Middle School Teacher's Flag-Burning Civics Lesson Goes Up In Smoke

Kentucky teacher removed from classroom after demonstration; 'It was not a statement of his personal views,' school district spokesperson says.

A Kentucky seventh-grade teacher's attempt to provide his students with a lesson in freedom of speech went up in smoke Monday when he was removed from the classroom for burning two American flags.

Administrators didn't appreciate the demonstration by Dan Holden, a social studies teacher at Stuart Middle School in Louisville, Kentucky, who burned small American flags in two different classrooms on Friday and then asked students to write an opinion paper about it, according to Jefferson County School District spokeswoman Lauren Roberts.

"I didn't speak to him, but my understanding is that he was giving his social studies classes a lesson about freedom of speech where they were supposed to use the flag burning as a prompt to go home and write about how it made them feel and talk about it with their parents," Roberts said. "[Holden] has never had any history of problems as a teacher and my understanding is that he finds [flag burning] offensive, but he wanted to evoke emotions in students and get opinions from them, but he wasn't advocating that act. It was not a statement of his personal views, but it is a safety issue and a judgment issue because it is highly offensive to many people."

Holden, who could not be reached for comment, has been teaching in the district since 1979, but has been temporarily reassigned to non-instructional duties pending a district investigation. The district also alerted city fire officials, who are conducting their own investigation.

Roberts said that based on an interview with Holden, the flag burning didn't appear to be politically motivated, but that didn't appease the anger of some parents with children in Holden's classroom.

"She said, 'Our teacher burned a flag.' I'm like, 'What?' " said Pat Summers, whose daughter was in Holden's class. "When I was [at the school] at 8 a.m. [Monday], the lobby was filled with probably 25 or 30 parents" who were upset, he said. Summers said Holden told students to ask their parents what they thought about the lesson. Roberts added that no advance notice had been given to parents or school administrators about the demonstration. At press time, Roberts also said the school's principal had not yet received any complaints from parents about the incident, which the school found out about on Saturday when a parent went to a local TV station with the story.

As is the case in many recent election years, the issue of flag burning has been at the center of congressional attention lately, as part of a package of typically go-nowhere debates on issues such as constitutional bans on gay marriage aimed at firing up voters in advance of the upcoming November midterm Congressional elections (see "Why Is Congress Debating Flag-Burning Instead Of Global Warming? It's An Election Year"). The Senate failed to pass a constitutional amendment banning flag desecration earlier this year.

Kentucky has a statute last amended in 1992 making desecration of a national or state flag in a public place a misdemeanor, but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that flag desecration is protected speech. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky told the paper that the federal ruling would trump the state statute in this case.

From sixth-graders like Kelsey Adwell, 11 — who said students just "can't believe that a teacher would do that, burn two American flags in front of the class. ... A teacher shouldn't do that, even though it was an example" — to school board members, the reaction to the demonstration was intense. Board member Pat O'Leary told the Courier-Journal that he thought the flag burning was unnecessary and could have offended some students, including those in military families. "A teacher doesn't do that," he said. "It's just disrespectful."

Though some parents had called for Holden to be fired, Adwell's mother, school PTA president Ginny Adwell, said that was a bit overboard, reminding them that Holden was trying to provoke thought with his lesson.

[This story was originally published on 08.22.06 at 8:07 a.m. ET]