Update: The substitute teacher at the center of this story has been fired according to Kelly Services, the staffing company that employed her. Read more here.
When it was finally his turn to answer, the fifth grade boy knew exactly what he wanted to say.
It was the week before Thanksgiving, and the substitute teacher had asked the boy’s class: “What are you thankful for this year?” Some of the kids had said turkey and mashed potatoes. One girl mentioned her dog. Another student joked about not having to go to school over the holiday.
The boy’s response was a bit more serious. “I’m thankful that I’m finally going to be adopted by my two dads,” he answered.
Students later said that the substitute snapped, “Why on earth would you be happy about that?”
For the next 10 minutes she lectured the 30 kids in the class about her own views, how “homosexuality is wrong” and “two men living together is a sin.” She looked at the boy, too, and told him: “That’s nothing to be thankful for.”
Three girls asked her to stop multiple times. But she continued, so they walked out of the room to get the principal.
As the substitute was escorted out of the building, she was still arguing, trying to make her point, the boy’s fathers say they were told by school officials.
“She also tried to blame our son,” said one of the boy’s dads, Louis van Amstel, “and told him that it was his fault that she went off.”
The incident occurred last week at Deerfield Elementary School in Cedar Hills, which sits in the northern part of Utah County. Van Amstel and his husband, Josh, said administrators called them immediately after it happened. At first, their son, who’s 11 years old, didn’t want to talk about it and didn’t want to get the substitute teacher in trouble. The school pieced the story together from multiple student accounts. And the incident is now under investigation.
Alpine School District spokesman David Stephenson said he cannot speak about personnel issues but noted that “appropriate action has been taken.”
The district contracts with the staffing company Kelly Services to hire substitutes.
“We are concerned about any reports of inappropriate behavior and take these matters very seriously,” Kelly Services said in a statement. “We conduct business based on the highest standards of integrity, quality, and professional excellence. We’re looking into this situation.”
Van Amstel said he appreciates the three girls stepping up and the school’s quick response. But he wonders how the substitute got in a classroom in the first place and wants to make sure she never comes back again — at Deerfield Elementary or anywhere in Utah.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous and horrible what she did,” van Amstel added. “We were livid. It’s 2019 and this is a public school.”
The van Amstels’ son, whom they asked to identify only as D.M. because his adoption process is not final, told his dads that he understood what the substitute was saying. D.M. said he didn’t speak up, though, because he’s had two failed adoptions before and didn’t want his dads to rethink their decision, with his final court hearing coming up on Dec. 19.
“He was so fearful that this could make us think that we don’t want to adopt him,” van Amstel said, trying not to cry. “That’s definitely not going to happen. But this situation really hurt him. This person really hurt us.”
There’s little in state code, though, regulating substitute teaching, and there’s no mandatory training required for those pinch-hitting in the classroom.
Ben Rasmussen, director of law and professional practices at the Utah State Board of Education, said individual school districts are “encouraged to have their own policies.” The only statewide mandates are that schools can’t hire teachers as substitutes if they have had their teaching license suspended or revoked. In fact, a substitute doesn’t have to have a license at all, though preference should be given to those who do.
The other requirement is that the applicant must pass a background check before being hired. “Other than that,” Rasmussen said, “it’s pretty flexible for schools.”
At Alpine School District, Stephenson, the spokesman, said substitutes go through “extensive training” with Kelly Services before they enter the classroom.
The company — which works with all school districts in Utah County, many throughout the state and thousands nationwide — notes on its website that those lessons include “comprehensive classroom management techniques, information on legal and health issues, teaching strategies, how to be prepared and professional, plus appropriate fill-in activities.” Other “minimum requirements” listed are being able to successfully complete what the company calls “a behavioral interview.”
It’s unclear if any of that directly deals with diversity or sensitivity.
Stephenson said he doesn’t know if the substitute from Deerfield will continue to work in the district, referring questions to Kelly Services. But, he added, Alpine has a stringent nondiscrimination policy and is taking this case seriously.
“[We’re] committed to having the best employees who care about all children in our schools, whether it be the teacher, the custodian, the secretary or a substitute teacher,” he noted. “Obviously, when situations come up like this, we quickly investigate and take appropriate action. That was done in this situation.”
He, too, like the van Amstels, also applauded the three girls who came forward and reported the substitute’s behavior to the principal. He believes their actions are the remarkable part of the otherwise troubling story.
“Fellow students saw a need, and they were able to offer support,” he said. “It’s awesome what happened as far as those girls coming forward.”
Van Amstel posted a video after the incident, calling out the substitute for bullying his son. Within hours, van Amstel, who was previously a dancer on “Dancing with the Stars,” had hundreds of shares and comments on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram asking for the woman to be fired and blocked from teaching again.
Kelly Services has contracted with Alpine School District since 2011. How much the district pays the company depends on how often a substitute is needed. According to financial statements online from March, for instance, the district spent nearly $850,000 for the month. For April, it was $450,000.
A 2018 article from the Daily Herald notes that teachers in the district request substitutes about 47,000 times per year. Alpine has more than 70 schools and 80,000 students, making it the largest in the state.
Those who substitute make $70 a day if they’re unlicensed and $80 if they are. The district recently raised the compensation for each by $10.
Some have cited that low pay as the reason many do not become substitutes and why sometimes the best candidates aren’t driven to the profession. Van Amstel wants the checks and requirements to be more intensive, though he also believes it should be obvious that teachers not talk about their personal beliefs in front of a room full of 10- and 11-year-olds.
Deerfield Elementary, which has about 700 students, picks a trait each month to focus on. In November, it was communication, said Principal Caroline Knadler, and the school focused on understanding that people have different beliefs, but it’s not OK to bully anyone based on those.
She said the girls who came to her office exemplified what she had been trying to tell students.
“I just have an amazing set of kids here,” she said. “I think they showed some pretty amazing citizenship. It makes me feel warm inside.”
Van Amstel also said he talked to the mother of one of the girls after the incident. He remembers her telling him, “I am so glad that I raised my daughter in a way where she would stand up for what’s right.”
A few days later, the family’s neighbors also decorated their house with paper hearts that said “We love you” and “We support you.”
Van Amstel said this Thanksgiving, he’s thankful for those people, thankful for how his son answered the substitute’s question to begin with — which made him so happy he cried — and thankful, too, that the boy’s two dads will be adopting him next month.