Eric Hamlin never dreamed that his first day at Carmody Middle School would be his last. But the principal’s ultimatum was spelled out in writing: Remove all foreign flags from the 7th grade geography classroom or face disciplinary action.
Believing flags help students become more informed world citizens, Hamlin ignored the order. The next day, before students arrived at the Denver-area school, the principal gave him five minutes to pack up and leave the building.
Administrators cited a Colorado law prohibiting foreign flags on public property, even though the law includes an exception for a “temporary display of any instructional or historical materials.” Hamlin says he resisted the order because the administration seemed more concerned about potential parent complaints than curriculum.
“I had a Mexican flag up,” says Hamlin, noting that hundreds of students at neighboring schools had held pro-immigrant marches last spring. “It wouldn’t have been an issue if it had been the flag of Denmark or Greece.”
The incident won Hamlin a reprimand and one day’s paid administrative leave. He sought a transfer to a different Denver-area middle school and within two weeks was displaying foreign flags in a new classroom—this time without controversy.
Hamlin isn’t the only one who got in trouble this year for his teaching methods. Kentucky social studies teacher Dan Holden was suspended for five days after he burned small U.S. flags as a springboard for an essay he assigned to his 7th grade students. (A district spokesperson says Holden was suspended because burning the flags created a safety hazard.)
Texas art teacher Sydney McGee was let go after a parent complained about a field trip to the Dallas Art Museum, where students glimpsed art depicting nudes. The district claims the dismissal was performance related.
Since these are local personnel matters, no national organization is keeping tally on the number of such incidents. But Deborah Fallin of the Colorado Education Association says two recent high-profile cases—Hamlin’s and that of Jay Bennish, a Denver-area teacher suspended last spring after comparing President Bush’s rhetoric to Hitler’s—have teachers concerned.
“Teachers have First Amendment rights, but they’re limited once they get into the classroom,” Fallin says. “The administrators were overzealous in the flag case. What kind of message does this send to people considering a career in teaching?”
Most, but not all, of these cases are settled privately. Courts tend to favor school districts over teachers, says Perry Zirkel, professor of education and law at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, because school boards generally have the right to control curriculum. That’s why some unions have negotiated academic freedom clauses, which require complaints to go to arbitration instead.
Experts say the onus is on teachers to know district policies, state and federal laws, and, especially, the tenor of the community. The best defense for a teacher is relating all expression to the curriculum. “The teacher is within his rights if he is not pushing personal or religious views on students,” Zirkel says.
After surviving his own run-in with administrators, Hamlin urges teachers to stand up for their educational standards. “I think teachers should take risks for the benefit of their students,” he says. “Have faith in your ability and your own best practices. The last thing we want is bland curriculum and students who aren’t challenged to think.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Classroom Crackdowns