School Board Approves Termination Charges Against TN Teacher Who Made Students Read Ta-Nehisi Coates But Refused To Present Opposing Viewpoint
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 27: Author Ta-Nehisi Coates attends a panel at The Apollo Theater on February 27, 2018 in New York City.
Shahar Azran/WireImage via Getty Images

A school board in Tennessee voted earlier this week to approve termination charges against a tenured teacher accused of insubordination and repeated unprofessional conduct after he gave multiple assignments focusing on white privilege but failed to present opposing points of view.

WJHL News reported, “The Sullivan County Board of Education Tuesday voted 6-1 that the charges of dismissal against teacher Matthew Hawn are true and warranted.” According to the outlet, some former students gathered at the meeting to voice their support for Hawn.

District officials pointed to two separate incidents that they said violated the Tennessee Teacher Code of Ethics, including denying students access to varying points of view and intentionally exposing them to embarrassment or disparagement.

Hawn, who taught “Contemporary Issues” and coached baseball at Sullivan Central High School, received a detailed letter of reprimand in February after assigning students to read an opinion article by Ta-Nehisi Coates titled, “The First White President.” According to the letter, a parent had complained, citing the article’s “somewhat angry, and hateful opinion towards President Trump” which they said contained “words” that should not be “introduced to our children by a high school teacher.”

The article claimed Donald Trump would not have been elected president if he was not Caucasian. It included words derived from “cuckold,” a term Coates said, “is specifically meant to debase by fear and fantasy – the target is so weak that he would submit to the humiliation of having his white wife lie with black men.” Coates also used the word “whore,” and wrote “n*****” eight times, including six times in a single paragraph.

Officials told Hawn the Code of Ethics required him to provide varying and credible points of view.

“Your job is not to teach one perspective,” wrote Ingrid Deloach, assistant director of Sullivan County Schools. “Your job is also not to ensure students simply adopt your own personal perspective.”

Hawn defended the assignment by falsely stating, “Those were the words of the President and I thought that kids were mature enough to handle it.” He also claimed, “There is no credible source for a differing point of view.” He appealed the issuance of his letter of reprimand, but the Board voted 6-0 to uphold it in early March.

Later that month, Hawn faced a second round of reprimands when students reported he showed a “White Privilege” poetry video to his class that contained more inappropriate terms and phrases, including “asses,” “s***,” and “f*** my brains out.”

The charges of dismissal compiled by the school board alleged: “Hawn clearly knew the video’s content was inappropriate, especially in light of the prior letter of reprimand, as more than one student confirmed that Hawn remarked to the class that playing the video could affect his job status (one student quoted Hawn as saying – ‘I’m about to get fired but I don’t really care.’)”

Hawn confirmed to the Board that no other perspectives were presented to students.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Sullivan County Director of Schools Dr. David Cox said he had been accused of racism for backing the charges against Hawn.

“There has been a lot of talk online that accuses me of moving to dismiss Mr. Hawn because he taught anti-racism lessons,” said Cox. “Let me be perfectly clear. Sullivan County Schools, and I in no way condone racism of any county. We have encouraged all of our teachers, including Mr. Hawn, to promote an environment welcoming to all students of all races of all backgrounds.”

“Appropriate discussions around concepts like white privilege remain perfectly appropriate for a high school class, like contemporary issues,” Cox continued. “These charges of dismissal are about Mr. Hawn refusing to provide his students with access to varying points of view, which is required under Tennessee law. And these charges are about Mr. Hawn, again, assigning inappropriate materials to his students.”

Hawn obtained tenure with the school system in 2008. He has 30 days to request a hearing before an impartial hearing officer and remains suspended without pay.

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