Politics

Until last month, Charissa “Chris” Cooke was a paralegal for an administrative law judge with the Labor Cabinet in Ashland, Kentucky.

In her spare time, she also served as a county leader for KY 120 United, a grassroots teacher advocacy group that helped organize teacher protests during the last two legislative sessions.

In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, Cooke says Labor Cabinet officials violated her First Amendment rights in firing her for “voicing opinions and joining with others to support the public education system and pension funding.”

The lawsuit names Gov. Matt Bevin, Labor Secretary David Dickerson and Anya Carnes, the cabinet’s appointing authority. Cooke is seeking unspecified damages and to be reinstated.

Ted Walton, Cooke’s lawyer, said Wednesday that she is the “first casualty” of the Bevin administration’s attempt to crack down on teacher protests.

Eleanor Klibanoff | wfpl.org

Charissa “Chris” Cooke (center) pictured with her attorneys Ted Walton (L) and Laura Landenwich

Earlier this month, the Labor Cabinet issued subpoenas to school districts, including Jefferson County Public Schools, that closed due to a high number of teachers calling in sick during teacher protests. The subpoena requires those districts to provide names of teachers who called in sick, doctors notes used to authenticate sick leave and records of communication among JCPS officials about the decision to close schools.

JCPS and other districts provided similar information to the Kentucky Department of Education in March, but Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis didn’t pursue action against teachers who called in sick on those days.

Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat and gubernatorial candidate, threatened to sue the Labor Cabinet if the subpoenas were not withdrawn. Beshear said that the teacher protests are protected by the First Amendment.

Labor Cabinet Secretary David Dickerson wrote in a letter to Beshear on Wednesday that he sees “no valid reason to overlook the possible violation of KY law.”

Dickerson said the Labor Cabinet will determine whether to discipline teachers after it finishes an investigation into whether teachers violated a state law that prohibits public employees from engaging in work stoppages.

The Labor Cabinet did not respond to request for comment about the lawsuit.

KY 120 United was the driving force behind last year’s teacher ‘sickout’ that was protesting a last-minute pension reform bill. More than 25 school districts across the state closed when large groups of teachers called in sick in order to go to Frankfort to protest.

During the 2019 legislative session, KY 120 United called for a similar sickout to protest a bill that would have remade the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System board. The state’s two largest districts closed as a result.

Schools closed for five other other days this legislative session as teachers protested a spate of education-related bills. KY 120 United was not behind those closures.

Cooke, the daughter of a teacher, said she has been involved with KY 120 United since the group formed last year. She participated in protests at the Capitol last year, before joining the Labor Cabinet. According to the lawsuit, she took one comp day to join the protests this year as well.

Cooke said all of her work for the group happened while she was off work or on her lunch break.

“Just because you’re a state employee or a teacher, does not make you a second class citizen,” Cooke told reporters on Wednesday. “You still have your First Amendment rights as a U.S. citizen. You do not give that away just because you sign a contract with the state.”

Eleanor Klibanoff covered Rust Belt decline and revival in Pennsylvania. She also worked for NPR and attended the George Washington University.