Eight years after he was sworn into office, President Obama’s “HOPE” poster remains, for many, a reminder of the energy and inspiration that launched the nation’s first black president into the White House.
Now, a Tuscaloosa, Ala., teacher has been placed on administrative leave for politicizing the image in a way that some students and parents found offensive.
Tuscaloosa City Schools confirmed that Northridge High School math teacher Scott Johnson used a projector to show his students a mocking image of President-elect Donald Trump using the original image’s font and formatting.
Beneath Trump’s smiling face, the word “Hope” had been changed to: “Obama, You’re Fired!”
“You’re fired” was Trump’s trademark phrase during his time on the popular NBC television show “The Apprentice.” In recent weeks, the Associated Press reported, multiple people who worked on the show have accused Trump of using sexist language and openly discussing the physical attributes of women who worked on the show.
Tuscaloosa school officials said they received multiple complaints after Johnson projected the image onto a whiteboard Wednesday. Officials told AL.com that they found out about the incident the day it occurred.
“The Tuscaloosa City Schools is aware of a political issue discussed in a math class Wednesday at Northridge High School,” schools spokeswoman Lesley Bruinton said.
“The situation is being investigated and the instructor has been placed on administrative leave,” she added.
Bruinton declined to tell The Washington Post whether — as some have alleged on social media — Johnson also made inappropriate political statements to students.
Public school teachers — like all American citizens — are afforded free speech rights, but there are notable limitations, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“What you say or communicate inside the classroom is considered speech on behalf of the school district and therefore will not be entitled to much protection,” the ACLU notes. “Certain types of speech outside the school might also not be protected if the school can show that your speech created a substantial adverse impact on school functioning.”
Because public school students are considered “a captive audience,” courts have not afforded K-12 teachers the same First Amendment protections as a public university professor’s teachings and writings, according to the ACLU.
Outside the classroom, however, public school teachers are afforded the same rights as anyone else. Protected speech allows teachers, for example, to post a political article favoring a candidate on their Facebook page or to attend a political rally on their own time. But inside the classroom, “speech” is more restricted and can also include “decoration, posters or displays,” the ACLU notes.
First Amendment protections also might not apply to teachers who use social media to make comments about students or work-related topics.
“Because schools have the authority to control what happens in the classroom, courts have allowed school districts to require teachers to remove in-class banners and displays conveying a religious message,” according to the ACLU. “It is likely that the school could require you to remove political signs from the classroom.”
This year, teachers have reported finding it difficult to discuss the campaign while remaining neutral.
Election years typically present teachers with an opportunity to explain government and implement real-world civics lessons in the classroom. But across the country this year, some teachers report that they have struggled to use the presidential election as a model for students.
Last week at Mountain View High School in California’s Silicon Valley, a high school teacher and Holocaust scholar was placed on paid leave after drawing parallels between Trump and Adolf Hitler in his class.
Frank Navarro said he cited some of Trump’s controversial and racially charged statements, such as calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and criminals and making comments about the Mexican heritage of a judge presiding over a lawsuit against Trump University, to make the case that there are some parallels with Hitler’s persecution of Jews and the Nazi leader’s rise to power.
“It’s an effective way of embedding the lessons that I’m teaching regarding the place of government and the lives of people,” Navarro, who teaches special education, civics and world studies, told The Washington Post. “It’s important to relate history to your lives because, in the end, that’s what it’s going to be about.”
Navarro was placed on paid leave after a parent emailed school officials to complain about his teaching methods.
Navarro defended himself by saying that his lessons were based on facts, but administrators said students and teachers are facing “a heightened emotional environment” because of the election.
“It’s always a challenge to maintain a line in a classroom,” District Superintendent Jeff Harding told the San Jose Mercury News, noting that Navarro could return to the classroom as early as Monday.
— Justin Christensen (@JustinChristen) March 23, 2016
When teachers step over that line, especially during a sensitive political period, they risk being exposed by students ready to blast their statements on social media.
Photos from inside Scott Johnson’s classroom were shared by students and parents on Facebook, AL.com reported.
“So this was up in one of my daughter’s classroom today at school … Smh [shaking my head],” one parent wrote on the site.
Russell Howard, a Tuscaloosa native who doesn’t have children, submitted photos from the incident to the newspaper as well. Despite not having a child involved, he said he was offended by the allegations.
“After an extremely divisive election, what message does this send to the students in his classroom?” he said. “An educator has absolutely no right to advance their ideals and beliefs onto students.”