Patrick Pipino employs 50 teenagers as the owner of Ben & Jerry’s in Saratoga Springs, and he wants them to know the importance of critical thinking.
“There is no greater thing in the world than teaching teenagers to think for themselves,” he said.
Pipino said that’s just what the unnamed 10th-grade history teacher at Saratoga Springs High School was doing when she incorporated political cartoons comparing President Donald Trump to Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini during a lesson on World War II — a lesson that was criticized on Fox News last week by two local parents representing a group called Conservative Chicks.
The Saratoga parents, Julie Tellstone and Marnie Messitt, were on the conservative network’s “Fox and Friends” show March 23, with Tellstone calling the lesson an example of the “liberal indoctrination” of schools nationwide.
“From what I have read, this is a question not of disparagement of the president, but an attempt to foment debate and to give critical thinking skills,” Pipino told The Gazette at Thursday night’s Saratoga Springs Board of Education meeting. “And this teacher shouldn’t be disciplined — this teacher should be lauded.”
Pipino, who has two daughters in the district, planned to speak during the second public comment portion of the meeting; the first session lasted 30 minutes, with about 15 residents offering a mix of responses to not only the lesson plan, but how the parents went about getting their concerns addressed.
Multiple parents said that if they had issues with anything being taught in their child’s classroom, they would go first to the teacher. One parent said if that weren’t successful, she would go the principal, then the school superintendent and then the Board of Education, and would only go to the media as a last resort.
“This is really not about politics, it’s really about process, and if individuals have concerns about the content that’s being taught in our schools, there’s a process to address that,” said Mike Sefransky, who has had children in the district for 12 years. “In this case, clearly that process was not followed.”
Some speakers came to the defense of the parents who spoke on Fox News — the two women were not at Thursday night’s meeting — saying the school district was not responsive enough to their concerns.
“To my knowledge, an email was sent to the board, to the superintendent and to the principal,” said Michele King, who has three children in the district. “The reason why this went public — media, Fox News, newspapers — was the process was not followed through on the school’s end.”
The Saratoga School District Board members begin their meeting in the Teacher's Auditorium Thursday, March 30, 2017. (Peter R. Barber/Gazette)
In response to the parents appearing on national television, which led to several local newspaper articles and TV news reports on the topic, school Superintendent Michael Piccirillo said the cartoons were part of a debate on whether the media’s portrayal of the president was fair and/or accurate, and that students were free to debate examples of potential media bias both past and present. The district has not identified the teacher.
Kimberly Irish told the school board that her son was a member of the 10th grade-history class in which the lesson was taught and that she spoke to him about it.
“It taught them to think, to interpret and to use their brain completely before they just take things at face value,” she said, adding that her house is a “bipartisan house.”
Supporters of the Conservative Chicks group argued that the lesson about media bias was itself biased and also inappropriate for the classroom.
“There’s a difference between free speech and hate speech,” said Melvin Winney, a lifelong Spa City resident with grandchildren in the district. “Everything I heard that the teacher had said, to me, is a total disrespect to the highest office of this country. I support Donald Trump as our president — I think everybody in this room should.”
He said the steps taken before the issue ended up on Fox News were beside the point.
“I’m a taxpayer, my wife breaks her back, and I do too, to pay school taxes here, and I don’t think our taxpayer dollars should ever be spent that way,” he said.
One critic of the lesson, David Chew, said he was contacted by a national law firm “willing to deal with this issue if the administration and board doesn’t address this teacher and this absolutely abhorrent form of teaching.”
“This law firm will be taking on the case if the Board of Education or the administration of the school cannot address this teacher and discipline her accordingly,” he said, later clarifying to The Gazette that the firm was the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Michigan. According to its website, the legal center’s mission is to “restore and defend America's Judeo-Christian heritage and moral values.”
Hollyday Hammond, a 25-year Saratoga Springs resident who chairs the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Planning Committee, called the entire situation an opportunity.
“Things are really rough in our world, and we need to teach our children how to deal with conflict, how to debate with respect and integrity, not to assume any guilt until we have all the facts,” she said. “So I hope you, as the administrators, the teachers, community residents, I really beg you to see this as an opportunity to do right by our children and keep teaching them.”