Author’s note: I am a freelance writer who has covered community news in Union County, Tennessee, for about a decade. I wrote this for a local newspaper, but they declined to run it. I am posting it on my personal blog because I feel strongly that these students are in danger, perhaps physical danger, if the situation at their school is not addressed. Before reading, it is important for you to know that I reached out to both Union County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jimmy Carter and former Union County High School principal Linda Harrell for comment. Neither of them have responded to my questions. I will continue to ask them for comment and will post it here if they send it. Linda Harrell will not be the principal in the 2016-2017 school year, but she will have a teaching position.
At Union County High School in Maynardville, Tennessee, a simple haircut can get you called a dyke.
Of course, bullying is typical in any high school, but what former student and vice president of the UCHS Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) Connor Mize calls “standard bullying with a homophobic flair,” came to a head last spring. And while former social studies teacher and GSA club sponsor Chris Richeson isn’t getting confirmation from the school system, he strongly suspects his involvement with the club resulted in his contract non-renewal and dismissal from his post after school let out in May.
Richeson, an attorney turned educator, came to UCHS in 2013 with a master’s degree in education and certification to teach just about any social studies subject. He was excited to come to rural Union County because it reminded him of his high school in Lenoir City, Tennessee. In his time at UCHS he started a successful mock trial program, sponsored the student government association, and taught sociology, psychology and philosophy, among other subjects. He was Level 5 and had no record of disciplinary action, he said.
It was the philosophy class that gave Richeson his first sign of trouble. He developed the curriculum, got approval from then-principal Linda Harrell, the school system and the state. Within the first month, he was called into Harrell’s office.
“(Harrell) said I had embarrassed her at church, and she wanted to make sure I wasn’t teaching atheism in her school. There were several more times, always with a religious focus,” Richeson said.
Mize, who took the class his junior year, said the class did not teach atheism.
“It gave credence to every philosophical theory, some without a god but plenty that account for a creator. It did not feel prejudiced,” he said.
Richeson kept his classes discussion-based and welcomed all views, including those he didn’t agree with.
“People could say anything they wanted in my classroom. I wanted them to stand up for themselves, question everything and think for themselves,” Richeson said.
Near the end of the 2014-2015 school year, two students approached Richeson and asked if he would sponsor a student-led Gay Straight Alliance at the school. He said yes.
“They wanted a safe space, one where they could feel comfortable being themselves,” said Mize. “(The GSA) provided that space for kids who believed in gay rights and kids on that spectrum.”
Mize said female UCHS students who cut their hair short or had an offbeat style were called dykes and lesbians. Others were subjected to verbal slurs, or were even surrounded by students and mocked. Although Mize is heterosexual, other students called him gay in the hallways.
There were about 30 students at the first meeting. It was the only meeting they got before summer break. Richeson said that although Harrell had given the go-ahead for the club before summer break, when school started in the fall she called the club’s president to her office to suggest that the GSA become a general anti-bullying club.
Club members decided to keep the GSA as it was. But it wasn’t until March that tensions flared in the school. The GSA sponsored an after-school screening of “Philadelphia,” which focuses on a gay man facing discrimination and death after being diagnosed with AIDS.
“I thought it was good outreach, an educational moment, a time to talk about compassion,” Richeson said.
Since parent signatures are required for these events, Richeson created a flyer that “made it very clear it was a GSA thing. I wanted total honesty, total openness.”
The club posted the flyers around school, including in the commons area near the lunchroom. Mize was eating lunch when a table of male students started making derogatory comments about the signs.
“They were very vocal about it,” he said. “Soon, it spread to other tables, and tensions got pretty high. The whole lunchroom was screaming ‘Tear them down! Tear them down!’ Then, a girl got up, walked over to the posters and took them all down. There was applause. She was taken into the office, and since it’s glassed-in we can all see what’s happening. There was no discipline.
“Every time we tried to put the posters up they were torn down.”
Soon, students against the GSA started putting up what Mize called anti-gay posters to screen the GSA posters. Harassment in the hallways intensified, and one day the luchroom took up a chant of “Steers Not Queers,” directed at GSA members, said Mize.
“We worked really hard to keep it from being violent,” said Richeson. “I witnessed some of it. I would find the GSA students and some of the boys would be pretty riled up. I would tell them to do the (Martin Luther King Jr.) thing, only love can fix it, only peace. It was 100 percent anger, but I think there was fear, too. Anger at thinking that no one had their backs and no one was supporting them.
“But there was no attempt on the part of the school to stop violence or address diversity. (Harrell) called me to the office and told me that the GSA shouldn’t start violence.”
Richeson said faculty meetings were tense. Some teachers were sympathetic, “but I think they saw it as a career ender.” Others were hostile, he said, openly expressing “hatred” in meetings.
“It’s tough to bring equality to a school when the staff isn’t on board with that message,” Richeson said. “I would just say what I always said, ‘All kids deserve a place.’”
Mize said students opposed to the GSA asked to start a Bible club in protest of the GSA. Richeson said he offered to sponsor the club, but claims that Harrell would not allow the club to form.
“She said, ‘They have the FCA, why do they need a Bible Club?’” he said.
Meanwhile, according to Richeson, he was getting called into Harrell’s office frequently. He was accused of giving students rainbow stickers to distribute, of breaking dress code and more.
“At one time, the harassment was so bad that I sat down in that office and started crying,” he said.
Mize said students noticed that many of Richeson’s classes, including philosophy, were not offered during registration for the next school year. Soon after the end of the semester, Richeson received his non-renewal letter. He doesn’t know of another teacher who would be willing to sponsor the GSA, and he’s worried about the students, some of whom came out publicly as gay last year.
“The primary focus of this has always been safety,” he said. “The bullying and ostracizing that LGBT teens experience lead them to more depression and suicide than most. I think (these students) are going to finish their high school careers with people knowing and no one to shield and look out for them.”
“I feel that there might be some hostility and physical danger as well,” said Mize. “There were some kids that definitely had problems at home.”
And for the students who invested so much time and effort into the club, Mize called the loss “devastating.” But the group is continuing informally, in friendships.
“(The GSA) created bonds between people that didn’t have bonds,” he said.
Mize said he hopes the GSA has blazed the trail for future, like-minded groups at Union County High School. And he hopes that the climate at the school will change for the better.
“I don’t expect them to change their beliefs, just change their actions,” he said. “They’re there for the kids, right?”
Richeson and several students are on the agenda to speak at the Union County Board of Education meeting 7 p.m. Thursday, June 23, in the Union County High School auditorium. A student-led petition to reinstate Richeson as a teacher can be found here. So far, it has 124 signatures. The website for Union County Public Schools is www.ucps.org.