Latin teacher's suspension over quotes draws criticism
DUXBURY — It's supposedly a dead language, but a Latin course at Harwood Union has stirred up a very live controversy.
A Harwood Union High School Latin teacher appears to have been suspended and then reinstated — administrators will not confirm whether she was disciplined or not — for presenting her class with what one parent called "mildly risqué" quotes of graffiti from the walls of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.
The disciplinary action, and the ensuing lack of public information from administrators about the issue, is drawing fire from some community member and has raised issues of academic freedom.
"This is not a personnel issue, it's about who gets to decide what is taught in the classroom," said Susan Taub of Waitsfield, whose children recently graduated from Harwood, and who is herself a teacher.
According to John Cluett of Fayston, whose daughter attends the Latin class, language arts teacher Tami Munford was suspended in early March after she had distributed to her students quotations of ancient graffiti in Latin and English, instructing them to match the originals to the translations. Cluett said one of the students in the class was disturbed by the off-color nature of the quotations and went to the principal to complain.
Cornelia Cluett, 16, who attends Munford's class, said, "The graffiti was pretty mild. You could find the same thing on Comedy Central after midnight." She said some of the students in the class commented afterward that the material was "a little iffy," but no one seemed very offended at the time.
"I think it was an addition to the class," she said. "It keeps the students interested."
Her father, John Cluett, wondered where it would end.
"This material has academic value," John Cluett said. "What will we not allow next? Huckleberry Finn because it uses (a racial slur)?' Romeo and Juliet because it deals with premarital sex? Classical painting because the subjects are naked?"
Phillip Ambrose, the chair of the classics department at the University of Vermont, defends the use of the quotations, arguing they have academic value. Ambrose said he was on the national board that established the standards for teaching Latin in secondary schools under the Clinton administration, and that "the consensus of the report was that the full range of the literature of antiquity, everything we can read, from high literature to everyday vulgar material, should be used."
"Anyone who has taken even French 1, and not learned something off-color, has been deprived," he said.
Principal David Driscoll, Washington West Supervisory District Superintendent Bob MacNamara, and school board chairman Scott Mackey all declined to comment on the situation, even to confirm that Munford had been suspended, saying they could not discuss personnel issues.
Munford also did not return calls.
Parents and students report that Munford had been missing from the class during the week of March 13, and that she had been reinstated the following week. They said no explanations about the teacher's absence were offered to parents or students. Parents said they learned from their kids that Munford had been temporarily removed.
Harwood School Board members were advised by the chairman not to because they might have to deal with it later as a personnel issue.
Jim Boylan of Waitsfield, whose daughter attends Munford's class, said, "The principal got a lot of response supporting Tami."
Boylan said he could not understand why a teacher would be suspended for using the graffiti quotations from Pompeii.
"I went to a Catholic high school, and I remember those quotations. Brother Shannon put them out there, we all had a laugh, and we moved on," he said.
Taub also said she believes "the suspension was extremely heavy handed."
"The principal over-reacted," she said. "To remove this teacher from the classroom as if she had a long record of misconduct, or as if she were some threat to do harm to the students, is outrageous."
Taub also objects to the administration's and the school board's refusal to discuss their justification for taking the action.
"They heard from the people who were unhappy (when the complaint was made) why not hear from the people who approve?" she asked.
Angelo Dorta, president of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, said the administrators' silence on the issue could very well have been appropriate.
Taub said that the school administration's refusal to discuss the incident reminds her of the controversial suspension of popular Harwood guidance counselor Peter duMoulin in 2004, which resulted in a tumultuous public meeting attended by 300 community members and ultimately the resignation under pressure of principal Robin Pierce.
Silence from the administration about that suspension was named as a cause of the public outcry. Harwood parent Robert Yerks was quoted in a Feb. 2 article from 2004 as saying, "Essentially (it's) not knowing why he was asked to leave the school, the complete silence that shut everyone out that was completely upsetting to everyone."
But Cluett sees the current situation as being very different from the duMoulin affair.
"In the duMoulin case no one knew what he was accused of doing. In this case everyone knows what she did, because the kids told the parents," he said. "This is a question of academic freedom. They teach Huckleberry Finn, and Romeo and Juliet, and no teacher is strung up because of that," Cluett said.
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