures related to COVID-19 may be found in the HISD Communicable Disease Plan (CDP), particularly pages 9 - 24. The Communicable Disease Committee meets regularly to address issues related to the district’s response to the pandemic.”

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Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. NOLA born and bred, though #HoustonStrong, with stops in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in along the way.