The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

October 25, 2011

Joplin teacher’s alleged remarks prompt complaints to district

By Kelsey Ryan
news@joplinglobe.com

JOPLIN, Mo. — A Joplin High School math teacher is being criticized for anti-gay remarks that appeared in a Facebook dialogue last week.

The Joplin Board of Education is looking into the matter after being contacted by a gay right’s group called Missourians for Marriage Equality following Facebook comments attributed to Jim Whitney.

The comments first appeared on the wall of a former student’s Facebook profile on Oct. 19. The former student, Josh Gonzalez, had posted a Facebook link to a news article about a gay 15-year-old from Canada who committed suicide after being bullied.

A Facebook comment replying to the Gonzalez post that appeared under Whitney’s name stated: “Moral of the story: Don’t be gay.”

That comment provoked reaction and criticism from others, including this: “How many more kids have to kill themselves before everyone realizes that this is an actual issue?”

That was followed by another comment attributed to Whitney’s account that read: “11-13 ought to do it.”

Whitney did not respond to requests for an interview but released a statement via email on Monday afternoon saying he was sorry the incident occurred.

“I do not condone bullying or harassment of any kind and I am very aware and saddened by the negative impact this type of behavior creates. I regret that the posts appeared on Facebook. They do not reflect my personal views and I apologize for any and all offenses caused by the comment.”

Whitney, however, did not respond to follow-up emails and telephone calls to explain how comments that do not reflect his views came from his Facebook account, nor has he been available for additional questions.

Missourians for Marriage Equality posted a screenshot with the entire Facebook conversation on its own Facebook page, and encouraged its more than 2,000 followers to contact Joplin school board members.

Board President Ashley Micklethwaite and Superintendent C.J. Huff said they received an unspecified number of complaints from others, and said the district is taking the issue seriously and is investigating the incident.

Micklethwaite said the school board would likely discuss the issue during a closed session at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Gonzalez, who graduated in 2009, said that he was initially upset by the comments from Whitney’s account, but said he later talked to Whitney, who denied writing them and told Gonzalez his account had been hacked.

“The part that got me really fired up was the ‘11-13 might do it,’” Gonzalez said “At that point I was like, ‘OK, that can’t be him.’”

Gonzalez said he and Whitney frequently debate on Facebook, but never disrespectfully. He also said the comments appeared out of character for Whitney and that makes him believe they weren’t made by him.

“We always quarrel about things and it’s always jokingly, so this was really surprising,” Gonzalez said.

Mackenzie Thiessen, a senior at the University of Missouri who started the Facebook group Missourians for Marriage Equality in July, said the comments provoked a strong reaction from some members of the group.

“Some people were outraged and thought that he should be fired,” Thiessen said. “Once it got out there, more people from Joplin found out what was on the page and it was amazing to see them come to his (Whitney’s) support. There are a lot of people out there who said he couldn’t have said those things because he’s such a nice person.”

Thiessen said Facebook has since removed the original screenshot from the Missourians for Marriage Equality page.

Thiessen said he does not think Whitney should be fired over the incident — if he posted the comments — but that the district should investigate it thoroughly and require either a public apology or sensitivity training.

Thiessen said that teachers need to be aware of what they say in and outside the classroom because that can have an affect on students.

“I respect everyone’s right to say whatever they please outside of school, but with that, with Facebook being a public forum, you have to take into account that there are repercussions,” Thiessen said. “They are outside of school but still have a huge impact on students, and if they say something that makes students fearful and concerned, that should be recognized.”

Thiessen said he didn’t necessarily think the comments that came from Whitney’s Facebook account qualify as hate speech, but they are inappropriate for any educator to make.

Gonzalez also said Whitney told him that his laptop was confiscated by the district, but the district has not confirmed the confiscation and Whitney was not available for comment.