Emails newly released by Berkeley Unified show the district was flooded for weeks at a time in 2016 and 2017 with sometimes threatening calls and emails demanding the ouster of teacher Yvette Felarca.
The emails are among the first batch of records released as a result of a year-long lawsuit. Felarca, who teaches at King Middle School, sued the district to stop it from sharing the emails with Judicial Watch, a right-wing organization that requested the records. Earlier this month a federal judge said Felarca couldn’t stop the district from disclosing the public information.
Berkeleyside requested and received the same records sent to Judicial Watch. The initial collection of emails includes only those Felarca and her co-plaintiffs “did not object to the district disclosing,” while others will be released after further deliberations, BUSD said. When Judicial Watch made its initial request in 2017, the organization asked for all communications among school and district employees about Felarca, her radical group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) and antifa.
Judicial Watch, based in Washington, D.C. is best known for its role in pushing for the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails. The group made the news again last week when its director, Chris Farrell, was banned from appearing on Fox News due to previous comments he’d made in an interview that were considered anti-Semitic.
The nearly 150 pages of emails released by Berkeley Unified show that the district and King Middle School were inundated on multiple occasions with calls and emails — some including threats — from around the country, demanding Felarca be fired. They also show how the district responded to media inquiries about the teacher.
Felarca is a prominent local activist who has often said she believes militant action is required to squash fascism and bigotry. She is currently facing felony assault and rioting charges, the result of a video showing the teacher hitting a demonstrator at a neo-Nazi rally in Sacramento in June 2016. Those events, Felarca’s involvement in the February 2017 Milo Yiannopoulos clashes, and her subsequent appearance on Fox all prompted the deluge of calls from conservatives — as well as some local parents, the records show — demanding her dismissal.
The day after the Sacramento rally, BUSD received an anonymous email threatening to harm King students, which the district publicized at the time. BUSD relocated two non-district summer camps that were using the site and alerted the FBI and Berkeley police. Although the district’s statement then did not clarify the nature of the harm that was threatened, an email in the new records from King Principal Janet Levenson confirms it was a shooting threat, as parents of campers had said at the time.
That week, Levenson told district leaders, “The calls about Felarca are endless.”
One of the callers said they were a King parent and threatened to sue BUSD if Felarca put their child in danger, wrote Natasha Beery, BUSD community engagement director, in an email a couple days later. The parent did not leave their name, so the call might have been fake, she noted. In another, non-dated, document, Beery summarized all the responses from BUSD parents to an email sent by the superintendent about the teacher. Six parents wrote in strong support of Felarca, and nine said she should be fired.
“One mentioned that Ms. Felarca conducts political activities (students make anti-Trump stickers) in class,” Beery wrote in the summary.
“In addition to concerned parents, some of the communications we are receiving are clearly from hate groups who have discovered a renewed love for the First Amendment. The one below is from a neo-nazi group (it’s polite, but it’s a white supremacist org),” Beery said in the email to colleagues. The message she referenced was redacted.
Around that time, an online petition calling for BUSD to fire Felarca was launched.
Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, then the president of the Berkeley School Board, said she was unhappy to notice her name, as well as Superintendent Donald Evans’, on the petition.
“Now and forever our names will come up on Google and associated with this incident…this doesn’t make me happy and I sure neither Donald (sic),” she wrote in an email.
When school started two months later, the district deployed two extra safety officers to King and requested extra police patrols, actions Associate Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi told his colleagues “should help convey that we are being cautious and attentive.”
Shortly after that school year began, in September 2016, the district placed Felarca on administrative leave and ordered her to stay off school property while staff investigated “concerns” raised about the teacher. She was allowed to return to the classroom that November.
Graphic messages, threats to teacher after Milo event
On Fe.b 1, 2017, far-right provocateur Yiannopoulos, famous for making controversial statements such as “feminism is cancer,” came to speak about immigration at UC Berkeley. But the speech never occurred because “masked-up” anti-fascist demonstrators and others poured into campus, launching M80s and smashing windows, to derail Yiannopoulos’ event. Felarca participated in the demonstration, and later told KTVU that the “militant” response should be the “model” for leftist protest.
The event set off a series of often bloody clashes between the far-right and far-left and others in Berkeley that year — and Felarca’s role brought renewed attention to BUSD.
On Feb. 14, the day after Felarca defended her views to Fox’s Tucker Carlson, principal Levenson emailed Evans to tell him her secretary had stopped answering the phone after receiving 97 calls that morning.
