Officials in school districts across northwest Alabama are reviewing their policies regarding teacher sensitivity and the training they offer in the wake of disparaging comments made by a Lauderdale County teacher concerning gays and first lady Michelle Obama.
A student at Lauderdale County High School in Rogersville recorded the comments made by head football coach Bob Grisham, who also teaches driver's education and psychology. The comments were reportedly recorded Jan. 28 on the school campus during the school day.
Grisham told the TimesDaily on Wednesday he misspoke.
"I misspoke in a debate-type situation," he said. "I have no hatred toward anyone or any group. People that know my heart, they know that."
The Lauderdale County Board of Education will meet at 4 p.m. Monday to discuss the issue.
Local school officials said they will increase training for teachers, but most said board policies typically don't address sensitivity.
"We have professional development scheduled in just a few weeks, and we'll definitely be talking about the sensitivity that's needed in the classroom," Muscle Shoals Superintendent Jeff Wooten said.
"We encourage our teachers to make the students think, but we should never be the vehicle to impose personal beliefs in an improper way. Students pick up on everything the teacher says. I want our teachers to be advocates for our students and to look out for their best interest," he said.
Sheffield High School teacher Lisa Myrick said she took to heart a comment her superintendent, Tim Morgan, made during an in-service training meeting in August: "Teach every single day like you're being videotaped."
"We teach a wide variety of students and we teach collectively, to the group," said the 23-year veteran teacher. Myrick has taught in the Sheffield district for 18 years.
"As we move through the semester, we learn more about our students' personalities and how to teach to them on levels that are most effective for them individually.
"It's never my job to try to influence them politically or in how they live their lives. It's not my job to interject my own thoughts and opinions into their thoughts.
"And likewise, I don't allow students to do that to other students in the classroom. That's bullying. The word in my classes for this semester is ‘respect.' My students hear it a lot."
A professional development workshop is scheduled for Feb. 18 in the Lauderdale district, said Pam Tanner, who coordinates such trainings for teachers and staff.
"Teacher sensitivity is one of the topics that will be discussed," she said. "Alabama's quality teaching standards require that we have training on diversity, which includes sensitivity to diverse cultures and backgrounds."
In the Florence system, Superintendent Janet Womack said teacher accountability in the area of sensitivity is high. New teachers in Florence have sensitivity training, but Womack said it can't stop there.
"One of my expectations of all our employees is to embrace diversity," Womack said. "Beyond that, everyone is accountable to the Alabama Teacher Code of Ethics."
Those ethics are part of the state Department of Education Administrative Code. Among the introduction to the code is the goal that "every educator ... must, at all times, ... provide an environment in which all students can learn. In order to accomplish that goal, educators must value the worth and dignity of every person, ..."
Directives for student/teacher conduct in the code of ethics includes teachers maintaining "a professional relationship with all students" and "providing an environment that does not needlessly expose students to unnecessary embarrassment or disparagement."
In a prepared news release, Devin Kennamer, a graduate of the University of North Alabama and one of the organizers behind a petition calling for Gresham's termination, said the issue isn't about "political correctness or the freedom of speech — it's about students that are influenced by the consequence of Grisham's warped comments about LGBT Americans and the first lady — not only in the classrooms of Lauderdale County High School, but in those across the nation." LGBT refers to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
"We must send a message to our public employees that we stopped tolerating this type of bigoted speech 50 years ago," Kennamer said in the release.
On Friday, the petition had received 346 signatures from all over the world through SignOn.org, according to the release, with the majority of the signatures from within the state of Alabama. The petition is addressed to Lauderdale schools Superintendent Jennifer Gray.
Colbert County Superintendent Anthony Olivis said new teachers in his district have sensitivity training and understand there's a strict protocol for dealing with a teacher displaying questionable classroom behavior.
"If we see a consistent pattern of (teacher) behavior, we'll put together a professional development activity to deal with it," Olivis said. "The principal, upon getting a complaint, would address that teacher and get his/her version of what happened. We also want our stakeholders to tell us if they know of a problem. The principal is the first to address the issue and often any problems are resolved at that level, within the school."
Olivis said there are two necessary dynamics at play for teachers in the classroom: an acute awareness of material to be presented in class and knowing that sensitivities among students exist.
"Will teachers now be more cognizant of the fact that they are perhaps being monitored? In today's times, I hope so."
Lisa Singleton-Rickman can be reached at 256-740-5735 or lisa.singleton-rickman@TimesDaily.com.
TimesDaily City Editor Sherhonda Allen contributed to this report.