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

Cherokee math teacher Lyn Orletsky: While my actions have been portrayed as political, I was trying to create a supportive classroom for all my students.

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.”

 

 

Reader Comments 0

562 comments
Jan Burnett
Jan Burnett

When I taught in both Clayton and Henry counties, it was Board policy that students were not allowed to wear shirts with political slogans, and students who did were sent to the office where the shirts were changed or turned inside out. Why has that policy changed?

Vicki Davis
Vicki Davis

Such a shame that a simple non-political request (intended to protect ALL of her students in that class!) was turned into something else by folks not even present and then taken to such levels by extremist idiots, many of which are not even connected to the school. Where was the backbone of the school officials???? Cherokee County doesn't deserve this teacher! She deserves a system invested in ALL of its students!

Wendy McCarthy Spevak
Wendy McCarthy Spevak

How disgusting the Board of Education in Cherokee is. They really lowered themselves to allow the false premise of first amendments rights to politics at school! I hope kids wear Obama shirts and Make America Smart Again shirts now at school, since political shirts are now okay at schools there!!! Bravo for this teacher to leave an ignorant school district with hateful people in it that threatened her!!! I really would like to see her get justice on the people who threatened her and the Cherokee Board of Education.

Paul Arie Jansen Broeder
Paul Arie Jansen Broeder

destroying your career because you are butthurt over who won the election...lol...crazy......im sure a shirt with I'm with her would have been perfectly fine....

Wendy McCarthy Spevak
Wendy McCarthy Spevak

Right, I bet an Obama shirt or an I'm with her shirt would have went over well with those Trump loving kids. Then they would protest that kids are wearing political shirts at school! Ridiculous that the Board of Education in Cherokee allows political shirts at school! The teacher was right on all accounts idiot!

David Edwin Torrey
David Edwin Torrey

Teacher was wrong!!!!!!! Obama was a god to most teachers and Trump is and was the devil to them. I am so happy she is gone. If she is upset about a Make America Great Again shirt then she has no business teaching American kids. I bet she hates the pledge of allegiance and kneels for the anthem.

Lola Pamela Johnson
Lola Pamela Johnson

This makes me sad. I didn't hear the threats, but people have no filter now. I personally wish she had stayed the storm. She can come to Columbus...we'd love her here! Sincere math genius with a mind of her own...who wouldn't?

Sue Levine
Sue Levine

I wish her the best. It's a major loss for the students. I would not be surprised if she left teaching at this point. So sad :(

Susan Culbreth
Susan Culbreth

As a retired educator I think she overstepped her boundaries. Although I don't think there was any ill will (her citing Charlottesville violence). Another fine teacher gone from the classroom.

Claudia De Clerfayt Corriere
Claudia De Clerfayt Corriere

I do think she overstepped as well, but this should have been a weekend sensitivity training class and then back in the classroom. The fact that she was on administrative leave for so long sent a loud and clear message that the district was not going to support her. The inmates are running the asylum at so many levels here.

Wendy McCarthy Spevak
Wendy McCarthy Spevak

I wonder if you would feel the same way if kids wore Obama shirts to school. How ridiculous to say she overstepped on shirts with political slogans. Since when have political shirts been allowed under dress code at schools? All of the schools I have went to in the past, including my child presently, have always not allowed political shirts. Has nothing to do with first amendment rights that these kids exploited to get rid of a teacher being polite to her other students and not agreeing with them politically!!! Shame on the Board of Education in Cherokee! You people are all morons!

Mark Davis031
Mark Davis031

The problem isn't that she asked the kids to flip the shirts, it's that she failed to understand that it was HER linking of the slogan to Cville that caused her reaction, NOT the kids. By her logic, if some KKK members burned a cross while chanting "stronger together", nobody should be able to wear a shirt with Hillary Clinton's slogan on it. 
Because of that initial mistake, she turned an exceptional teaching moment into a typical "we have to make sure everyone's feefees aren't hurt" moment we see often these days. The proper way to handle this situation, a way that is backed up by decades of SCOTUS precedent, is to teach the children who are having trouble wrapping their heads around a different opinion that they need to learn to handle viewpoints they may disagree with. She could have taught them that their feelings don't give them a free pass to make others agree with them....
......because we ALL know that is EXACTLY what she is saying about the people protesting the NFL.

