Crystal Spring has been directing the Social Justice Black Box theater program at Washburn High School since 2008, helping students develop plays based on their own life experiences.
The night of May 19, Spring was driving home after a 14-hour day when she heard yelling in the intersection of Franklin and Clinton Avenues. A number of people had gathered by the side of the road, where Minneapolis Police officers were arresting an African American man. Curious about what was happening, Spring pulled over and sat in her car, watching.
A police officer told her to move her car, so she parked in an alley and stood on the sidewalk. According to Spring's account, police again told her to move the car. She responded that she would. Police then placed the man in the back of their squad and drove to a nearby Wendy's parking lot. Spring followed, parking in a distant space before getting out with phone in hand. As she approached the police, an officer again asked her what she was doing there. Spring answered that she was watching.
At this point, police took her phone and began to cuff her, according to Spring. A deputy explained that witnesses had seen her yelling and running in the streets, and that she'd have to spend the night in jail.
She was charged with obstructing justice, a misdemeanor.
It's unclear how word got around to Minneapolis Public Schools, but on June 3, Spring was called into a meeting with HR director Steven Barrett.
Barrett had been briefed on Minneapolis Police's version of events, which was that Spring parked near the scene of an arrest and repeatedly confronted officers despite being told to step back. She'd allegedly followed the cops when they moved across the street and began to advise witnesses not to talk. This behavior was "unbecoming of a teacher," Barrett told Spring, especially since she lacked context for the arrest.
Spring has not been convicted of the misdemeanor charge, and maintains that she was only peaceably monitoring Minneapolis Police that night. Still, Barrett sent Spring a letter on June 8 saying she was marked for termination. She could challenge the decision, but there would be a formal vote with the board of education to make it official.
"Nobody fathomed that she would lose her job with the school district," says Jordan Kushner, Spring's lawyer on the criminal charge. "The thing is, even if you took the inflammatory allegations of the police report as fact, it would still be within her right to free speech. Members of the public have the ability to watch police and criticize them. What this has to do with her job, I don't know. It's bothersome that they would even decide to make a judgment about her position as a teacher based on her activities as a citizen outside of her job."
A Minneapolis Public Schools spokesman said that due to privacy laws, the district isn't allowed to say how HR discovered Spring's arrest. District policy states that employees may be suspended without pay if they're charged with a criminal violation. If the employee is subsequently acquitted, she should receive back pay in full.
Shannon Gibney, an African American literature professor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and friend of Spring's, says that a groundswell of students, activists, and artists mobilized to protest Minneapolis Public Schools' decision in recent days. More than 400 people are planning to go the school board meeting Tuesday evening to testify on Spring's behalf, and they're writing letters in her support.
On Sunday, the district backed off a bit, amending Spring's termination to "administrative leave pending an investigation." She'll keep getting paid, but she won't be able to teach in the meantime.
"The most important thing is that Crystal be completely reinstated per the terms of her previous contract, immediately," Gibney says.
However, for Gibney, it's not enough that Minneapolis Public Schools simply changes its mind and apologizes to Spring.
"I also want an explanation of exactly how this information got to Washburn administration. Collusion of police with school officials in a school issue for political purposes, that's what this whole situation is beginning to look like for me, and that's completely nefarious and unacceptable. This should not be happening to one of our best and brightest, one of our most successful teachers at Washburn."
The Minneapolis school board meeting starts Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.