Cherokee tempest in a T-shirt shows political climate affects schools

The tense political climate dividing America does not spare the classroom, as can be seen in a drama in Cherokee County. A few weeks ago, River Ridge High School math teacher Lyn Orletsky instructed two boys in her pre-calculus class to turn their “Make America Great Again” T-shirts inside out to conceal the slogan, which she felt had become divisive and even threatening. After teaching five years in Cherokee where nearly three out of four voters endorsed Donald Trump in November, Orletsky had seen many pro Trump shirts in the school.

But this was late August, two weeks after white supremacists and neo-Nazis embraced “Make America Great Again” as a rallying cry in Charlottesville, Va. A counterdemonstrator was killed and others injured when one of the marchers drove his car into a crowd. Orletsky feared the slogan would intimidate the minority students who were a third of her math class that period.

“I want everybody in that classroom to feel they are respected, and each should have their dignity … I have no problems with them wearing shirts in support of President Trump,” she said in an interview. “But I told the boys, in light of everything that has happened, I don’t think this is an appropriate slogan to be wearing at school.”

The boys asked what was wrong with the slogan. Orletsky said it had been co-opted by white supremacist movement, as the swastika had been by Nazis. A grainy student cellphone video, given to a conservative website, shows the conversation is calm, but she is resolute and the boys leave the classroom. The viral video has led to death threats and her removal from her classroom..

The incident did not immediately erupt into a media maelstrom. The boys went to the principal, who met with Orletsky and advised her that the shirts are permissible. The boys returned to class the next day before the high school broke for Labor Day weekend. And that is when the cellphone video went viral.

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Over the holiday, Orletsky said her principal called her to ask if she was aware of the social media frenzy. Hundreds of emails included one from Oregon that threatened: “Lyn Orletsky, a math teacher at River Ridge High School in Woodstock, will DIE after what she has done … You and your liberal agenda’s have finally pushed us into a corner. Do you know what happens when a rabid dog feels trapped in a corner, he only has one option and that is to defend himself at all cost so it never happens again.”

As the rancor and volume accelerated, Orletsky said she saw a shift in the district’s attitude, and was put on administrative leave, where she remains. In a letter to parents, the principal wrote, “Ms. Orletsky is no longer your child’s math teacher, effective immediately.”

A district statement stated: “Her actions were wrong, as the ‘Make America Great Again’ shirts worn by the students are not a violation of our School District dress code. The teacher additionally — and inappropriately — shared her personal opinion about the campaign slogan during class.”

Now students are without a teacher who’s earned multiple teaching honors, including the highly regarded National Board Certification. At River Ridge, Orletsky teaches yoga to special-needs teenagers and advises the Interact Club, which performs community service. Woodstock parent Sharis Mayer was stunned Orletsky was taken from the classroom, calling her “the most important teacher my daughter ever had.” Her daughter is now a biomedical engineering major at Georgia Tech.

Recent River Ridge graduate Fariha Akter, 18, said she cannot recall Orletsky bringing up her political beliefs in class. Akter believes Orletsky was wrong to ask the students to change their shirts. But Akter said Muslim and black students at River Ridge have had negative comments directed at them with no similar sanctions. “It should not only be kids with Trump shirts who the school defends. Black and Muslim students in the school should also be defended.”

If the teacher believed some students saw the shirts as a threat, it seems wiser in retrospect to have talked first to the principal about the appropriate response before asking the boys to change. But does this rise to suspension or dismissal? For me, the incident merits dial-back and a sit-down with the students, teacher and principal. It ought to come down to intent. Was Orletsky trying to improve her classroom learning environment or impose her politics? There seems to be no evidence of the latter.

In fact, the Rev. Tripp Norris, an Episcopal priest and longtime Cherokee parent of a senior at River Ridge, said the viral video clip was edited and fails to show that other students in the class first raised the issue of the shirts with the boys.

“This started as a Facebook post and has become sabre rattling and hate speech,” Norris said. “It has turned into a vicious attack that is nowhere close to reality. What I said to the parents: What responsibility do the kids take for creating a disturbance?”

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