Supporters of Riverside-Brookfield High School social studies teacher Jill Musil – mostly students — packed the room for last week’s District 208 school board meeting. They sat on chairs, on the floor, some stood in the back, and one even fainted during the meeting and was ultimately taken away in an ambulance.
The board will vote at its March 14 meeting whether to rehire Musil for a fifth year of teaching at RBHS. If she is rehired, Musil will receive tenure and more job security. But students say that the administration has told Musil that she will not be rehired and instead offered her the opportunity to resign.
According to students interviewed by the Landmark, the RBHS administration seems to think that Musil is too political and that she may have angered members of the administration by defending students’ right to protest.
Musil spoke at an assembly on a newly created Positivity Day that was held in late November after racist graffiti was discovered in a girls’ bathroom. Students stood up and held signs during Musil’s brief speech. Students say that the administration believes that Musil helped organize or support the protest although the protesters insist that the protest was organized and led by students.
“We stood during Mrs. Musil’s speech, because we agreed with her message against discrimination and not because she had any involvement with us,” senior Ava Williard told school board members at their Feb 28 meeting.
On the day of the assembly, sticky notes with messages such as “Smile” or “Have a good day” were placed on students’ lockers in the morning. Some activist students put notes saying “Black Lives Matter” on some lockers.
According to one student, Assistant Principal for Student Affairs Dave Mannon instructed a security guard to take down the “Black Lives Matter” sticky notes, apparently believing the statement was too political.
In the hallway outside Musil’s classroom, a student apparently questioned Mannon about taking down the Black Lives Matter notes. The student was frustrated with Mannon’s response.
Musil then came out of her classroom and spoke to Mannon and, according to a student with knowledge of the conversation, challenged Mannon’s statements. Musil did not respond to a request for comment about the conversation.
Mannon via email commented on the sticky notes, saying, “the sticky note project was meant to promote a positive school culture through caring and supportive messages.”
During the public comment portion of the Feb. 28 meeting 14 people spoke, all in support of Musil. Speakers included eight RBHS students, two recent graduates and four adults. They all described Musil as a caring, fair-minded teacher who makes all students feel welcome. They implored the board to rehire her.
“Ms. Musil is one of those teachers who loves everyone and wants everyone who walks into her classroom to love and appreciate who they are as a person. Whether that’s an intellectual, a free spirit, a stressed-out teen, a reserved person, a member of the special services or a member of the LGBT community, Ms. Musil made everyone feel welcome,” said sophomore Francesca Perry. “Her class is also a very open environment that welcomes students to express their opinions.”
Musil is known for reaching out to often marginalized students.
“As a queer student, it saddens me to know that the administration has the audacity to say that her room is not a safe place for LGBT students,” said Williard, who is in Musil’s Global Area Studies class. “In all my four years at RB I have never felt more welcome and safe in any other teacher’s room. It is incredibly disheartening and hypocritical for the administration to encourage LGBT students to express themselves and then have them go on to condemn Mrs. Musil for allowing her LGBT students to call themselves queer.”
Senior Nicole Bajerek, who was in Musil’s Global Area Studies class last semester, told the school board that Musil fosters a safe, welcoming environment in her classroom.
“In and out of the classroom, Ms. Musil supports every student of every race, sexuality, religion, and gender,” Bajerek said. “I felt nothing but welcome and accepted in her classroom and I know that almost every other student feels the same way. A teacher who cares as much as Ms. Musil is an asset to the school and the community.”
Musil helps coach the Special Olympics basketball and track teams at RBHS. Two parents of Special Olympians spoke up in support of Musil at the meeting. Dan Sylvie said that he didn’t know much about the issues that have apparently placed Musil’s job in jeopardy, but he said that she has been great working with his son and other Special Olympians and said that he hoped the board would not get rid of her.
“It would be a shame and a loss to our students, the community, for something that seems so trivial, so unworth the type of action that’s been discussed for her.” Sylvie said.
The last straw for Musil may have come on Jan. 20, the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. That day, according to students the Landmark spoke to, another student complained about comments made by Musil to a small group of students during the lunch period that day.
A few girls had regularly eaten lunch in Musil’s classroom all year. On Jan. 20, a couple of other girls joined them. The lunchtime conversation eventually turned to politics and Musil, after reportedly asking whether students would be uncomfortable about her talking about politics, said that she didn’t like Trump and was upset about him becoming president.
“We were talking to her about it, but it wasn’t like she was saying anything that was inappropriate,” said senior Rebecca Perry who was one of students eating lunch in Musil’s classroom that day. “It was kind of political, but she also wasn’t teaching a class, so I don’t know why it was a problem.”
One student who didn’t regularly eat lunch in Musil’s classroom but was there that day apparently was uncomfortable with the discussion and reported the conversation to an administrator.
“The girl who reported it, that was the first time she was in there and that was the only time she was in there,” said Perry, who is not related to Francesca Perry.
Talk during lunch, at times, sometimes turned to subjects such as abortion to birth control, students say.
The students who ate lunch in Musil’s classroom on Jan. 20 were subsequently pulled out of class to be questioned individually by administrators about what about what Musil said. Rebecca Perry said that she was questioned for about 15 minutes by RBHS Principal Kristin Smetana and Assistant Dean Lori Sullivan.
“It was kind of intimidating because they double-teamed you,” Perry said.
When asked by the Landmark about questioning students about Musil, Smetana said that she couldn’t comment on personnel matters and student discipline issues.
Musil’s supporters say that she is fair to all students in class and never tries to impose her own political views.
“In my experience, she has never shown any political bias in talking to students in class,” Williard told the school board. “Mrs. Musil has consistently shown neutrality in political discussions and shows nothing but care for all her students.”
School board member Ed Jepson, who is running for reelection, praised the students who spoke at the meeting without giving any indication on how he will vote on whether to rehire Musil.
“I liked that they cared enough to show up and express their concerns,” Jepson said. “It says something about the students that they have the guts to do it but also are able to put together statements and overcome any fear and sit before a group of adults and express their opinions so I was heartened by it.”