Tom Treece gives a course called "Public Issues" at Spaulding High School in Barre, Vermont. Right now, he's embroiled in a public issue himself, after a local police officer entered his classroom under peculiar circumstances on April 9 to take photographs of student artwork.
The uniformed police officer, John Mott, went into the class at 1:30 in the morning. He told the Times Argus, which broke the story on May 5, that "he entered the school through an unlocked maintenance door." The school superintendent, Dorothy Anderson, says he banged on the front door of the school and got the custodian to let him in.
In any event, he convinced the custodian to unlock the door to Treece's classroom, and he took a picture of a student project that showed President Bush with duct tape over his mouth, and the words: "Put your duct tape to good use. Shut your mouth."
Treece told me this project was part of an assignment for a unit he was teaching on Iraq. It had three parts. The first part was to participate in a debate on whether to invade Iraq. The second was to write a paper defending your perspective on the issue. And the third was to make a poster illustrating your point of view. Six of his students put together the offending poster.
Mott, who did not return several calls from me, told the Times Argus, "I wanted everybody else to see what was in that room." The paper said the students' project "offended him as an American and a retired military man." He told the paper, "Having spent 30 years in uniform, I was insulted. I'm just taking a stand on what happens in that classroom as a resident and a voter and a taxpayer in the community."
Mott, incidentally, used to work at Spaulding High as the JROTC officer.
Superintendent Anderson was not happy that Mott entered the school during off-hours to further his own political agenda.
"I find this behavior, at the very least, in violation of our policy for visitors at the school," she wrote Police Chief Michael Stevens on April 16. "I also find it disturbing that a police officer would wear his uniform under such circumstances, thereby intimidating our employee into letting him in the building at a very unusual hour. I question the intent of his visit. Why could he not have come during regular school hours? Please look into this matter and determine if any ethical or legal guidelines were breached."
According to Anderson, the police chief told her "he was going to handle it administratively." Chief Stevens did not return several phone calls from The Progressive.
On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh called Mott a hero and posted the students' artwork on the Limbaugh web page.
Anderson is not happy about that. "These kids didn't turn these projects in with any understanding that they would end up on Rush Limbaugh," she said. "Their parents feel very violated and angry."
According to the Times Argus, Mott at least initially "refused orders from Barre Town Police Chief Michael Stevens and Town Manager Carl Rogers to supply school officials with copies of the photographs."
Anderson says she does not want the police department to pursue charges against Mott.
"There's a huge bonfire here already burning," she says. "I don't want to throw gasoline on it."
The student artwork is just part of the bonfire.
Treece got heat for something he himself posted about the Iraq War, and both controversies have become embroiled in the local school budget that is up for a vote.
"After 9/11 we put up this dialogue board, where teachers and students are allowed to put up their written opinions on various issues," explains Anderson.
The postings had to be signed and dated, and could not be vulgar, Anderson says.
Treece used the board, as did other teachers, as well as students, some of whom wrote, "Love it or leave it," he says. "In March, a couple of teachers had up a picture of George Bush, with a question, 'Are we headed for tyranny?' Another question was, 'Should we impeach him?' The following day, one teacher posted a set of impeachment articles that had been circulating on the web, and I posted another," Treece recalls. "Two days after that, I posted a little notecard-sized paper that said, 'All hail the idiot boy king,' That started the whole fury."
Two residents, Paul and Norma Malone, who have founded a group called Citizens Advocating Responsible Education, wrote a letter to the Times Argus that was published on March 28.
"It is unrealistic to expect that current world events would not be a topic of discussion among students or faculty," they wrote. "But it is quite another matter for a teacher to use taxpayer dollars (his salary, the school facility, and related resources) to proselytize his leftwing political rhetoric and anti-establishment rhetoric. Of particular concern is the lack of respect shown in this reference to the President of the United States as 'the idiot boy king.' We would advise the board and the administration to examine Mr. Treece's teaching practices and course materials. We would encourage parents and members of the community to acquaint themselves with these current activities of concern at SHS."
Anderson says she asked Treece to take the "idiot boy king" note down. "It was in bad taste, it was strongly worded, and it may discourage his students from offering an opposite viewpoint," she says. Treece complied.
That did not mollify some local residents.
At a school board meeting on April 7, "about three dozen residents" came "to confront the school board about a bulletin board they say has been abused by faculty promoting an anti-American agenda," the Times Argus reported. They also objected to bumper stickers Treece had on his door that said, "Impeach Bush," and, "Vermonters for a Bush/Cheney Regime Change."
Treece says that some of these residents have been calling for his head. "Fire Treece, and we'll pass the budget" is a comment he says people have made.
(The citizens of Barre must pass a school budget every year. The first budget failed to pass in March. The next vote is May 13.)
Treece says a flier was circulating in town with his yearbook picture on it, along with a copy of his "Impeach Bush" sticker, and the words, "We cannot allow this kind of stuff to happen in our schools. Overturn the budget on May 13."
Anderson defends Treece's teaching practices. "In the course of his teaching, he does present both sides and gives resources on both sides," she says.
But she is pursuing administrative action against him.
"I can't teach that class anymore," Treece says. After this year, "they've removed me from the class." According to Treece, the administration told him, "We feel that Treece is a lightning rod, and his teaching that course would be a disruption to the orderly educational process we'd like to see restored at Spaulding."
Treece is "very upset" about losing this class. "This is purely a political move on their part," he says.
The controversy has taken a toll on him.
"My reputation has been spoiled," he says. "I haven't got a lot of rest in the last month."
Matthew Rothschild is editor-in-chief of the Progressive.