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Arlington suspends substitute teacher who backed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

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Arlington Public Schools has suspended a substitute teacher who, during a Spanish class, expressed approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine and urged students to read Russian-run propaganda outlets.

The substitute, John Stanton, 65, made the comments during an eighth-grade Spanish lesson on Friday at Swanson Middle School. Stanton said in an interview Tuesday that he spoke about Russia and Ukraine for the first 10 minutes of a 90-minute class and that he hoped to offer students an opposing viewpoint that he said is rarely heard.

Stanton said he told the students to read as many news sources as possible — including Sputnik News, a Russian news agency that a 2017 report compiled by the FBI, CIA and NSA declared a “state-run propaganda machine.” He said he also drew a map of Ukraine and marked areas where Russian forces had invaded.

“I said, ‘Here’s what’s going on,’” Stanton said. But “the statement I think that got me was I said, ‘I personally support the logic of Putin,’ and what I meant by that is, he made a rational decision from his perception.”

Arlington Public Schools spokesman Frank Bellavia declined to discuss Stanton’s comments on Russia or his employment status on Tuesday, calling it a personnel matter.

The Friday lesson prompted parents of a student in the class to write to the School Board raising concerns about Stanton. In the email, a copy of which was shared with The Washington Post, the parents wrote that Stanton “told students he supported Russia, asked whether anyone in the class ‘hated Russia,’ and complained about rising gas prices, presumably as an effect of the current crisis.” The email noted there was a Ukrainian student in the class.

The parents wrote that Stanton’s comments amounted to “advocacy of political positions, and Russian propaganda” and called the remarks “wholly inappropriate.”

On Tuesday, Stanton received a letter from Arlington school officials notifying him that he was suspended because of “an allegation of comments made to students during instructional hours regarding sensitive world events with Russia and Ukraine.” In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Post, Arlington officials wrote that Stanton can petition for reinstatement within five days, but Stanton said he has no desire or plans to do so.

Stanton said that he has been subbing for Arlington for three years, and that he took the job because he is retired and wanted to supplement his income. Before that, he said, he had a varied career.

He emailed The Post a two-page résumé that listed roles as a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, as host of an unspecified 1980s “political/cultural radio program” in D.C. and as an “independent journalist” who provided commentary on national security and political issues to U.S. news outlets including CNN, ABC and this newspaper’s Foreign Policy magazine. Stanton said he still writes for outlets such as Pravda, which was the Soviet Union’s chief propaganda platform.

In a Pravda opinion piece published Feb. 28, Stanton wrote that the United States owns “every country in the NATO alliance” and called the Russia-Ukraine conflict “great news for the West’s defense contractors” who will earn “billions of profit.” He also wrote that “any support aired by anyone on the West for the Russian position gets mauled and derided by pro-West pundits” and that “self-censorship by Western media will only get more wicked.”

From 2016 to 2018, Stanton said, he worked as a reporter for Sputnik News in D.C. A 2018 “PBS NewsHour” article identified Stanton as a Sputnik News “wire reporter” covering the Pentagon and quoted a Sputnik spokeswoman, Beverly Hunt, confirming that Stanton was employed there.

The “NewsHour” piece said Stanton was fired by Sputnik News because he provided information about the news outlet to an unnamed third-party client. Stanton said in an interview that the client was “a U.S. government intelligence agency.” He declined to specify which agency or to provide proof of his employment there.

“I was extracting as much information as possible from their [Sputnik News] computer systems, taking pictures of the staff, collecting information,” Stanton said.

Bellavia did not directly answer questions asking how Stanton came to be hired by Arlington Public Schools and whether he underwent a background check at any point during the hiring process.

Instead, Bellavia wrote in an email that “we pull from a pool of subs and they don’t have to have any background in the subject area they are subbing in.”

Stanton said he understands why some feel that a lesson on the Russia-Ukraine conflict is not an appropriate topic for a Spanish class. But he also said that, if he had another chance, he’d give the same speech again.

“If I reached one student — and there was one student that told the kids ‘Be quiet,’ because he wanted to learn,” Stanton said. “If for one student that is the case then I would do it again.”

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