First Amendment applies here. Yet we also have the same right to offer opinions of those who disparage the men and women who put their lives on the line for the public. They would be the ones rushing to any school if a deranged shooter was present.
Kim Smith weighed in on a Dec. 9 post by the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office honoring Tacoma Officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez, who was fatally shot Nov. 30 while responding to a domestic dispute. A video on the post showed a long line of law enforcement vehicles ready for a procession before the memorial for Gutierrez, who was a Kitsap County resident.
“I hate this stupid display of the police,” Smith wrote. “If we’re going to do this for cops, we should do it for those they murder. It’s obscene.”
Smith’s comment unleashed a backlash of livid responses. Although Smith did not initially identify herself as a teacher, others did. “This was the wrong time and place … to post such disrespect for those who might save your life someday … as a teacher? Shame on you,” wrote one commenter.
“How do you sleep at night? This is a heartbreaking comment,” wrote another commenter. “How would you feel if someone said something like this after Sandy Hook?” Others piled on to shame Smith, some calling for her dismissal.
On Thursday, Superintendent Patty Page posted a statement distancing the district from Smith —without naming her — and from the rampant, two-way vitriol that persisted through the week. “On behalf of the North Kitsap School District, please be advised that the district strongly disagrees with and condemns the personal comments posted by a district teacher regarding the tragic death of Tacoma Police Officer Jake Gutierrez,” Page said. “The district has not authorized, approved or encouraged the teacher’s comments.”
Page said North Kitsap had received complaints and is reviewing them under the school board’s policy on “complaints concerning staff or programs.” The policy cites state law outlining a teacher’s right to due process and appeal before any “adverse change in contract status.” Page would not say what actions if any the district is considering. “At this point I am not commenting on action, as I am considering it a personal matter,” Page said. “I believe my post reflects my position.”
School districts don’t typically jump into the fray on social media, even when they are directly or indirectly the subject of discussion. Page said North Kitsap has had social media issues in the past, but every situation is different. She acknowledged this situation is a first. “We have not publicly weighed in as a district other than to correct misinformation in the past,” Page said.
Teachers union president Mike McCorkle said he met with Smith Friday morning to discuss the issue. McCorkle said there is nothing in the contract that speaks to statements or public positions teachers take outside the classroom. “We want to protect our teachers’ due process to have a private life and have private opinions,” he said.
McCorkle had no comment on the district’s statement but said he understood its position. “We want a balanced approach, and we can understand why the district has to do it’s due diligence in looking into the matter,” McCorkle said.
Some commenters expressed concern that Smith would present a one-sided viewpoint in the classroom. The contract does speak to “academic freedom” within which teachers are called on to present a “balanced point of view,” McCorkle said.
McCorkle said Smith teaches a class on “ancient civilizations” and he understood from her “this is not something she would talk about in her classroom.”
Sheriff Gary Simpson on Thursday stepped in on the Facebook post and ensuing comments. Simpson encourages dialog and constructive criticism, “but I’m not interested in the continuation of bantering and personal agendas associated with those who use this venue for such matters.”
“A personal perspective is one thing, while petty character and opinion exchanges are another… and they’re not appropriate for this page,” he said. “If readers want to talk about specific issues with a goal of improving public safety and the quality of life in Kitsap County, then let’s get together and do just that. However arguing on a social media site gets nowhere and is unproductive.”
Simpson told readers to take the debate elsewhere, and he said further postings on the thread would be removed. “People have said their piece… it’s time to move on,” he said.
Smith has been a teacher for 15 years, 10 at Kingston High, according to her webpage on the school’s site.