Two Hampton Middle School teachers faced discipline after their political bias entered their classrooms, Henry County Schools spokesman J.D. Hardin said.
Hampton sixth-grader Josie Orihuela, 12, recorded her social studies teacher and school English language arts chair Johnetta Benton on Feb. 1 talking about President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan before screening a film for Black History Month about the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing.
Social media response to the audio, posted by Josie’s mother Kimberly Orihuela most recently to YouTube on Feb. 27, intensified after a national television program covered the controversy.
In the 15-minute audio, Benton can be heard to speculate about the meaning of the slogan.
“Maybe he’s talking about it was great during segregation in the ‘60s. Is that what he’s talking about?,” she said. “He must be talking about when it was great for Europeans, because when it comes to minorities, America has never been great for minorities.”
According to Orihuela, there are another seven minutes that may be uploaded soon.
“There is so much that has yet to be brought to light,” Orihuela said. “The audio gets more appalling after the indoctrination.”
Benton said Trump “is trying to stop immigration,” referred to the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of freedom for all and decried European immigrants’ treatment of Native Americans.
“They put them on reservations,” she said. “I’m not saying that’s what (Trump) wants. Don’t get me wrong.”
Benton also recounted the time before women were allowed to vote.
“We’ve had great moments where lots of things have been changed,” she said. “We’ve made a lot of progress. I would say instead of saying going back, or ‘let’s make it great again,’ I would say, ‘let’s make it even better.’”
Benton said America is the greatest it has ever been, the country overcame wrongs and is now a melting pot of immigrants, except for African-Americans.
“We were in chains and told we’re property,” Benton said.
But in responding to a comment from Josie about a time before the Obama administration when illegal immigrants murdered American citizens, Benton said exclusive of Native Americans, all were immigrants who bore the guilt.
“When you say that immigrants are killing people, that’s us. That’s you,” Benton said.
According to Josie’s father, Wayne Huff, that is when Benton began pointing to students, including his daughter.
Huff objected to Benton’s “racial profiling” of the entire class in making a visual assessment that no students were Native Americans.
He said Benton’s reference to white students as Europeans did not factor in the Orihuelas’ Latino heritage, including Josie’s namesake grandfather who fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba, nor that of his own 100 percent Cherokee Indian great-grandmother.
“She was solely judging my daughter on the fact that she’s a blonde-haired white kid,” he said. “Nothing else but that is how she was making these judgements when she’s looking around this classroom at those kids. That bothered me more than anything.”
Huff also said his daughter was raised without prejudice, as he was.
“We’re very tolerant of everybody,” he said. “She thinks everybody is equal and that’s the way it should be.”
Huff, nearly 50, said the recent incident is contrary to how he grew up in the Henry County School System.
“Growing up here, it’s particularly strange to me,” he said. “I don’t remember color ever being an issue.”
Teachers should not be teaching their opinions to students, Huff said.
“That’s not their job,” he said.
Huff said loyalty to the country includes other ways to protest.
Orihuela said their daughter texted her in fear afterward, asking to be picked up from school right away.
The mother also said her daughter had been experiencing bullying, which Principal Purvis R. Jackson addressed, but the teacher incident was the last straw.
Orihuela and Josie moved out of the district in late March. Josie attends another public school, at which Huff said Josie is happy.
The mother said she gave time to the principal, the school system and the Hampton City Council to work out the issue before announcing she would post the audio on social media and let it go viral.
Orihuela said she did not consider the matter resolved by a substitute lesson, given while Josie was absent, nor a private session in which Josie received two pages of information on legal and illegal immigration and a copy of a Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again.”
The poem contains the verse, “It never was America to me,” that Benton said inspired her remarks and was to have recited Feb. 1.
Orihuela said she did not expect the subject to become national and international news, but is proud of Josie for handling the situation and the attention and hoped it would lead to better education.
Benton’s school profile page states she earned a master's degree in reading and literacy along with gifted certification.
“I am proud to share that I have been an educator for 18 years. I have taught elementary and middle grades in DeKalb and Henry County Schools,” Benton said in a statement. “I believe that all students can achieve academic success and have gifts and talents that contribute to the learning experience. It is my goal to instill a love of learning for our students at Hampton Middle School through hands-on and engaging activities that promote creativity, critical thinking and problem solving. I look forward to a productive school year as I get know, learn from and educate the future leaders and innovators of tomorrow.”
The district spokesman said there is zero tolerance for Benton’s speech or an assignment by seventh-grade Hampton social studies teacher Corey Sanders, which Hardin confirmed was letter writing in support of stricter gun control legislation.
“It cannot be stated any more strongly or clearly that we do not condone the actions taken by our teachers in these unrelated incidents and will not tolerate the infusion of political bias into classroom lessons,” Hardin said. “Our teachers have a responsibility to plan instruction aligned to the state standards. Regrettably, these two isolated incidents did not hold to that. We responded swiftly to the matters at hand and the appropriate action was taken with regards to this personnel matter.”
The Neighbor awaits further clarification on the response and action cited.
The school system is on spring break through April 6.
Both teachers are listed as faculty on the school website.