A group of about 50 protesters gathered Wednesday to urge the firing of a Cherokee County high school teacher despite warnings from the superintendent and the marshals office to stay off the River Ridge campus.
The event was planned without input from the Cherokee County School District by Michael Williams, a state senator and a Republican candidate for governor. His bid for office has focused on attention-grabbing news conferences and events that defy the usual norms of campaigning, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported.
Williams’ campaign saw a political opportunity in math teacher Lyn Orletsky’s request that two students wearing “Make America Great Again” T-shirts turn them inside out in the wake of the violent Charlottesville rally.
A video of the math teacher’s comparison of the slogan to a swastika went viral after a student shared it with a conservative news site earlier this month. Orletsky was placed on paid administrative leave, she told The AJC.
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Kevin Wright of Canton arrived at the Dupree Park meeting spot but declined a ride in Williams’ shuttle. He decided to walk the roughly 2 miles because he hasn’t yet chosen a candidate for governor and didn’t want his appearance Wednesday associated with Williams' campaign.
Wright came to exercise his First Amendment rights.
"Folks have a right to make their feelings known," he said.
While he thinks Orletsky crossed a line, he's happy with the school district's “quick and professional” response.
"This is bigger than the Cherokee County School District and bigger than Georgia," Wright said.
The Army veteran moved to Cherokee County 2½ years ago after retiring. He is a graduate of West Point and spent 24 years serving in the military and believes his presence at River Ridge is a continuance of public service.
Cherokee County Schools spokeswoman Barbara Jacoby told Williams that the campus was off-limits for his protest, warning it would “significantly disrupt teaching and learning and may endanger the safety of more than 3,200 students and staff.”
In a statement on behalf of Superintendent Brian Hightower, the district even suggested an alternate location — at the next School Board meeting scheduled Oct. 19.
Bettina Davies, an education lawyer representing Orletsky, told The AJC that Orletsky couldn’t be fired on the timeline Williams wants.
“People at the local school, such as the principal, aren’t the ones who make the decision,” Davies said. “It’s done at the school board level.”
Davies said after the superintendent makes a recommendation to the school board, they’ll vote, but, “investigations can take months depending on the complexity of the case.”
Geraldine Wade is angry that a teacher would oppose a student wearing a T-shirt in support of the current president. She said, "Trump's my guy" and joked that the protest was like another rally on the campaign trail.
Wade said she equates the issue with Orletsky to similar free speech issues such as kneeling during the national anthem and disrespecting the flag.
"If you're offended by the president, you need to go somewhere else," she said.
Student Macy White, a junior, said she wanted to “see what’s going on,” but Orletsky hadn’t been her teacher.
“I just want to see what this is about,” White said, adding that her parents are supportive of her right to free speech.
Williams said he had no problem with students participating in the rally and exercising their First Amendment rights.
“As long as they have their parents’ permission,” Williams said.
On the other side of the protest, Molly R. Ball said her sixth-grader and eighth-grader were afraid to go to school. She wanted people to take the protest off school grounds and proceeded to curse at protesters. She said they instead should be worried about the devastation in Puerto Rico or other important issues.
“This is ridiculous,” she said. “How do you know one of these yahoos isn’t going to get all mad and pull out a gun?”
The group of protesters and police had cleared out before classes were dismissed and the scene was clear by 2:30 p.m.
Jacoby released a new statement on behalf of the superintendent thanking parents and staff for their patience.
“None of us knows what could have happened today had we not made clear our plans to maintain a safe and secure learning environment for our students and staff,” Jacoby said in the statement. “We’ve all seen how protests advertised as peaceful have gotten out of control, and we are unwilling to take such a risk with our students’ and our employees’ safety.”
Jacoby reiterated the district does not agree with Orletsky’s actions but assured everyone there will be due process.
“We don’t rush administrative investigations or violate employees’ due process and lead taxpayers into costly litigation in order to please a politician or special interest group,” Jacoby said.
Watch: Lyn Orletsky talks to The AJC