COLUMB IA, SC — Educators and military veterans are divided on whether Chapin High teacher Scott Compton should be fired for stomping on the American flag as part of a classroom lesson.
While agreeing his action was a mistake, opinion is split on whether it merits dismissal, leaders of those groups say.
“Everybody in my circle is upset he did this,” said Randy Stevens of Laurens, leader of the state chapter of Patriot Guard Riders, a group with many veterans that provides motorcycle escorts at military funerals. “We have some who say it was boneheaded, but to let it go.”
Some educators say the dispute pits academic freedom against community values.
“He used it as a teaching tool,” said Kathy Maness, executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. “Did he use good judgment? Probably not. But some of my members worry that firing him is extreme.”
Those comments mirror a debate taking place in letters sent to newspapers, on Internet sites and on broadcast talk shows.
The divergence comes as the seven members of the Lexington-Richland 5 School Board wait to see whether Compton appeals his firing, which was recommended by superintendent Stephen Hefner.
Compton by law has until Jan. 30 to ask the board to overturn the dismissal after school officials sent him an updated letter Tuesday outlining their reasons for dismissal.
It’s possible the board won’t take up an appeal until mid-February. Meanwhile, Compton was placed on leave with pay.
Compton, who has taught at the school for seven years, hasn’t responded to requests for an interview.
But a statement issued Jan. 10 by his attorney, Darryl Smalls, said the honors English teacher didn’t intend to be disrespectful and made “only positive comments” about America as he sought to show students that the nation is much more than its symbols.
School officials say Compton’s actions during three classes in mid-December were unprofessional and contrary to conduct expected of teachers.
Schools can set limits on what teachers do in classrooms, “but I’ve never seen a district having this sort of specificity” regarding treatment of the flag, said Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina who specializes in education law.
That could open the way for Compton to fight the dismissal or seek monetary damages if he is dismissed, supporters say.
Lexington-Richland 5 doesn’t have standards on teacher treatment of the flag, spokesman Mark Bounds said.
But being a teacher “means there are a lot of things you can’t say and do,” he said. “We feel the flag falls in that category.”
The leader of another teachers’ group said Compton may have gone too far for school officials to tolerate amid community anger.
“It is very important for a teacher to be creative and have academic freedom to help students grow,” said Roger Smith, executive director of the South Carolina Education Association. “But it’s never proper, in my opinion, to deface the flag.”
State education officials aren’t aware of any teacher fired for flag desecration during the past three years.
Compton is the second Lexington-Richland 5 instructor whose actions generated a public uproar since fall.
Laurie Humphrey, a social studies teacher at Dutch Fork High, was kept out of her classroom for a week after putting up a sign shortly before the Nov. 6 election, saying “the road to hell is paved with Democrats.”
She received unspecified discipline but didn’t lose her job, despite violating a ban expressing political opinions in classrooms.
The Dutch Fork area is a Republican stronghold.
But politics didn’t play a role in either episode, Bounds said.
“These are two entirely different cases,” he said. “We looked at many different nuances.” He declined further comment, saying most aspects of personnel matters can’t be made public.
Compton can request that any hearing related to an appeal to the board occur in public, Bounds said.
Meanwhile, the back-and-forth over his action continues away from school.
“I like it when a teacher thinks outside the box,” said Stevens of the Patriot Guard Riders. “He just got carried away.”
Maness is concerned the furor detracts from efforts to develop support for assorted improvements in education and teacher performance.
“It is really putting us in a bad light,” she said.