Father Tripp Norris
Father Tripp Norris

@Martha Hansford Hannah You're so spot on in your comments!  Ms. Orletsky's removal from the classroom is a HUGE loss to River Ridge.  People were so hell-bent on escalating this, like Lindsey Williams Andrews and others, that they would rather have a gifted teacher fired (or worse, as we have seen in people's outrageous social media posts) and leave he advanced math classes without a qualified replacement rather than allow the school principal to handle this fairly and internally.  Finding a replacement mid-school year will be very difficult.  Finding a replacement who inspires children as much as Ms. Orletsky does or who is as talented as she is in the classroom will be virtually impossible.  It is the students who lose here; Ms. Hannah you named that loss well.  Thank you for bringing that up here.

Martha Hansford Hannah
Martha Hansford Hannah

How sad this whole thing is.  I know, Lyn, personally from Florida.  She was an excellent teacher with a great reputation.  If she acted inappropriately, she should have been dealt with by her Principal. Now, instead, this has become a grand opportunity for you people to attack "liberals" just one more time.  Everyone be sure to get your licks in.   Your loss - a good teacher fired because she didn't want dissension in her classroom.  Blow it up into whatever you want to - yep - your loss.

Jane Kee
Jane Kee

She made a very big mistake but she should not lose her job. She appears to have no remorse for what she did so she should be suspended for some time at least.

Melody Dareing
Melody Dareing

Her explanation isn't a good one. The slogan hasn't been "commandeered." She was wrong. Still, no one should threaten her.

ptcrunner
ptcrunner

The Conservative Media Mob needs another moment of outrage to increase its ratings on talk hate radio and FOX News. Judging from the majority of the posts on this page from conservative lemmings who have nothing original and intelligent to write or say, the fact is this story is too blown up out of proportion. These people take their directives from Sean, Herman, Laura, Neal and Rush. Just scroll up or down and you will see serious conservative clueless sheeple. 

Opa D Nil
Opa D Nil

Teacher was wrong.  Shouldn't be fired. Ridiculous that anything considered wrong with words, "Make America Great."  If some a-holes have "appropriated" the term for evile, it needs to be re-appropriated back for good. If she wants all the kids in her class to "feel safe," the she obviously failed for the two she sent out.  "Make America Great" is not akin to a swastika.  Trump is not "Hitler."  People who couldn't vote for Hillary are not "Nazis."  We all need to get back to reason and civility.  Let the math teacher admit her violation of school policy to her class and get back to teaching them math. 

Lee Satterfield
Lee Satterfield

This all could have been very easily avoided if the teacher would have took the students aside privately and quietly just outside the classroom. This way she would have not been filmed. She could have discreetly told the students what the issue was and sent them on to the Principle. However, the teacher cannot act as if she's concerned about all the student's sensitivity and then go on to publicly admonish and shame the student's who's clothing she disagrees with in front of the entire class. This is where she went wrong.


If this wasn't political to the teacher she wouldn't have made such an attention-grabbing public fuss over it in front of all the other students and would have behaved more professional about it. The Principle wouldn't have put her on leave if she would have handled it in a less flashy way.


In 2017 our PC culture is a little out of hand, everyone is offended by everyone and everything, but it goes both ways 'cause you can't treat students like this harshly anymore either. The students / their parents will sue and win. 


Don't forget that no one really learned anything here either 'cause this happened in the public high school bubble. It's not real. In reality, in real life if someone is offended by your t-shirt, you don't have to turn it inside out. If you're offended by a t-shirt, you're going to have a bad time. Life gets a lot harder than this. 


Such a non-issue.


Talk about choosing the wrong battle, but I'm sure the teacher realizes that now.

Rcd55
Rcd55

Clearly libstains can't.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

Not sure we can count on the DOJ to pursue the death threats, given what we have seen lately.


I think the teacher had a valid concern.  The idea is to keep the school unthreatening for ALL students.  Her Latino and African American students might well feel chilled, given the recent events.  In protecting students, SHE gets into trouble.  What is WRONG with this country?


And, to top it all off, students are without their very qualified teacher.  You need a special sub to be able to take over, especially for AP.  Does Cherokee have access to someone with a master's degree in math?

AzaleaAnnie
AzaleaAnnie

@Wascatlady Yes - there are a number of Cherokee residents with post-grad math degrees.  Perhaps a few of them might agree to teach the classes.  

Rcd55
Rcd55

I hope they keep you up at night.

UrbanCasey
UrbanCasey

Make America Great Again is coded language. Who Is Mr. Trump (and those who have adopted this slogan) exactly making America great for? Are  immigrants, the LGBTQ community, African-Americans, women rights advocates, Native Americans, and so forth "equally" included? I see people get riled up about the Black Lives Matter slogan.  I see no difference. Both slogans are divisive and racist!

bu22
bu22

@UrbanCasey  Average life expectancy in the US dropped last year.  First time ever other than war or the flue pandemic.  Making America Great Again is good for everyone.  There can be no bigger condemnation of the last 8 years than the fact that people are dying younger.  And Hillary and this teacher still don't get it.

