Teacher stands by lesson but would keep ‘Klan' off campus next time

Catherine Ariemma never intended for students to be offended by the sight of four Ku Klux Klansmen at Lumpkin County High School.

But that's how senior Cody Rider said he felt last Thursday when he looked up and saw the students -- dressed in white hoods and sheets -- walking through the school cafeteria.

"I was outraged," the 18-year-old mixed-race student told the AJC Monday night. "I was mad, so I started walking to them.

A coach, Josh Chatham, intervened by grabbing Rider by the arm.

Ariemma, a six-year veteran with the Lumpkin County school system, said the students, who were working on a film project for her advanced placement U.S. history class, meant no harm.

She admitted that she may have made a mistake by letting the students film the Klan reenactment on campus.

"I feel terrible that I have students who feel threatened because of something from my class," Ariemma told the AJC. "In hindsight, I wouldn't have had them film that part at school."

But the damage was done.

A report went to school officials, after parents of black students learned what had happened and called the district.

Ariemma was placed on paid suspension, and activist the Rev. Markel Hutchins was called to the town 50 miles north of Atlanta to help quell what seemed to be growing frustration among Dahlonega's small African American community.

"When we leave this issue, we want to leave this town a better place," Hutchins told a group of about 50 people who crowded into a tiny church Monday evening. "It seems to me that in many places around the country, we're not divided as much as (we are) disconnected."

And Rider, who was already in trouble for fighting at a football game last fall, needed help to calm himself.

"I wasn’t going to say anything to them,” Rider said, hinting he thought of taking other actions.

But Hutchins told reporters Monday evening during a meeting of concerned community members that Cody told him, “He wanted to swing on the students.”

Hutchins said if that had happened they might have gathered in Lumpkin County for a different reason.

Ariemma's students were filming reenactments of various historical periods last week, and four donned Klan outfits, superintendent Dewey Moye told the AJC.

She said she walked with them through the cafeteria, but forgot students were there eating lunch.

"I told them, ‘I don't want you to walk through the building by yourselves because I don't want people to get the wrong idea," Ariemma said. "I failed to think about that there was a lunch track in the cafeteria when they went by.

"Then I heard some students start giggling."

Students saw her white-clad students, and Rider's parents later complained about it.

"We determined, obviously, that she used extremely poor judgment," Moye said.

Hutchins told the group at Fortson Memorial Baptist Church on Monday he had spoken with the school superintendent.

During that conversation, Hutchins asked the superintendent that a meeting be convened between the mayor and police chief to address Cody’s safety, as well as planning a diversity sensitivity training for the city, school staff and sheriff deputies.

He said he wants to make sure Ariemma is dealt with in a fair and just way. And that the situation is not taken out of context, but also not ignored.

“Good common sense should have told her this was not a good idea,” he said.

Ariemma is an award-winning teaching. Last year, the Georgia Senate passed a resolution lauding her "dedication to her students and her profession" after she was honored as Lumpkin County High School's 2009 STAR Teacher. The Student Teacher Achievement Recognition program is sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the Professional Association of Georgia Educators and recognizes teaching excellence.

She said she continues to stand behind the video project and the lesson it was to convey to her students.

"This project was about racism in U.S. history," Ariemma said. "Not just racism against African Americans, but racism as a whole."

She said including the Ku Klux Klan was an essential piece.

"You cannot discuss racism without discussing the Klan," she said. "To do so would be to condone their actions."

Moye said Ariemma has never been reprimanded for missteps and that she has always been an "outstanding" teacher. But he said he could not ignore this incident.

She could lose her job over it.

"In my opinion, it was offensive," Moye said. "The other part of it is some people have jumped on it and said, ‘You're racist.'"

Moye said he placed her on leave with pay pending the outcome of an investigation. The school system attorney will interview the children involved to determine what happened, he said.

Historical reenactments can be an effective teaching tool, but must be used with discretion, one local history professor said.

Eugene Van Sickle, an assistant professor of history at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega, has required students to research the world views of historical figures and then defend their positions in a debate.

"You're in the moment," he said, "and based on what you know about the person, it becomes a teaching moment."

But Van Sickle said he would not use the technique with emotionally charged topics, "and I think the Klan would certainly be a charged topic."

The U.S. Constitution's free speech guarantee is limited in schools, and may offer little or no protection for Ariemma, according to a legal expert.

The Supreme Court has determined that the constitution only protects speech in schools that does not disrupt the educational mission, said Lynn Hogue, a law professor at Georgia State University and a First Amendment specialist.

There is nothing inherently wrong with allowing students to wear Ku Klux Klan outfits for an educational purpose, Hogue said. But it would be unprotected by the constitution if it interrupted learning.

The best way to avoid a disruption is to ensure that everyone who could be affected knows what's going on beforehand, Hogue said.

"The answer is not necessarily to not do it," he said, "but rather to be sure that everybody is reasonably informed about it so that people aren't caught off guard and it doesn't backfire."

Ariemma said she hopes something good can come from this.

"I asked Mr. Moye if there was some way we could turn this into a teachable moment," she said.