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September 3, 2015

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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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