Community Journalism

Every Kid Deserves a Place: The Gay Straight Alliance at Union County High School

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.

Chris Richeson and Connor Mize
Former Union County High School teacher and Gay Straight Alliance sponsor Chris Richeson celebrates graduation with former UCHS student Connor Mize. Richeson was non-renewed as a teacher for the next school year, and the GSA faces disbandment. (Photo courtesy of C. Richeson)

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.

33 thoughts on “Every Kid Deserves a Place: The Gay Straight Alliance at Union County High School”

    1. As an alumni, I am ashamed of the school. That is a true educator and he’s the type of teacher we need. As for the superintendent and former principal, sadly I’m not surprised. Hopefully someone more fitted for the job is taking over. I was fortunate to have support from friends and their family that were part of the facility. I give my support and will share this to give it a voice in FL and other parts of TN.

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    1. Bobby, there are lots of things you can do! First, contact your school board member and tell him (all dudes) how you feel. Or come to the school board meeting Thursday night and tell him in person.

      You can also call the school board and email the superintendent of schools. The number at the school board is 865-992-5466. Dr. Jimmy Carter (superintendent) is carterj@ucps.org.

      Finally, you can share this article and sign the students’ online petition, here http://www.thepetitionsite.com/405/638/119/bring-back-richeson/.

      Thank you so much for crying about these students!

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  1. I grew up in Union County and graduated from UCHS in 2001.This same story plays out year after year. An African American family moved there while I was a sophomore. The girls had nuses hung in their lockers. They moved two weeks later.

    My mom was a teacher there, going back to the final years of Horace Maynard High School, then over to the new building. She FINALLY retired, but not before being beaten down, humiliated and tortured by Harrell and all the others like her in the UC system. Meanwhile, I moved to Tampa to get as far away from Maynardville as possible – while staying east of the Mississippi, of course.

    Friends of mine have taught, and currently teach at some of the worst inner city schools in Atlanta and Pinellas County, FL. Teachers live for the kids, and most administrators live for torturing teachers. To teachers like Mr. Richeson, leave. Don’t look back. Be thankful they set you free. There are kids who need help everywhere. Let the Maynardvilles of the world implode. Some innocents will be lost, but that’s not your fault. You cannot change the Linda Harrells of the world, and Maynardville will produce another just like her after she’s gone.

    Take your talents and your love and your wisdom and go help people where you can. But you cannot in Maynardville.

    (Now that I’ve discovered this blog, I have a feeling I will stay up all night reading. Great stuff!)

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    1. I hate to say it but you are giving the best advise. One must consider the values of the community. This community has not evolved. I am sure there are many who feel like misfits because they can see what is wrong…. But this city is not ready yet. Sad, but true. Tsk tsk.
      I am unclear as to what the teacher was actually told re the non renewal of his contract. Do you know?

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  2. Margaret Rigsby, I disagree strongly that these kids should be left to fend for themselves, sacrificing them to the likes of Linda Harrell. Can you imagine if MLK Jr. had your attitude? These kids need us to fight for them! They don’t choose to be born into such a bigoted community, and we need to protect them!

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    1. Of course you’re right, Ginny. I don’t wish the worst of Union County on any good child. My point is, the place is just so horrible. I’ve seen handfuls of good teachers who want everything for their students, but rarely are able to make progress when faced with administration. I begin to feel as badly for them as I do for the kids they’re trying to help. The only answer is to wipe the slate clean, from the school board down to schools’ administration, and get some people in there who 1) aren’t from there and 2) only want the best for the students, not themselves and their families (meaning the family members they hire into the school system).

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      1. I’m a upcoming senior at UCHS. I never had this teacher and I don’t know him personally. And I’m very glad I never got the chance to know him. You may “know” Linda Harrell and you may “know” my high school, but you have no idea how great some of the students are at UCHS. How dare you speak illy of MY school. Maynardville is a beautiful place. Yes there are some religious people who take it to the extremes but that does not make everybody at Union County High School and everyone in Maynardville Tennessee horrible people. I don’t appreciate that way your speaking about my school or my county. You’ve chosen to leave so what happens here now is none of your business ma’am. Have a very blessed evening.

