A standing-room-only crowd voiced overwhelming support for a controversial middle school history teacher Thursday night and accused the Folsom Cordova Unified School District board of unjustly forcing him to retire.
Sutter Middle School teacher Woody Hart had been placed on administrative leave earlier in the week for displaying a Confederate flag in his classroom, along with a Union flag, as part of a Civil War simulation.
Before opening the public comment period during Thursday’s school board meeting, board President Zak Ford announced that district trustees had accepted Hart’s retirement and the teacher would not be returning to the classroom.
Later in the meeting, parents, teachers and students chastised board members for their treatment of Hart and for failing to listen to public sentiment. Some said the board’s actions would have a chilling effect on teachers and promote the “sanitizing” of history.
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“The Confederate flag is a wart on our history, but gosh darn it, it’s part of our history,” Folsom resident Cliff Zall told the board. “The next thing you know, history is not going to be history, it’s going to be what we wish it was.”
Hart had been the subject of a complaint filed in November by the family of a black Folsom student after the teacher used a lynching analogy to define how states treat individuals under the constitution. He told the eighth-grade class: “When you hang one black person, you have to hang them all (as) that is equality,” according to a complaint filed by the family of 13-year-old Tyler McIntyre.
“Anytime you have a teacher or staff member accused of racially insensitive behavior – again, particularly more than once – it’s our responsibility to fully investigate,” Ford said. “Taking that action is necessary to get to the bottom of any allegation – and it also reminds our families that we take such allegations seriously.”
Tyler McIntyre’s father, Tyrie McIntyre, thanked board members, saying he appreciated their decision.
“I understand people who support Mr. Hart, and they understand him on a different level,” McIntyre said.
McIntyre was supported by a handful of speakers who argued that the Confederate flag is a symbol of hate and has no place in a classroom, regardless of the context.
But many who spoke criticized the trustees for taking action in Hart’s case without first hearing what community members had to say.
Allison Simmons, a junior at Folsom High School, said Hart was her eighth-grade teacher. Simmons said she hated history until she participated in his classroom simulations, which made history come alive. The classes didn’t promote racial insensitivity, but quite the opposite, she said.
“He’s teaching you what’s right and what’s wrong throughout history so you don’t repeat it,” Simmons said. “You guys made a stupid decision to take the best teacher away from so many students,” she told the board.
David Werra, a history teacher at Folsom High School, said teaching students about civil rights and race relations is one of his most important missions. For years, Werra said, he has used a sign once found in many restaurants, that says “No dogs, no Negroes, no Mexicans,” to help students distinguish between overt and covert discrimination.
Although Ford said that the investigation of the Hart matter does not mean teachers should be afraid to be provocative or to use historical artifacts to “help students understand uncomfortable aspects of history,” Werra said he felt he now needed to ask whether he would have the support of the school district to use the sign in his classroom.
“It is a question I didn’t have before yesterday,” he said.
In a letter sent to Folsom Cordova employees, District Superintendent Deborah Bettencourt, said several teachers had asked how they might be affected by the board’s investigation of the complaints involving Hart.
“Let me be clear: We do not want to limit the free speech of our teachers … Our expectations, however, are that teachers and staff will do this work using culturally appropriate strategies,” she said in the letter.
“That means reflecting on, and making an effort to understand, the unique experiences our students bring to the table. Creating an educational environment where students of all backgrounds do not feel alienated or unsafe is our top priority.”