“We are continuing to be inundated by messages regarding Yvette Felarca,” Beery also wrote to other district administrators the next day. She said the calls were being monitored for any threats like the one the previous summer. Some did include indirect threats against Felarca, saying she should “have her teeth kicked in,” or warning that “accidents happen,” Beery wrote.
“Do we need to forward those to her?…Not sure that the district has any responsibility here — it’s hard enough to read the hundreds of messages that have come in thanks to this employee’s choice to speak about her extracurricular activities. Maybe we should just set up an auto-forward so she gets everything,” Beery wrote.
Another record indicates that Felarca actually asked for a copy of a “threatening phone message” in April 2017, which the district denied, saying her request was being treated as a California Public Records Act request, which, spokesman Charles Burress told her, exempts such records.
The released records also include an email forwarded by Ty Alper, then-School Board president, showing a redacted message with the subject line: “Fire nut job communist agitator Felarca!”
“We are getting these apparently from all over the country,” Alper wrote. “Not a ton, just a steady stream that makes me think someone has put out a call for people to email us.”
In March 2017, Levenson wrote that the continued calls included sexually graphic messages and anti-Semitic statements directed at her vice principals.
Later that spring, Levenson received an email that said, “How do you justify allowing Yvette to teach children? I will beat her if I ever see her for implying that I am a nazi. I am tempted to come to her place of employment and confront her.”
In some of the communications, BUSD officials don’t hide their frustration with their employee and the controversy surrounding her.
When the district beefed up security after receiving the 2016 threat, Leyva-Cutler wrote, “BUSD should add up the cost associated with this situation that BAMN has brought to our doorsteps so when we do seek legal counsel we can talk about the staff time, BPD monitor, the change of sites for programs…it is worth noting.”
Records include interactions with media
The records released by BUSD also include inquiries from several media outlets, including Berkeleyside, and the district’s responses to the journalists.
In July 2017, after Felarca was arrested in connection with the Sacramento rally the year before, a CBS13 Sacramento reporter asked BUSD for “the status of district employee Yvonne Felarca.” (Her name is sometimes listed as Yvonne, not Yvette.) Spokesman Burress shared the request with other district officials and asked how he should respond.
“As you know, this is all extremely sensitive,” wrote the board’s Alper. “My request and recommendation is that we say we have no comment at this time.”
Burress responded that he would comply, and noted that the superintendent “has asked me to tell the press that we are still trying to gather information.”
Under the California Public Records Act, school districts cannot withhold a worker’s employment status, said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. Public institutions must also reveal if an employee has been reclassified or terminated.
“Employment status is a public record that must be disclosed,” Snyder said in an email to Berkeleyside.
Alper told Berkeleyside that “it is obvious from the question, which refers to Ms. Felarca as a district employee” that the reporter was not asking about her employment status. “Given that the reporter was asking about events involving this employee that had only occurred the day before, and that personnel matters are confidential in any event, it would not have been appropriate to publicly comment at that time.”
The next day, another reporter directly asked whether Felarca was still working for BUSD, and Evelyn Tamondong-Bradley, assistant superintendent of human resources, told Burress, “Yes, you can confirm that she is an employee of the district.”
In many cases, there are confidentiality rules that do prevent the district from disclosing certain information. Felarca sued BUSD in hopes of preventing the release of any of the records, saying they included private information and would make her and others the target of attacks. Judge Vince Chhabria, however, said with no ambiguity that the district cannot withhold public information. In cases where information is exempt from public record law — like Felarca’s personnel file, which Judicial Watch requested — the district was able to keep the documents private or redact information.
In various instances officials talked about giving “short and sweet” or “boilerplate” responses to reporters and people who called or emailed. In a June 2016 email sent after Felarca participated in the Sacramento rally and the district received a threat, Beery said everyone who emailed was sent a letter stating BUSD cannot comment on employee discipline and that the district is committed to non-violence.
“(Which does not satisfy those who question whether a teacher who espouses violence as a tactic is shown on camera doing so can continue to teach Humanities in our schools),” Beery wrote.
In one case, at least, a parent of a boy in Felarca’s class wasn’t pleased with the amount of information being shared. The parent wrote to King officials a week after Felarca was put on leave.
The parent said they “learned about the leave from Berkeleyside,” and heard from their son that kids were being questioned.
“With all due respect, it’s time for the school to tell us what’s going on directly,” they wrote.
Later that day, Levenson wrote to parents apologizing for not telling them about Felarca’s absence sooner, noting that she wanted to wait until she had more information.
Berkeleyside will continue to follow this story as more records are released.