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  3. “It’s tough to bring equality to a school when the staff isn’t on board with that message,”

    This is my high school. And even though I graduated 15 years ago… I have no doubt it’s probably exactly the same as when I went. Like “Marg” I witnessed many backwards ways in that school system. I had a class that taught “ancient history” which was a class on the bible. But God forbid anyone ever want to teach anything outside of Christianity. I am a christian… but I in no way support the views of the majority of that place. I am still stunned by many comments I heard coming from kids about black people.. when many of them had never probably had any contact with anyone of a different race or color. They just continue to spew the same hate and racism that has been passed down from generations. Close minded, afraid of change, and their way is the only way. This is the type of school that would teach bull crap like abstinence and then can’t understand why they have a high teen pregnancy rate. I applaud this teacher for trying to do what so many outsiders have tried to do and were pushed out. It breaks my heart to know that a school would be more ok with students bullying others for being different … than to teach acceptance. Thank God I got out. Not trying to knock on those who still live there… I have friends who do and are great people. But you all know the type of people I’m talking about. And you absolutely cannot deny it.

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  4. I do not work at Uchs but I did at one point and while I agree no child should be bullied and that it does happen at Uchs just like any other school I strongly disagree that Chris richeson should be a teacher there or anywhere else. After working with him and around him I found that he is extremely disrespectful person and while he does have a lot of students that like him that does not make a him a good teacher and it especially does not make him a person that I would want to be teaching my daughters. Not due to his beliefs but in the way he conducts himself, bragging to his students about how he challenges the authority by disrespectfully telling speakers that come to the school to educate the teachers that their presentation is sloppy or outdated when they are not but bragging to his class that he said it just to see the reaction and that’s just the first thing that comes to mind. He is making it all sound much bigger just because he is angry about not being rehired he is a lawyer he knows how to manipulate things to sound good for his case. Bulling needs to stop and part of stopping that is to teach the students better and how Chris Richeson conducts himself in front of other adults is nothing but bulling in an adult fasion so what does that teach the students?

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    1. I’ve known this teacher for several years, and while he does in fact encourage others to question authority, I think UCHS has proven just how necessary that is. If this is how the authority figures at UCHS treat these matters, they should absolutely be questioned.

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  5. As an (anonymous) teacher in Union County, I can tell you that it is a backward and prejudiced place. I truly pity the kids who are different from the herd IN ANY WAY. I do not work at the high school, nor do I know Chris Richeson personally, but I can attest to the fact that the Union County administration and school board are hostile to teachers, much less any teacher who questions the status quo of fundamentalism and prejudice. And if your wondering why I choose to be anonymous, it is because an open and affirming person from the LGBT community would likely lose their job in Union County if it became pubic knowledge, regardless of how well they teach.

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  6. Hi! Student of UCHS here. I’d like to thank you for writing this incredible blog post. It brings the hatred/bigotry of UCHS to light in a way that everyone can understand. I was a witness to the discrimination and I couldn’t have said it better myself. Also, because of this blog entry, the petition is going above and beyond the amount of signatures we’d originally hoped for. Thank you again for being such a huge help!

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  7. As a UCHS graduate from 1996, and the mother of a student “who happened to take this teachers class” I will be the first to say that UCHS has its flaws, just as any other school does, but this teacher should stick to law as he is not fit to teach children. I can say that I witnessed the effect he had on these children “all of them” and it was very uncalled for. 1) he is very opinionated in his classes, often times teaching his own beliefs as FACT and baiting the children to the point that the student’s began to be angry with each other. 2) he was constantly bringing Christianity up in his classes explaining how Christian’s are bigoted, close minded, hypocritical, and WRONG! 3) he put ideas into the students heads and encouraged them to be dis respectful to anyone who felt differently. I “personally” never saw him that he didn’t come off as an angry, hateful person, always wearing his own feelings on his sleeves, and he also encouraged the student’s to be the same way. No school anywhere has room for this kind of teacher, the kids have a hard enough time at this age and certainly do not need ideas, and encouragement from someone trying to carry out their own agenda. P.S: I know of at least 2 student’s who left his class because of the divide he caused, and his constant harassment toward Christian’s….

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