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Burning Freedom in Middle School
By Chris Kenning--The Courier-Journal--08/23/06
A Stuart Middle School teacher has been removed from the classroom after he burned two American flags in class during a lesson on freedom of speech, Jefferson County Public Schools officials said.
Dan Holden, who teaches seventh-grade social studies, burned small flags in two different classes Friday and asked students to write an opinion paper about it, district spokeswoman Lauren Roberts said.
A teacher in the school district since 1979, Holden has been temporarily reassigned to non-instructional duties pending a district investigation. The district also alerted city fire officials, who are conducting their own investigation.
"Certainly we're concerned about the safety aspect," Roberts said, along with "the judgment of using that type of demonstration in a class."
Pat Summers, whose daughter was in Holden's class, said he was among more than 20 parents upset about the incident at school yesterday. Holden apparently told the students to ask their parents what they thought about the lesson, he said.
"She said, 'Our teacher burned a flag.' I'm like, 'What?' " Summers said. "When I was (at the school) at 8 a.m., the lobby was filled with probably 25 or 30 parents" who were upset, he said.
Holden could not be reached yesterday for comment.
Roberts said the flag burning did not appear to be politically motivated, based on an interview with Holden.
Summers said no advance notice had been given to parents, nor were school administrators aware of Holden's plans, Roberts said.
Stuart sixth-grader Kelsey Adwell, 11, said students were abuzz about the incident yesterday.
"They just can't believe that a teacher would do that -- burn two American flags in front of the class," she said. "A teacher shouldn't do that, even though it was an example."
Kentucky has a statute last amended in 1992 making desecration of a national or state flag in a public place a misdemeanor, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that flag desecration is protected speech.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky said the federal ruling would trump the state statute.
Congress has tried unsuccessfully to prohibit flag burning with a constitutional amendment. The latest attempt failed in the Senate this year.
Beth Wilson, director of Kentucky's ACLU, said the district is allowed to decide what's instructionally appropriate.
But "if a school is masking their objections to flag burning under the guise of safety, it raises questions about freedom of speech and academic freedom," she said. She said her group would monitor the case but did not plan to get involved at this point.
Regardless, school board member Pat O'Leary said the flag burning was unnecessary and could have offended some students, including those in military families.
"A teacher doesn't do that," he said. "It's just disrespectful."
Rebecca Creech, a Stuart sixth-grader, said she also thought it was "wrong."
Ginny Adwell, Kelsey's mother and the school's PTA president, said some parents who called for Holden to be fired were "going a little bit overboard" and should remember that the teacher was trying to provoke thought.
Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, said Holden has "been teaching for many years, and has by all accounts a good teaching record. It was not a political statement and was meant to illustrate a controversial issue. To fire someone because of that would be inappropriate," he said. "It wasn't like he was taking one side or another."
McKim said he was gathering facts that would determine whether the district was justified in removing Holden from the classroom.
In 2001, a teacher in Sacramento, Calif., faced suspension for using a lighter to singe a corner of an American flag in class.
The teacher later was fired, but district officials cited numerous acts of poor judgment and disregard for superiors.
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