UrbanCasey
UrbanCasey

@bu22 @UrbanCasey Has anything improved in America in the past seven months? If you believe in "fake news," it has. The reality is that Trump and gang are using their base to promote an agenda that includes massive tax cuts for the 1% (to be paid for by cuts to education, health, welfare, and Medicaid), more war, and deregulation of guidelines that protect the food you eat, the air you breathe, and the water you drink.  Obama is no longer the president. This is all on Trump's watch now.

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

Everybody. All Citizens and what we can reasonably accommodate and do for those who want to become citizens.

Not hard to understand what this means. The "again" reference refers to our economy, health care, military, infrastructure, etc. If you profess not to understand this you have not been paying attention to the programs Trump is trying to advance.

Racists and racism by DEFINITION cannot and will not Make America Great Again.

Starik
Starik

@UrbanCasey @bu22  When, exactly was America "great?" The 1950's weren't great. The war years 1941-45? 

Starik
Starik

@DawgDadII  We've never had great health care because it's limited to those who can pay for it. We won't want to pay, or can't pay for a larger military without a draft. Everybody likes infrastructure, but again, how to pay for it? 

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

Oh, boy. First, we HAVE good health care, but as you reference the issues are mainly and generally not care but access and who pays for what, with some issues related to the extent of obligation to provide care at the catastrophic extremes and in other contested moral and ethical situations.

I'm not an advocate of an all-voluntary military in time of war. I'm not a believer in undeclared wars, either. If we don't maintain a strong military a lot of very bad actors will make this world even more unpleasant than it is for many. In life, if you don't defend your property and your life and your values don't be surprised when someone takes them from you.

Politicians of both parties are falling all over each other in a race to be out front of pushing billions to hurricane relief. If they want to do it they will find the money. Money in its current form is a concept, which leads many to believe deficits don't really matter, and there are people in both parties who see them as no hindrance to political action. Take the California universal health care debate, far leftists who don't care about t he costs being momentarily constrained by mainstream leftists who suspect at that level deficits might matter.

Starik
Starik

@DawgDadII  We're at the top in spending on health care, but not so good (12th or so) in measuring life expectancy, infant mortality and other inconvenient hard numbers. Single payer will be coming. 

JK1951
JK1951

@UrbanCasey yep, they're all equally included as Americans and I've never seen anyone deny that but socialist tools in resist mode...how about "give peace a chance"

Father Tripp Norris
Father Tripp Norris

@bu22 @UrbanCasey What??  That is the most ridiculous stretch I have ever heard.  If you can connect the dots between those and show causality, I would be shocked.  Oh and "flue" is  a "duct for smoke and waste gases produced by a fire."  I am unaware of any pandemic involving them.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Whatever happened to "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."?

That's what the ADULTS told my generation when someone said something that we didn't like.

We've gone from that to the "Nation of the Offended."

Sad

We've got a lot of work ahead of us in order to ... shall I say it....

MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

MAKE

AMERICA

GREAT

AGAIN


Hmmm.  Four simple words.  Nothing derogatory.   I mean, who doesn't want to make America great?

If other students "confronted" the students who were wearing the shirts, maybe this teacher should have dealt with the ones who were actually causing the disruption.

Nah.  That would actually make sense....

Today, in this Animal Farm, politically correct, hypersensitive world in which hot means cold, patriotism is frowned upon, and we can't display the American flag because it might "offend" some illegal aliens, we can't have people wearing a shirt that says "Make AMERICA Great Again".

Ooops, can't call them "illegal aliens"

As I was watching the interview, I noticed this teacher never once said "Maybe I was wrong."  No, she keeps playing the victim card.  "My dad was a WW2 vet, my husband is a Vietnam vet, I have spent 25 years in service to my country as a teacher... blah, blah, blah."

You teach math.  Of all the subjects, math is the one subject that has zero politics.  Somehow, you managed to politicize a math class.

SHoward12
SHoward12

@Lee_CPA2 Black Lives Matter. Hmmm. Three simple words. Nothing derogatory. I mean, who doesn't believe that black lives matter? 


In the past few years I've seen easily as much hypersensitivity by people on the far right, but conservatives do not see the contradiction. They also think they have the corner on patriotism, even though their beloved president has betrayed our country and her citizens again and again.


To your final point, this teacher did not politicize things. The boys wearing the shirts did. She simply dealt with the problem they created.

Starik
Starik

@SHoward12 @Lee_CPA2  Context. MAGA is an apparently innocuous meaning that carries unpleasant implied meaning. BLM is the same.