The actions of one fifth-grade teacher in North Carolina, Diatha Harris, have elicited anger throughout the nation for comments regarding a student’s support of John McCain. In response to damaging video footage of the teacher’s classroom comments, the local superintendent announced a full investigation into the teacher’s actions last Friday.
As of this writing, one YouTube video of the Mary McArthur Elementary teacher had garnered nearly a half million views. (The Swedish documentary aired in Scandinavia on election night).
In the clip, Diatha Harris is seen in her classroom discussing the election and asking which presidential candidate her students were “pulling for.”
“Any of you pulling for John McCain, that’s fine, say him as well.”
Child: “John McCain.”
Harris: “John—Oh Lord, John McCain.”
Child: “John McCain.”
Harris: “Oh Jesus, John McCain, okay.”
Harris later told reporters that the documentary did not show her “sticking her tongue out and throwing up her hands when one student said he supports Obama,” as reported by the Citizen-Times.
Most of the controversy surrounding Harris’ teaching revolves around her calling the Iraq War a “senseless war” in class. She also told one of her pro-McCain students, Cathy Thompson, that McCain would have her father stay in the military for a hundred years.
“It’s a senseless war. And by the way, Cathy, the person that you’re picking for president said that our troops could stay in Iraq for another hundred years if they need to. So that means your daddy could stay in the military for another hundred years,” she said.
Cathy looks nervous and doesn’t respond.
Ms. Harris maintains that her comments were taken out of context, and that the Swedish film crew had heavily edited her lecture. “I see someone making a mockery out of a video that is meant to be good. That’s what I see,” she said during a WRAL News interview, available online.
Cathy Thompson’s mother, Angela Moore, maintains that neither she nor her daughter were upset by Ms. Harris’ comments, according to WRAL News. The family sat in on an interview between Harris and WRAL news in order to show their solidarity with the teacher.
However, it seems curious that during the interview with her parents and Ms. Harris, Cathy herself stays strangely quiet.
While Ms. Harris apologized for the Iraq comment, Cathy’s mother excused the statement, saying “But at the same time that comment is very true, regardless of whether you said it or someone else said it, he could be in the military for the next hundred years and he could be over there in Iraq for the next hundred years. Nobody knows that.”
Actually, he would likely retire from active duty the time he was 62 years old.
And even if a draft were reinstituted, it seems ludicrous to assume that the army would force a man to stay and fight in Iraq into his old age, a “hundred” years plus.
In a short clip aired separately by WRAL news, Cathy says of her experience, “I was gonna start to cry because I was nervous ‘cause I was worried about my dad when he was in Iraq.”
Political hyperbole or not, Ms. Harris’ words caused Cathy emotional suffering.
“I can support whomever I want to support as long as I don’t browbeat another person for the candidate that they supported,” Harris argued in the documentary, the footage of which was taken last spring. She continues in the video, “Like I have some students that support John McCain and when they told me that I said ‘oh, that’s good’ and I went and I just moved on.”
As the footage clearly shows, she didn’t simply “move on.”
News accounts of the incident sharply diverge from the tone adopted by Cumberland County Schools Superintendent William C. Harrison in his November 7 response to the controversy. In a statement and video, Harrison announced his intention to “investigate” the shocking scenes in the video.
“I was absolutely shocked when I recently saw the video of the interaction between one of our Cumberland County school teachers and her students,” he said. “While a neutral discussion of the political process is certainly appropriate in the classroom, at no time, particularly with young elementary students, should a teacher infuse his or her own political thoughts into that discussion.”
“The actions of this one teacher are not consistent with the core values, with the beliefs, with the mission, or the goals of Cumberland County schools…We are proud to serve 15,000 military children. They offer much to our school system and we work very hard to provide them the support to which they are entitled.”
Mary McArthur Elementary is located near Fort Bragg.
“Once this video was brought to my attention, I launched an immediate investigation,” Mr. Harrison said.
But over the weekend, the superintendent’s YouTube video was taken down. The statement remains up on the Cumberland County Schools website.
Ms. Harris has apologized to the family for her comments and begs callers to stop contacting the school district. “At this point my fears are—well, number one, they are bombarding the schools with calls and a lot of them are hate calls and that’s not right,” she tearfully stated.
“I mean if they are aiming for me, then aim for me but don’t try to bring down the entire establishment because of what I did, but also because of what someone else did by editing the video.”
The teacher nonetheless maintains that she has “done nothing to be fired for.” She told WRAL news that failing to stand up for her views would be hypocrisy, given what she teaches her students. “I have always told these students, if you believe in something, you stand up for what you believe in…and if that applies to me, then I believe in what I believe in as well and I can’t tell these kids to do one thing and I do another. Wouldn’t that be hypocritical?”
She says that “I don’t think my personal preference any more than anyone else’s preference filtered over into that discussion because we all have our opinions.”
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.