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April 23, 2014

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OTHER VOICES:

A teacher’s use of stomping fails again

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — We don’t have a monopoly in South Florida when it comes to academic lessons on symbolism that involve stomping.

Four months before a Florida Atlantic University professor’s lesson on intercultural communications included an invitation for students to write the name “Jesus” on a piece of paper and then step on it, an honors English teacher in a South Carolina high school was teaching his own lesson on the power of symbolism by taking down the U.S. flag on display in his classroom and stepping on it.

The parallels in these two cases are worth noting.

The South Carolina high school teacher, Scott Compton, used the flag in his classroom as a way to point out that the ideas of freedom and patriotism are deeper and separate from a symbol of patriotism.

It was a bold move to devise such a nuanced and easily misconstrued lesson in a small town neighboring Fort Jackson, the U.S. Army’s gigantic training center.

One of Compton’s students complained, and it didn’t take long for her to be featured on Fox News.

“Well, he was teaching us about symbols, and he gave us an example such as a cross that symbolized Christianity,” the student, Maggie Copeland, told Fox News host Greta Van Susteren in January. “And then he took the flag and he said that it was just a symbol of America, and just a piece of cloth with colors on it. And then he threw it on the ground and stomped on it.”

Van Susteren asked her what the reaction of the class was.

“We were all very shocked,” the girl said. “And he even made a comment afterwards. He said that at least we reacted better than his other class. He had a girl scream in the other class.”

The school district’s spokesman, Mark Bounds, appeared on the program to tell Van Susteren that the teacher was suspended and in the process of being fired by the superintendent.

“So the community is waiting and trusts the superintendent to take the right action,” he said. “But as the news has gotten out across the country, we’ve received phone calls and emails from across the country appalled with this behavior.”

The students who understood what Compton was trying to teach were more muted.

“I had this teacher for this class in the past and he taught the same lesson,” one student wrote on a local website. “His point was to show that a symbol does not have any value outside what it represents, rather the concept is what matters. He is actually quite patriotic and wanted students to value an ideal rather than an object.

“Just because this student does not have the intellectual aptitude to understand this concept does not mean that the teacher is unpatriotic.”

Five days after the Van Susteren show, Compton was fired.

FAU instructor Deandre Poole’s academic exercise had also been done numerous times before without controversy. And, like Compton, his aim would be misunderstood by those who drew an unintended lesson from the exercise.

Poole was following a 10-year-old textbook exercise designed by a professor at a Catholic college that was designed to get students to grasp the power of symbolism in other cultures by examining their own behavior when asked to do something that disrespects a religious symbol they respect or revere.

A Mormon student, Ryan Rotela, said he was offended by the Jesus exercise, and was suspended from the school after he confronted Poole about it. At first, the university backed Poole, saying that the student was suspended for physically threatening the instructor.

But when the story became national news, and Gov. Rick Scott weighed in to apologize to the student and condemn the exercise as an attack on Christianity that would never happen again, FAU reversed course.

“People wonder what’s wrong with higher education,” Fox News host Mike Huckabee said about Poole’s lesson. “This is what’s wrong with higher education.”

Poole’s status at FAU remains in limbo. Citing safety concerns, FAU removed him from his class assignments. He’s not tenured, and not yet scheduled for any future classes at the university, which is still reviewing the matter.

The South Carolina teacher contested his firing, but resigned in March before his appeal was heard.

This week, The State newspaper reported the details of a confidential settlement the school district made with the teacher and his lawyer.

In exchange for not being sued for wrongful termination, the South Carolina school district will pay Compton a total of $85,000, which includes $31,500 in legal fees. The school district also agreed to give the teacher a guaranteed letter of recommendation for future employment, as well as not objecting to any unemployment benefits he may seek.

There just may be another lesson in that somewhere.

Frank Cerabino is a columnist for the Palm Beach Post.

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  1. Freedom of speech, a U.S. Constitutional right guaranteed to all, doesn't exist for teachers in our schools. Even symbolically to teach.

    Carmine D

  2. Good God!!!! What has our mighty nation fallen to? Teaching youngster, precious, innocent minds, to actually think? To question? How will we survive as a nation if we don't have enough sheeple to follow the rules?

  3. Europe keeps telling us "multi-culturalism does NOT work."

  4. Contrary to popular opinion, freedom of speech is NOT a Constitutional right guaranteed to all. Read the First Amendment on the subject: "Congress shall make no law..abridging the freedom of speech..." The Supreme Court extended that prohibition to state governments. If your employer tells you not to publicly proclaim a particular viewpoint, it can cheerfully fire you if you do so anyway. Schools and teachers: an interesting area. Most primary and secondary schools are not "State" government entities, but are still "government" entities. Teachers, of course, are beyond doubt "employees." Does an employee of a governmental entity have a right to speak, within the routine course of his employment, in violation of the legal policies of that entity? Think carefully: suppose the school policy was to support unlimited abortions - and the individual spoke out AGAINST them?

    As for Chuck33 - decisions from at least the Vietnam era have held that use of symbols, even the flag, a cross, a star, a crescent moon, etc., in a public venue (such as a protest) are symbolically equivalent to "speech" and are protected.

    Do I agree? Yes, logically, although not necessarily emotionally. It is when actions are most despised by the majority that they need the closest legal protection. Do what you wish to a symbol: if you do not physically damage (as opposed to emotionally upset or anger...) another person, there is no justification for legal intervention.

  5. Pish.Tosh.....the greatest example of multi-culturalism is right here in the US of A. Works just fine except for a few rancid bigots.

  6. Legalities aside, I do not agree disrespecting symbols that have deep emotional and spiritual meaning to many people.

    There are many ways to drive home a point when teaching a concept. Realia has been a part of teaching for many years. Using symbols with deep emotional and religious meaning is bordering in sensationalism. We must respect what some consider 'sacred,' whether or not we share their beliefs.'

    The teacher should have done the opposite: Perhaps shredding a picture of Hitler or the swastika, then asking if his action changes anything those images symbolize. Or burning of effigies of hated figures in history. It would not only teach the concept, it will meet the intended goal that actions against symbols do not have any meaningful consequence on the very concept they represent. It will only sate one's emotional cravings for satisfaction out of revenge (or horror as in the case of the flag or cross).

    Firing a dedicated teacher for such actions to give in to people's emotional reactions is unjustified. There is an argument for intentions and the absence of malice. Destroying one's life and career is inhuman.

    Contrary to what some people believe, teaching is NOT easy. The curriculum is simply a guide. Making it alive for children is a huge production and requires intelligence and creativity. Give teachers a break.

  7. So tell us Robert, what allows people to burn the U.S. flag but not the Koran?

    Carmine D

  8. So tell us CarmineD, what law in the U.S. bans people burning the Koran? Cite chapter/verse, please.

  9. The law of reason and intelligence, Robert. Chapter and verse varies from person to person.

    Carmine D

  10. "I wonder what the tickets look like for violating the "Laws of Reason"?"

    Foolishness and ignorance are the antitheses of reason and intelligence. You must have the latter to recognize the former.

    Carmine D

  11. Jeff:

    Weep not for me but yourself. BTW, you really need to downsize your verbosity.

    Carmine D