There are few members of the teaching profession who more symbolize the sacrifices that exemplary instructors make for their students than New Jersey teacher Alissa Ploshnick. In 1997, Ploshnick, upon seeing a runaway van about to strike a group of students, threw herself in front of the vehicle to save the students, landing herself in the hospital “with broken ribs, a fractured wrist, a badly bruised pelvis and glass cuts in her eyes.” Following the accident, President Bill Clinton sent her a letter thanking her for her act of courage, writing, “You are an example for all of us, and I applaud you for your sense of duty.”
Yet as the Shirley Sherrod scandal showed earlier this year, even exemplary public servants can fall prey to the antics of smear artists. Late last month, right-wing video activist James O’Keefe released a set of YouTube videos titled “Teachers Unions Gone Wild.” The videos feature various New Jersey teachers opining about Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ), using crude language, and criticizing the state’s teachers unions.
In one segment, Ploshnick is recorded explaining an incident she witnessed as a teacher. She explained that she saw another teacher refer to a student as the n-word, and that the teacher was demoted, but was allowed to continue to teach. O’Keefe’s video crew then showed up at Ploshnick’s personal residence and tried to get her to repeat her story on video tape. She refused, understanding the repercussions that would come to a teacher who used that language on video. Watch it:
Following the release of the video, Ploshnick was suspended for seven days and denied a pay raise for being recorded using the n-word. Passaic Superintendent Robert Holster defended the decision to suspend her, explaining that they were “getting hammered” by local reaction to the video. “Politically correct is the theme of the day,’’ he went on to say, well aware that the teacher did not use the language to describe anyone else but rather to explain what another teacher had said.
Yet the truth is that Ploshnick never intended to use crude language in a public setting where she was being recorded. O’Keefe’s staff obtained the audio not by requesting an interview with her but by secretly recording a private conversation. The O’Keefe operative “hit on” Ploshnick at a local bar, buying her drinks and engaging in casual conversation. At one point, the conversation turned to Ploshnick’s job, which is when she relayed the anecdote about a fellow teacher using the n-word. At no point did she know the conversation was being recorded, so she did not see the need to truncate the use of the n-word in her anecdote. Yet the secret recording without Ploshnick’s consent is not presented as such — it appears that the teacher is using the crude language in a public way, well aware that it will be broadcast to thousands of people and will likely reach the ears of her students and their parents.
Unfortunately, O’Keefe’s video — despite completely disregarding basic journalistic standards — has been having a real impact in New Jersey politics. “If you need an example of what I’ve been talking about for the last nine months — about how the teacher’s union leadership is out of touch with the people and out of control — go watch this video,” Christie said at a town hall in South Brunswick last month, referring to O’Keefe’s work. For her part, Ploshnick has hired Alan Zegas, one of the state’s top trial lawyers, to investigate the behavior O’Keefe and his staff took in recording her. Zegas calls O’Keefe’s behavior “deeply disturbing.” But the New Jersey teacher’s greatest priority isn’t taking O’Keefe to court, it’s returning to her work. “I just wanted to get back to my kids,” she said.