Video of classroom political discussion goes viral

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 22, 2012

By Sarah Campbell
SPENCER — The Rowan-Salisbury School System was propelled into the national spotlight over the weekend after a video featuring a heated political exchange between a North Rowan High School teacher and student went viral.
The student, Hunter Rogers, said Monday that he was surprised by how much attention the video has received. And at their regularly scheduled meeting Monday night, school board members said the system is taking action.
Views of the nearly 10-minute video skyrocketed from about 1,000 Friday to more than 740,000 by this morning.
A number of conservative news outlets on TV and online have picked up the story, which originally appeared in the Post on Saturday.
Neither of the key players from the video is currently at North Rowan.
Teacher Tanya Dixon-Neely was placed on paid suspension Monday as the district investigates the incident.
Senior Hunter Rogers has been pulled out of the school by his parents and plans to obtain his high school equivalency certificate from Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
The video captures Dixon-Neely telling Rogers that it’s criminal to slander a president.
It begins with a classroom conversation about a recent news story detailing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney bullying a classmate in prep school. It turns into a heated, sometimes confrontational debate. After Rogers asks “Didn’t (President Barack) Obama bully someone, though?” Dixon-Neely fires back “Not to my knowledge.”
Dixon-Neely tells Rogers he will not disrespect the president in her classroom and goes on to say that people were arrested for saying derogatory things about former President George W. Bush.
Rogers said he’s surprised about the amount of attention the video has gotten.
“I didn’t think that it was going to be like this, but honestly I’m excited,” he said. “I want people to see this, let this be an example.”
Berated and yelled at
Rogers told a Post reporter he asked his friend, Steven Sanchez, to use a cell phone to take the video that was uploaded last Monday.
“I videoed this because there are millions of kids going home every day telling their parents there is a teacher doing this, and a lot of parents think because teachers are role models they can’t be doing anything that bad,” Rogers said.
Rogers said incidents like the one depicted in the video occur in Dixon-Neely’s sociology and psychology class at least once a week.
“She always wants to start these discussions where she wants to hear only what she believes, and if anybody else in the class has different beliefs we get berated and yelled at and attacked,” he said.
Tim Rogers said his son came home on a regular basis after getting “beat up just because him and two other kids in the class had different political views.”
“I tell my boys all the time that you have to respect that everyone has their own view,” he said. “You can’t shove it down people’s throats and that’s when it became a problem.”
Hunter Rogers said at times he opted not to participate in political discussions, but Dixon-Neely threatened to give him a poor participation grade.
“I didn’t want to particate if my opinions weren’t being heard,” he said.
Hunter Rogers said he felt like Dixon-Neely was “lying to my face” when she said that people have been arrested for speaking ill of the president.
“Either she was lying to me or she didn’t know any better,” he said. “But I know way better, I know that nobody can take away your freedom of speech unless you threaten the president.”
Tim Rogers said perhaps Dixon-Neely hasn’t done enough “studying on politics.”
“Unless you’re making a threat, you can say what you want to say,” he said. “That’s politics 101.”
The decision to pull Hunter out of North was made jointly between his mother and father. He did not return to school after the video was posted on YouTube.
“Just because of the explosion of this video we thought it’d be better just to let him finish his education at RCCC,” Tim Rogers said.
A Post reporter went to Dixon-Neely’s home for comment Monday morning, but no one answered the door. Calls to her number have gone unanswered and there is no answering machine.  

Elephant in the room
The leader of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education kicked off Monday’s monthly meeting by responding to the incident.
“I can not begin this meeting without acknowledging the elephant in the room … A teacher at North Rowan High School and the Youtube video that went viral,” Chairman Dr. Jim Emerson said. “Let me assure you that action has been taken at the school level and at the administrative level and the investigation continues.”
School board member Mike Caskey, a Republican candidate for county commissioner, apologized for the negative attention the incident has brought Rowan County.
“I viewed the video in question several times and was appalled and embarrassed by what I observed,” he said. “I think it is evident that several of the Rowan-Salisbury school policies may have been violated including, but not limited to, intimidation, bullying, freedom of idea exchange, freedom of speech and profane language use.”
Caskey said the incident “borders on political indoctrination.”
“From my observation, I believe that the teacher in question has a personal affection for the president and could not separate her personal feelings from her professional teaching duties,” he said. “I’m also troubled by the statement the teacher made that one can be arrested for criticizing the president; to my knowledge this has never happened and is the very opposite of what our freedom of speech affords us as citizens.”
Speaking in general terms, the district’s attorney, Ken Soo, warned school board members against speaking out about incidents regarding employee conduct.
“If an employee has concerns about what administration has recommended or what administration has done, they may have an opportunity to appeal to you,” he said. “That’s the reason that it’s important for members not to take or to express a particular position about an employment matter before it comes to you in the hearing process or before it’s otherwise resolved.”
Soo said it’s an issue of due process and fairness.
“Anybody who comes to the board of education is entitled to meet with a fair panel, and if board members have said we have this view or that view out in public beforehand, that could result in litigation.”
The timeframe of an investigation into misconduct depends on the complexity of the matter, Soo said, again noting that he was speaking in general terms.
Administration mum
Caskey said he’ll wait to voice his opinion about what he believes should happen to the teacher until after the investigation is complete. He also called for the findings to be made public to the extent allowed by law.
“Although I believe the evidence that has been brought forth so far is overwhelmingly against the action of the teacher, I have learned during my time in law enforcement that there are always two sides to every story and we should never base our decision on one piece of evidence,” he said. “I believe we should do our due diligence, especially when someone’s job is hanging in the balance.”
Emerson assured community members that the situation will be handed appropriately.
“We will not turn a blind eye to questionable events or fail to deal with them,” Emerson said. “We ask that you do not let one incident overshadow the hundreds of good things occurring in our system every day by hundreds of dedicated staff members and students.”
Emerson pointed out that a number of students and staff were on hand during Monday’s meeting to be recognized for outstanding achievements.
“What does it say about our society when a less than 10-minute YouTube video gets more attention than our athletes and professionals who have spent not minutes, but months and years to reach their goals and help make this a better school system?” he said. “I wish I had a Youtube of the North track team winning their recent state track meet or Salisbury High’s golf team or the national recognition for our achievements in technology.”
School administration has remained mum about the situation, except for a statement released Friday.
However, Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom has responded to some emails sent to her in response to the video. Several readers forwarded those emails to a Post reporter.
“We have an excellent school system, excellent schools, and teachers,” Grissom wrote. “We do not support or condone this type of behavior and actions have taken place.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.