By Ruth Conniff
Wisconsin workers face a lousy jobs picture this Labor Day, according to...
Jeri-Lynn Betts, an early childhood teacher in the Watertown, Wisconsin, school district, died on March 8 of an apparent suicide.
A colleague says she was "very distraught" over Gov. Scott Walker's attacks on public sector workers and public education.
Betts, 56, was a dedicated teacher who was admired in the Watertown community.
"She was an amazing person," says the Rev. Terry Larson of the Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in Watertown, where she was a member. "She really put her heart and soul in her work," adds Larson, who officiated at her memorial service on March 15.
"She was one of the good guys," says Karen Stefonek, who used to teach with Betts. "She was very, very dedicated, and worked so well with the little special needs children. She just was very, very good with them, and very well respected in the district."
In the days after Betts's death, two members of the school district contacted The Progressive about her death, calling it a suicide and saying it was connected, at least in part, to the policies that Walker has proposed. He has demanded that public workers, including teachers, contribute a significant amount of their salaries to health care and pensions. And in his budget, he proposed taking $900 million out of the public schools, imposing a freeze on property taxes so local governments can't chip in more for education, and allowing any student, regardless of income, to go to a private school with a taxpayer subsidy.
"She was definitely very distraught about it," said one of her co-workers, who requested anonymity. "She was feeling a lot of stress about the legislation that was going through."
"She was concerned about the cuts teachers would have to take," said another, who also requested anonymity. This co-worker added that Betts's colleagues acknowledged her anguish about the governor's policies in their discussions after her death.
Figuring out all the contributing factors behind a likely suicide is a complicated problem. Such deaths are in some ways incomprehensible -- and always tragic.
But the report from the Watertown police gives some clues. A police offer took a statement from Susan Kemmerling, who worked with Betts as a special education paraprofessional for the past decade.
"Susan advised me that Geri had a long history of depression," Officer Jeffrey Meloy wrote in his report. "Susan stated that the last several weeks had been 'stressing her out' due to the protests and the introduction of the budget repair bill and the uncertainty involved in the teaching world, as far as who was going to have jobs and what services were going to be cut.... Susan stated that Jeri truly loved her job and was about the most outgoing and bubbly person you could ever want to be around. Susan stated that everybody had noticed, however, the last few weeks since the introduction of the budget repair bill that Jeri was having a lot of difficulty." Officer Meloy also interviewed Bonnie Lauersdorf, a physical therapist who worked with Betts for the past 25 year years and had been friends with her "for most of her adult life," the report says. She told the officer that Jeri was concerned about "the uncertainty of what the budget was going to do to her retirement" and about "cuts to the school districts and possible cuts to the special ed program." Lauersdorf added that "Jeri felt like she was being 'forced out,'" the report says.
Walker's policies are placing a heavy strain on teachers, says Steve Cupery, the director of the Lakewood UniServ Council, the teachers' union in Watertown.
"There's a lot of stress, especially among older teachers," he says. "They're concerned about being targeted. And there's the stress associated with the potential loss of benefits, which could amount to a substantial cut in pay."
Cupery adds that teachers are worried about class sizes going up, increased workloads, and not being able to "develop curriculum material around the individual needs of students."
Walker's policies have "shredded the morale of teachers," said Wisconsin State Assemblywoman Sondy Pope-Roberts on March 16. "The cuts to schools districts are going to be drastic."
Pat Theder, Jefferson County coroner, looked into Betts's death. "Our investigation is still pending," he says. "We're waiting for a toxicology report. She may have ingested something. We're doing toxicology to determine if she took over the therapeutic amount of her medication and whether that was enough to kill her."
Betts's old colleague Karen Stefonek remembers her as "fun loving" and as someone who "loved to travel."
Her death "took a lot out of us," Stefonek says. "It hit us in the heart."
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story "Nader Urges Biden to Go to Wisconsin to Support Workers."
Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter.