Circle teacher's lesson on free speech offends

09/09/2011 12:00 AM

09/09/2011 6:44 AM

A Circle High School teacher delivering a lesson on controversial free speech caused a controversy of her own this week when parents complained that her actions were offensive and should not be allowed in the classroom.

According to school officials, Jennifer McKinsey, a U.S. government and history teacher, was discussing how some controversial behaviors, such as defacing the flag, are protected under the First Amendment.

To illustrate the point and prompt class discussion last week, McKinsey took her personal American flag from the classroom wall, put it on the ground and stepped on it several times.

Cherie Davis, the parent of a Circle High student, said she was "shocked and saddened" when she heard about the incident from her son's friend, who was in McKinsey's class. She later learned that the teacher had delivered the lesson the same way in previous years.

"I understand what this teacher's probably trying to say, but I find it very upsetting," Davis said.

"My dad almost didn't make it home from Korea. We have his Purple Heart that he treasured all his life. . . . The flag is a piece of cloth, yes, but it's also not because of what it stands for. We should be teaching children to respect it."

McKinsey did not respond to requests for comment.

Todd Dreifort, the principal of Circle High in Towanda, said by e-mail Thursday, "While no violation of the law has occurred, the district does not agree with the teacher's actions."

Dreifort wrote: "The teacher is extremely sorry for what has occurred and how deeply it has affected the Circle community.

"There was never any intent on the teacher's behalf to demean or deface the flag. It was to graphically illustrate the freedoms and protections American citizens are afforded by the Constitution, as well as to engage students in meaningful and thoughtful discussion."

He said McKinsey "apologized to her students and has had positive correspondence with parents who have contacted her."

In the future, Dreifort added, "the flag demonstration will no longer be used."

Davis, the mom, sent e-mails to the teacher and principal this week after a status update about the incident on her Facebook page prompted dozens of comments. Some said the teacher should be reprimanded or even lose her job.

"It is disrespectful of our country and our fellow countrymen who have placed their lives on the line to protect our freedom," one woman wrote. "What about a petition to have this teacher replaced by a different teacher who will respect our country and our flag?"

Davis, a nurse who often cares for wounded military veterans, said she doesn't want the teacher to be punished or fired, but to understand the weight of her actions and to consider a different way of teaching the lesson.

"This is just a passionate subject," she said. "Yes, you can do something that's legal, but it's still disrespectful.

"We're trying to teach children to respect each other, to respect our country, to respect elders. Then they go to school and witness things like this, and maybe they don't have the maturity level to really understand what it means."

Sam French, 23, said he was a student in McKinsey's government class four years ago and remembers her delivering the same lesson. During a discussion about flag desecration and free speech, he remembers her taking a little flag from beside a whiteboard and putting it on the floor.

"She wasn't stomping on it like a crazy person or anything, but walking on it," he said. "I honestly thought it was kind of wrong and didn't really like it."

But no one said anything afterward, French said. He doesn't remember telling a parent or other adult.

"It was weird, but we just kind of watched her and talked about it," he said. "People never must have thought much of it."

Davis said she hesitated speaking up about it, in part because her son didn't want her to.

"I just told him, 'You know I love you, and I'm sorry it upsets you,' " she said. "But sometimes there are things you have to do that aren't comfortable, but you have to do it because of what you believe in."

She said she would like more military veterans to visit classrooms to talk about their experiences and their thoughts on the flag.

"I feel like we owe it to our heroes," Davis said. "Invite some vets in, ask them, 'How would you feel if someone stepped on a flag in front of you?' Hear what they have to say."

Dreifort, the principal, said in his e-mail that Circle High School and the school district "humbly recognizes the sacrifices of our community's and nation's veterans . . . as well as those who are currently serving.

"Without their service, the freedoms we are discussing today would not be possible," he said.

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