BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — A former Sullivan County teacher’s attempt to get his job back has come up short.
The Sullivan County Board of Education upheld its decision to dismiss former Sullivan Central High School teacher Matthew Hawn.
Board member Matthew Spivey cast the only vote against upholding Hawn’s dismissal.
Hawn was fired over materials he presented during his contemporary issues class.
“In that reprimand, he has given two very clear directives. And I paraphrase, but they are essentially this. Watch what you use for your material moving forward. It needs to be age appropriate. That’s a directive from a supervisor in the central office,” said Chris McCarty, the attorney representing the school system. “Second, make sure you’re exposing your students to varying points of view moving forward.”
Hawn used an article by author Ta-Nehisi Coates, and a video of a spoken word article named “White Privilege” performed by its writer, Kyla Jenee Lacey.
During his allotted 15 minutes to present the school system’s case, McCarty argued that former superintendent Dr. David Cox did not object to the message in either piece presented in Hawn’s class, simply the profanity contained in it, along with the lack of an opposing view.
“What Dr. Cox did certainly object to was the language utilized in that video. Again, for a college classroom it’s different. These are high school students, with a teacher who’d just been warned about language. He did try to censor those materials. But he failed,” McCarty said.
Hawn’s attorney, Virginia McCoy, said that he took steps to censor his teaching material.
“He was aware that the Lacey piece contained profanity but mindful of the admonition that he had received previously, in Assistant Director Ingrid Deloach’s reprimand, he made a sincere attempt to mute the profanity when he played it for his fourth period class. The fact that he was not completely successful does not make him insubordinate,” she said.
Hawn told News Channel 11 after the decision that he was disappointed.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed you know, I really believe in my case,” he said. “I talk to my students about you know, if you believe in something, stand up for yourself and I believe in my case, and, you know, I was, I guess, putting my teaching into practice.”
He said that if he had to do it all over again, he would still show the Lacey poem which was the point of contention in the dismissal case.
“I would practice a little bit more on the muting, but other than that, no, I like I still stand by the way that I taught the class and it’s a teaching method that I’ve used for the last 10 years and it’s never been a problem until now,” Hawn said.
He said topics often difficult to discuss come up in his class – contemporary issues – and that material such as “White Privilege” is important to explore.
“I think Kayla’s voice still needs to be heard. I would have practiced more, and I would have done a better job on the editing. But you know, I tried. This is a contemporary issues class where something is brought in one day, and then you’ve got to be ready to pivot and talk about it the next day. It’s a very, very dynamic class to teach,” he said.
In October, an independent mediator sided with the school system and upheld the decision to terminate him.
Hawn appealed his termination, leading to Tuesday’s appeal hearing. He now has 30 days to dispute the decision in chancery court.
Supporters of Hawn were present at the meeting Tuesday night with signs and attire reflecting their beliefs on the situation.
“My plan is to just go back to teaching somewhere, hopefully here, you know, I plan to be here one day, teaching again in Sullivan County Schools,” Hawn said.
Those in attendance to support Hawn were both local and traveled from across the nation.
One local activist, Dani Cook, said she attended school in Bristol, Tennessee city schools, which is in Sullivan County, and said she believes the school board’s decision to dismiss Hawn has been a dismissal of the Black experience from the school system’s classrooms since she was a child.
“I have first-hand experience of being dismissed. And what is really sad is that 40-some years later, the minority children in this region are still being dismissed. The people leading this region don’t get it, and they they have no desire to get it apparently,” Cook said.
Those who traveled from afar said they support teachers they believe are being punished unjustly, including Kyla Jenee Lacey, who penned the poem Hawn was dismissed for using in his class.
Lacey was asked what she thought of the school board’s decision to fire a man for using her work.
“Shocking but not necessarily surprised. I think, you know, the board had an agenda and it was, you know, in their best benefit to uphold whatever completely archaic sentiments that they had. I think you know, progress is not necessarily easy, especially when you don’t benefit from it,” she said.
She added that she believes removing the Black experience from a rural classroom such as Hawn’s was removing truth from local students’ education.
“When do we start teaching about atrocities? Does it stop at teaching the Holocaust? Does it stop at teaching Japanese internment? Like what is the final stop where education is just going too far? Because at this point, we’re not teaching students anything if we’re not teaching them the truth,” she said.
Hawn said he would need to discuss with his attorney whether or not to keep pushing his appeal process.
Members of the school board were instructed by the board chairman not to make any comments on the case.