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In first interview, Cherokee teacher explains why she asked students to conceal 'Make America Great Again' shirts

When River Ridge High School math teacher Lyn Orletsky instructed two boys in her pre-calculus class to turn their "Make America Great Again" T-shirts inside out to conceal the slogan, her motivation was not political, she said.

After teaching five years in conservative Cherokee County where nearly three out of four voters endorsed Donald Trump in November, Orletsky had seen many pro Trump shirts in her classroom.

But this was Aug. 31, two weeks after white supremacists and Neo Nazis adopted “Make America Great Again” as their rallying cry in Charlottesville, Va. A counterdemonstrator was killed and others injured when one of the marchers drove his car intentionally into a crowd. Orletsky feared the slogan would intimidate the minority students who comprised a third of her math class that morning.

"I told the boys, in light of everything that has happened, I don't think this is an appropriate slogan to be wearing at school. Could they please go to the restroom and turn the shirt inside out?” said Orletsky in an interview Thursday morning in Marietta, her first since the story made national headlines last week.

The boys asked what was wrong with the slogan. The math teacher explained it had been commandeered by white supremacist movement, as the swastika had been by Nazis. Recast by hate groups, the campaign slogan could affect some of their classmates in a negative way, she said, explaining, “There is nothing wrong with a shirt of President Trump. The problem is with the slogan.”

A grainy student cellphone video given to a conservative website shows Orletsky asking the boys to go and turn the shirts inside out; the conversation is calm, but she is resolute and the boys leave the classroom. The exchange captured in that viral video has resulted in death threats, her removal from her classroom and students without a math teacher.

The incident did not immediately erupt into a media maelstrom. After the two boys left her classroom that day, they apparently went to principal B. Darrell Herring who then showed up at Orletsky’s room to collect their things.

The next day, Principal Herring met with Orletsky to review the district standards, which he contended she violated in asking the boys to change their shirts, including “creates a warm, attractive, inviting and supportive classroom environment.” Orletsky said she thought that was the standard she was following when she asked the boys to reverse their shirts so minority students in her classroom would not feel bullied.

The two boys returned that next day, and they took the quiz the class had been preparing for Thursday when the incident occurred. Orletsky went out-of-town for the Labor Day weekend holiday. On Sunday night, Herring called to ask if she was aware of a gathering social media storm generating hundreds of emails, most from outside Georgia, including this one from Oregon:

Lyn Orletsky, a math teacher at River Ridge High School in Woodstock, will DIE after what she has done. We and I think I can speak for most of America. We are so sick and tired of the facist public schools systems in America today. You and your liberal agenda’s have finally pushed us into a corner. Do you know what happens when a rabid dog feels trapped in a corner, he only has one option and that is to defend himself at all cost so it never happens again Do you read me loud and clear?????? We are coming for YOU!!!!!! We are coming for YOU!!!!!! We are coming for YOU!!!!!!

That is a promise.

On that Monday, which was Labor Day, the principal advised Orletsky to remain home on Tuesday as the hateful emails were continuing. She began to sense a shift in the district’s tone as social media rancor and volume accelerated.

On Wednesday, she learned she was put on administrative leave. Two days later, Herring sent this letter home to parents: “Ms. Orletsky is no longer your child’s math teacher, effective immediately.” As a result of the incident, Herring said River Ridge teachers were made aware of federal and state laws restricting political activism. He also told parents that substitutes would staff the math classes until a permanent replacement could be hired, which led parents to assume the teacher was fired.

She was not. Orletsky remains on administrate leave. So, her students, including her advanced math students in AP calculus, remain without their teacher, a teacher who holds the highly regarded National Board Certification. In Florida where she taught previously, Orletsky was a state finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching,  the Titusville (FL) High School Teacher of the Year and Brevard County Schools Exemplary Mathematics Teacher of the Year. At River Ridge, Orletsky teaches yoga to special needs teenagers and advises the school’s Interact Club, which performs community service.

Orletsky could not talk about her students without tears forming. “I have taught AP calculus for about 15 years, and this is probably the best BC calculus class I’ve ever had, judging from their first tests and how quickly they are able to learn the material and ask questions and form hypotheses.”

