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by Connie Thompson and Sam James
On July 29, the South Putnam Community School Corporation held a special school board meeting to announce the resignation of a high school teacher. Current and former students, educators, and community members descended on the meeting to expose and protest the fact that the teacher was forced to resign after a white parent complained in the previous board meeting that he attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Greencastle.
Savannah McIntosh, a 2018 graduate of South Putnam High School, highlighted how the events will stifle free speech. “What precedent does this set for the other teachers who may say something that a parent’s not gonna agree with? Are teachers not allowed freedom of speech in their free time?”
The parent in question, Amy Buchanan Clark, was specifically invited to speak by the school board in their July 7 meeting, where she targeted the teacher for exercising free speech. In particular, she highlighted the content of the teacher’s protest sign: “NWA got it right / #BLM #FTP.” Standing before the board with a completely flat affect, she recited lyrics from NWA’s classic 1988 song “F*ck tha Police.” She accused the teacher of encouraging violence and compared the BLM movement to school shootings.
ANSWER Indiana later discovered that within days of giving this speech, Clark shared a video on her public Facebook page by right-wing extremist and conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck. In that video, Beck fear-mongers about how BLM is “infiltrating” schools and compels his viewers to aggressively campaign against racial justice in their local school systems. Clark is also close friends with the school board president, Hollie Hutcheson.
After Clark finally finished speaking, the school board dropped a bombshell: they were working with their lawyers to investigate the teacher. Not even the teacher himself was aware of this investigation at that time. The pressure from the school board and a small group of very vocally racist parents forced the teacher to resign rather than risk being fired, which would make it difficult to get another teaching job. Despite an outpouring of support from the community, he has chosen not to seek reinstatement, saying that he feels unwelcome in the district due to the school board’s actions.
This coerced resignation was met with a massive public outcry at the school board meeting. The usually half-empty library where the school board meets was standing-room only. Over 10 different protesters, mostly current and former students of the school, spoke up at the meeting. Other teachers were in silent attendance too, and later told ANSWER that they agreed with their students, but did not speak up for fear of receiving a similar retaliation as their former colleague.
Recent graduate Summer Burris told ANSWER “I thought it was important to be here today because I feel like in a community where it seems everyone’s one-sided, and it’s looked down on if you have a different view or if you’re a little bit different yourself, I think it’s important to open people’s eyes up and show them – and tell them – that, ‘hey, not everyone’s the same.’”
Her words were echoed by Moriah Coward. “I think it’s very important for people to voice their opinions and come to things like this that may be confrontational, because without that there would be no growth, and there would be no change,” Coward said.
Dale Dye Thomas, a local activist, added that the consequences of the school board’s actions hit students the hardest. “This could’ve been a learning opportunity for a young, capable teacher. It is okay to be under scrutiny from parents – that is pretty unavoidable. But it should not have gone this far, and now you don’t have a teacher for your only stable foreign language program,” she said.
It indeed is a major loss for students and the community. High school seniors, recent grads, and concerned community members will have a chance to voice their displeasure during the next elections, where board president Hollie Hutcheson and board member Larry Bottorff will be up for reelection.
Yet it’s also just one example of a nationwide right-wing campaign to silence educators who dare to try and exercise their freedom of speech–at least when that speech challenges their own political convictions.