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November 21, 2002

Teacher made early choice to cross line

From: Billings Gazette, MT
Nov. 21, 2002

of the Gazette Staff
Julie Wilson has been crossing the picket line to be with her students at Sandstone Elementary School since Nov. 11, but her decision to do so goes back years.

When she became an active member of the Billings Education Association in 1994, she said to the union leader who signed her up, "I'm going to tell you this right up front - I'm not going to strike."

The basis of her decision was simple, she said: "The kids come first. Their learning shouldn't be interrupted because of a grown-up problem."

She's still convinced she did the right thing, but it hasn't been easy. Two of her three children attend Sandstone, so they've been entering and leaving the school with her each day, and they've heard some ugly things. She's been called a scab and a loser, but the comment that really got to her was when somebody hollered out, "Shame on you!"

"Driving away, I said to myself, 'I'll never say that to a child again.' "

Wilson has been a teacher for 21 years, the last 10 at Sandstone, where she is a resource teacher, working mostly on reading, writing and math with students of all ages who have learning disabilities.

The strike has been a learning experience for all of them, she said, and it helps drive home an important message: "The kids need to know you have a choice. You always have a choice."

Wilson doesn't kid herself that normalcy will return as soon as the strike ends, but she said she is confident that teachers, and the community as a whole, will come together again at some point.

"I think we can," she said. "The potential is so high. It's just going to take time for that to happen."

As with so many people on both sides of the strike, its effects ripple out into her family. Three of her nieces are on the Skyview High School volleyball team, whose trip to a state tournament qualifying match was canceled because of the strike.

And Wilson's uncle is Jerry Whitmer, a Lewis and Clark Middle School science teacher who is walking the picket line for the second time in his 36 years with School District 2. He said he doesn't hold his niece's decision against her.

"You just don't let anything interfere with relationships, you know, family ties," he said.

Those family ties also include Wilson's brother, Steve Sangwin, president of the teachers union at the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind in Great Falls. Sangwin, who visited his sister on the way home from a hunting trip near Malta last weekend, doesn't like the way the BEA has been singling out replacement teachers and teachers like Wilson who have crossed picket lines.

He went to the BEA office last Saturday, hoping to tell union President Brian Ehli what he thought of the union's posting the names and photos of some replacement teachers on the BEA Web site. He also objected to the insulting language that has been directed at the teachers. Ehli wasn't there, but since then Sangwin has sent him three e-mails detailing his concerns.

In his years at the School for the Deaf and Blind, he wrote in one of the e-mails, he has been kicked in the groin, punched and spit on by students.

"I will not turn back and retaliate against my students; no teacher would do that," he wrote. "Thus, we cannot do that to our fellow teachers."

It's one thing to go on strike, he said; it's another to try intimidating substitutes with photographs and the use of insulting terms like "scab."

"If our union leaders are doing that, it doesn't reflect very well on us as teachers," he said.

Whitmer, holding a picket sign outside Lewis and Clark on Wednesday, said he respects his niece and nephew as much as he does the striking teachers, because they're standing up for what they think is right.

"We're all entitled to our own beliefs," he said. "That's the democratic process."

He said he was a little worried about his niece's ability to deal with all the effects of the strike, knowing what he does about the aftermath of the 1975 strike.

"This is my second one," he said. "I just hope she's strong enough to get through this. I think she is."

Wilson thinks so, too, and like so many others she just wants the strike to end. Every day, she said, when she sees her colleagues out on the picket line she wants to go up and hug them, to tell them she supports them even as she continues to work with her students. But she knows she can't, not yet.

"So I'm just staying pretty quiet and doing a lot of praying," she said.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.