Here is a video of part of our interview edited by AJC multimedia journalist Erica Hernandez who joined me today in sitting down with Orletsky:

Woodstock parent Sharis Mayer is stunned Orletsky was yanked from the classroom, calling her “the most important teacher my daughter ever had.” Her daughter is now a biomedical engineering major at Georgia Tech, and Mayer credits Orletsky with igniting her daughter’s love of math.

Mayer also says a double standard exists at River Ridge, citing what she considers the school’s tolerance of religion being interwoven into sports programs and classrooms. No one ever raised the federal laws restricting promotion of religion in a public school even though it was common, she said.

The allegation of a double standard was also raised by recent River Ridge graduate Fariha Akter, 18, who says she cannot recall Orletsky ever bringing up politics or her political beliefs in any of her classes. However, Akter believes Orletsky was wrong to ask the two students to change their shirts.

But Akter says Muslim and black students have had negative comments directed at them by both teachers and other students at River Ridge with no similar sanctions by the administration. “It should not only be kids with Trump shirts who the school defends. Black and Muslim students in the school should also be defended.”

At this point, Orletsky’s future rests with the school district and superintendent. School chief Brian V. Hightower signed off on a countywide statement about her that does not bode well:

“…a River Ridge High School math teacher on Thursday erroneously told two students their shirts with campaign slogans were not permitted in class.  Her actions were wrong, as the "Make America Great Again" shirts worn by the students are not a violation of our School District dress code.  The teacher additionally -- and inappropriately -- shared her personal opinion about the campaign slogan during class.

The school's Principal immediately met with and apologized to these students and their families.  Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian V. Hightower is deeply sorry that this incident happened in one of our schools; it does not reflect his expectation that all students be treated equally and respectfully by our employees.

While we cannot discuss disciplinary action against a teacher, we can assure you that the students face no disciplinary action.  The Superintendent also is instructing all Principals to meet with their teachers and staff to review the dress code and remind them that their political opinions should not be shared with students.”

Orletsky is now avoiding social media and hoping to return to the classroom. I asked what she would like to say to her student and their parents:

“I want students and parents in my class to understand that this was not political at all; this was my wanting a safe environment for my students. I want everybody in that classroom to feel they are respected, and each should have their dignity. Kids have worn Trump T-shirts since before the election and after, and I never said anything to anybody before about it. I have no problems with them wearing shirts in support of President Trump."

I wanted to add this interview I did this morning as I think it sheds light on this: Also, I admire the handful of Cherokee parents willing to put their names behind their words. Several in support of the teacher declined to talk for fear of reprisals from the community, which is a shame.

While an Episcopal priest, longtime Cherokee parent Father Tripp Norris– his third and last child is now a senior at River Ridge -- majored in math and chemistry. He considers Orletsky one of the county’s most effective teachers and says her students earn the top grades on the AP calculus exam. (He tutors in math.)

He is dismayed by the tenor and tone around this incident, beginning with the edited cellphone video that went viral and escalating to a social media call by parents to “storm the school.”

What the clip fails to show, he said, is that some students in the math class were confronting the boys about their “Make America Great Again” shirts. (He saw the full video as it was shared with many students, including his senior at the school.)

Orletsky intervened to end the disruption and get kids back to math, he said.

“People are missing the fact the discussion starts as the kids are coming into the room. The video starts showing her saying “enough, settle down,” and then, when the kids keep going with this, she says ‘just step outside, go change’ and that is when the kids say, ‘Why do we have to change? You don’t have a right to make us do that.’ She tells them the slogan is associated with some other things now and lists some examples. She never calls them Nazis. This started as a Facebook post and has become sabre rattling and hate speech. It has turned into a vicious attack that is nowhere close to reality,” he said. “What I said to the parents is what responsibility do the kids take for creating a disturbance? Now, no one is coming to Ms. Orletsky’s defense from the school system because they are scared.”

Scared of what, I asked. “They are scared of retribution from the county. There is enormous pressure coming from people who are not even parents of this school. I am sure parents in this classroom are upset, but not all of them… It escalated beyond the school’s control and they are now bowing to political pressure. Their perception has been skewed.”



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.