Non-renewed teacher and former Union County High School Gay Straight Alliance teacher Chris Richeson and three GSA members spoke to the Union County, Tennessee, school board tonight. Those who witnessed the meeting were more shocked by what didn’t happen than what did happen. If you’d like to see my live Tweets from the meeting, go here.
Students and supporters, some of whom came from as far away as Middle Tennessee and the Tri-Cities, made a sizable dent in the available seating in the Union County High School auditorium. Richeson was on the agenda at the end of the workshop portion of the meeting. The students who had prepared a speech were not.
As the board recognized Richeson, vice chair Brad Griffey read from a prepared statement. While I don’t have the exact wording, here is a summary:
The school board maintains that sponsorship of the GSA was not the reason for Richeson’s non-renewal, and we’re not going to tell you a reason. We’ve been informed by legal counsel that the GSA has a right to exist at Union County High School, and the GSA will continue next year.
He did not, however, address the issue of who will be the GSA’s teacher sponsor. If a teacher comes forward to sponsor the club, will they be protected from retaliation? Will the students trust them? What if no teachers volunteer?
Richeson spoke, saying he was shocked by his non-renewal. He wondered if he was a bad teacher, if he didn’t follow rules, if he didn’t have community support. But no, his scores were exemplary, he worked hard at the school and followed rules for turning in lesson plans and doing hall duty. The petition with more than 700 signatures shows he has community support. The only other reason he could see is that he sponsored the GSA, he said.
He called on the school board to make good on their promise to keep the GSA intact in the coming school year, even though he had no illusions that Union County would rehire him. He thanked the board for allowing him to serve the community for three years and returned to his seat to applause.
The school board said nothing, and turned to discussion of service animals. Shortly thereafter, they convened the regular meeting and motored through the agenda at top speed.
As the meeting neared the end, parents of the three students who prepared a speech were wondering if their children would be allowed to do so. The board started to make a motion to adjourn, but Chantay Collins, director of the Maynardville Public Library stood up and asked the board if the students would not be allowed to speak.
The board allowed it, and a crowd of supporters stood with the three students: Molly Borboa, Emily Potts and Jada Vandergriff.
They asked that Richeson be given his job back, praised him as a teacher and mentor, and talked about the lives he changed. They said Richeson taught them to speak professionally.
Frankly, this was the most professional speech I have ever witnessed from UCHS students. And I’ve seen quite a few.
It wasn’t just the GSA, they said. It was also Richeson’s classes, like psychology, sociology and philosophy, that will be missing from next school year. It was the other student organizations he sponsored, like Mock Trial and Student Government. There was a student in the audience who decided on a career as a JAG attorney because of involvement in Mock Trial.
Some students, they said, only came to school because of Richeson’s classes.
The school board listened with no expression.
Then they adjourned the meeting before applause for the students died down.
Students and supporters held a rally in the auditorium lobby.
“It went exactly the way I expected it to go except that the students were even more awesome than I thought they would be,” said Richeson. “Now we need a teacher who will stand up and be the teacher sponsor and say yes, I will help these kids. I hope one of my former colleagues will do so.”