Education

Folsom student gathers signatures to support history teacher who left under controversy

An overflow crowd attends a Jan. 19, 2017 Folsom Cordova Unified School District board meeting to speak about Sutter Middle School history teacher Woody Hart. Hart resigned that day after controversial incidents in his classroom. Most parents came to support Hart at the meeting.
An overflow crowd attends a Jan. 19, 2017 Folsom Cordova Unified School District board meeting to speak about Sutter Middle School history teacher Woody Hart. Hart resigned that day after controversial incidents in his classroom. Most parents came to support Hart at the meeting. clocke@sacbee.com

The Civil War is long gone. But frustration still simmers at Sutter Middle School in Folsom over a history teacher who made a lynching remark in class and later displayed the Confederate flag for a Civil War discussion.

Eric Hall, 14, has collected more than 350 signatures from students and a few teachers on a petition asking that the Folsom Cordova Unified School District reinstate history teacher Woody Hart.

Hart was placed on administrative leave Jan. 18 after a Confederate flag – along with a Union flag – was found in his classroom. That came weeks after Hart drew criticism for using a lynching analogy during a lesson on the U.S. Constitution.

While some people applauded the district for taking swift action, a number of families came to Hart’s defense and praised his overall teaching style.

“I think everything made him out to be a bad person,” Eric said. “But I think he was a great teacher and he got the class interested in things.”

Hart’s troubles began in November when he used a lynching analogy during an eighth-grade class discussion of a test on the U.S. Constitution. “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 an African American student in the class.

The student, Tyler McIntyre, asked to be transferred out, and the Sacramento chapter of Showing up for Racial Justice organized a protest at a board meeting.

Board President Zak Ford expressed outrage at the meeting, calling the remark “very inappropriate and flat-out stupid.” Superintendent Deborah Bettencourt called the comment inappropriate and apologized to thousands of district parents and staff members.

Hart said at the time that he would never use the analogy again and would be more clear. He said he had spent much of the year teaching his students about racial equality.

But last month, Hart was back in the news. Someone complained that he had displayed the Confederate flag in his classroom for a discussion on the Civil War. A Union flag displayed on the opposite side of the room.

At the Jan. 19 board meeting, a standing-room-only crowd voiced their strong support for the teacher.

“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.”

Eric’s mother, Jacqueline Thomas, said her son and his friends in Hart’s history class were “extremely upset” about the teacher’s departure and said she was impressed with how he inspired students to learn history.

Eric last week mailed a letter and copies of the signatures he collected to Bettencourt and district trustees complaining about their action against Hart.

“We understand that Mr. Hart will not return to be our history teacher, but we feel that the board acted with incomplete information and undue haste,” Eric wrote in the letter.

“Your actions will strike fear into the hearts of all good teachers,” he wrote.

Thomas said her son had been excited to participate in the Civil War discussion. While he is aligned philosophically with the Union perspective, she said, he was asked to argue the Confederate viewpoint and “was excited about trying to understand someone else’s point of view.”

Ford said he received Eric’s mail on Tuesday and had planned to respond this weekend.

“I appreciate the effort of the students and their views,” he said. “Unfortunately, because of personnel laws, we can’t disclose ... many of the additional details that led to Mr. Hart’s retirement. I want to reiterate that this wasn’t just about a flag like many people want to believe.

“This situation has been sad for everyone involved.”

District spokesman Daniel Thigpen said any topic in which a teacher feels it necessary to seek parental consent “prior to potentially controversial instruction” should first turn to the school principal “to determine appropriateness of the subject matter and related instructional materials.”

“This would be especially necessary if a teacher has previously been counseled to avoid inappropriate classroom examples or strategies, such as racially charged analogies,” Thigpen said.

He said the district “will continue to encourage our teachers to be creative and engaging as they push children to think critically about uncomfortable history and controversial issues, while maintaining a classroom environment that protects students’ emotional well-being.”

Showing Up for Racial Justice member Jenine Spotnitz responds to a lynching comment made by Sutter Middle School teacher Woody Hart in November. She read a list of demands ahead of the Folsom Cordova Unified School District's board meeting Thursda

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