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    Fairbanks teacher speaks out after being removed for discussing police, race relations

    By AlaskaWatchman.com

    Two weeks after being barred from her classroom at Lathrop High School following a discussion on police and race relations, Fairbanks teacher Connie Gardner is breaking her silence.

    Her removal from the school and forced administrative leave made international news, but no one ever bothered to get her side of the story.

    On April 28, the long-time educator was in the midst of an engaging discussion with her special education students. They had just finished watching the classic movie, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and her normally quite students were bursting with questions.

    Movie cover for “To Kill at Mockingbird.”

    At one point she asked her students to recount how one of the main African American characters, Tom Robinson, died.

    “Somebody said, ‘He was shot in the back,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ Gardner told the Watchman on May 11. “They said, ‘Because he was running, trying to escape from prison.’ Then another student said, ‘Hey, that’s just like what’s happening today.’”

    Gardner’s been teaching kids for nearly a quarter century, the last eight years with the Fairbanks School District. She saw a golden opportunity to make a meaningful connection between the movie and real life.

    “So, I put my lesson plan aside and went on with this impromptu conversation,” Gardner said. “If you can’t relate to it, it’s not meaningful. It’s just another story.”

    The obvious connection was with the death of George Floyd in 2020, after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck during an arrest that later sparked violent protests across the nation.

    Gardner wanted to warn her students against resisting arrest when encountering law enforcement.

    “I just want them to be safe. I want them to think. I don’t want them to glorify this idea that confronting the police or trying to fight the police is cool or appropriate,” she told the Watchman. “Many people don’t understand that, justly or unjustly, when a policeman gives you an order and you don’t obey it, you have broken the law.”

    The classroom discussion took place with some students in person and others watching online, including at least one parent.

    A viral YouTube video of the class shows Gardner facilitating a lively discussion. She never once condones how Minneapolis police treated George Floyd or the force they employed, but she does caution students about how to interact with police to avoid dangerous situations.

    “If any of you find yourself in a situation where you are justly or unjustly being addressed by the police and ordered to do something, please comply,” she told students. “Do not fight with the cops. Don’t try to run away.”

    Gardner then states that she does not agree with the police officer who kneeled for an extended period on Floyd’s neck shortly before he died.

    “I think he abused his authority and I think that he went too far, and I think that he was complicit in George Floyd’s death,” she told her students. “I think there were many factors that contributed to it and that was one of them. But if George Floyd had, at the beginning, when they got him out of the car and went to put him in the police car – if he had just sidled into the car and slid in there and let them put his legs in, he would be alive today, and you know that’s true.”

    Gardner informed students that they can always challenge the legality of an arrest after the fact, but not during the process.

    “That’s what you do to stay alive, everybody, white, black, brown, I don’t care what color you are. None of that makes a difference. You comply,” Gardner said in the video. “I’m an old white lady – and if the cops came up to me and said, ‘Ma’am, put your hands behind your back. You’re going to jail.’ I’m putting my hands behind my back and I’m going to jail, and I’m calling my husband when I get there.”

    Gardner later said that police need additional training to help root out bad actors within their ranks.

    “The truth is, the good cops almost always know who the bad cops are,” she said. “Just like the good teachers in the school know who the bad teachers are. So, they should help.”

    At one point, Gardner spoke about personal appearance, praising her students for not dressing “like thugs.”

    “Look at how you guys are dressed. You’re dressed nicely,” she said. “You don’t look like thugs. You don’t have your pants down around your knees.”

    This is when controversy erupted, as a parent listening online, who also recorded the entire class session, chimed in. She identified herself as a “woman of color.”

    In choosing to speak about how students dress, Gardner said she intended to tie that into the school dress code, which does not permit sagging pants in school.

    “Like it doesn’t matter if somebody has pants around their knees or looks a certain way, has a certain skin color, it shouldn’t make any difference,” the parents said. “Police should be trained not to judge people based on those factors.”

    She then takes issue with Gardner’s comment about thugs.

    “Even the stereotype of calling someone a quote-on-quote thug isn’t particularly appropriate, because a thug has a really negative connotation,” the parent says. “And just because somebody is dressed a certain way, doesn’t mean that they are doing negative things.”

    “The police should also be trained not to kill people, even if they don’t comply,” the parent continued. “Like if someone doesn’t get in the cop car, doesn’t mean you kneel on their neck till they die.”

    Gardner responded, saying she never condoned police abusing their power. She clarified that she was only saying, “if people comply with the police, they have a much less chance being killed by the police.”

    Connie Gardner

    The parent agreed but said, “that doesn’t mean that they should be killed if they don’t comply.”

    “I didn’t say that either,” a composed Gardner said. “I’m just saying that if you value your life, and you want to live, that you will comply with the police.”

    At that point, the parent said Gardner was unfit to talk about such matters based on her race.

    “I just disagree with the conversation in whole,” the parent said. “I feel like this is something that, you know, Ms. Gardner, I don’t feel like you’re really able to address with you being a white woman.”

    “That’s where you’re wrong,” Gardner responded.

    The parent then shouted out that Gardner was “very uneducated” on some issues.

    “I don’t feel like that you are able to address these things that are going on in the world today – especially correctly – because you have a different perception of what is going on,” she said. “You should stop this conversation. Period.”

    At that point Gardner turned off the parent’s video feed.

    “Had she been in my classroom, I would have called security and they would have escorted her out,” Gardner said. “I could see that the students were anxious.”

    In choosing to speak about how students dress, Gardner said she intended to tie that into the school dress code, which does not permit sagging pants in school.

    They talk all the time about teaching critical thinking skills and then when you put it into practice in a real-world situation, you get put on administrative leave.

    “As teachers we are told to tell them to pull up their pants, and if they refuse to do it, we are supposed to write a dress code violation,” Gardner noted. “There are many things that students are prohibited from wearing and the reason they are prohibited from wearing those and the sag pants is because of the connection that it has to gangs.”

    That conversation never happened, due to the interruption.

    Recounting whole the episode, Gardner said she stands by her statements and the decision to facilitate the conversation with students in the first place.

    “I absolutely do – I don’t think I did anything wrong,” she said. “I had very little time to develop a connection with my students and I made a promise to them early on that they could ask me anything and I would give them my honest answer.”

    Gardner said it took several weeks to build trust and confidence with her students, most of whom rarely ever ask questions or even speak during class.

    “But they felt comfortable asking me those questions because they trusted me,” she said, noting that students were fully engaged that day.

    “They were leaning forward in their seats. They had their arms uncrossed,” she said. “Even my students who have speech difficulties were raising their hand to ask questions.”

    Gardner said one of her goals was to encourage student look at the big picture and not fall into the trap of making rash decisions based on partial information.

    “They are on social media all the time,” Gardner said. “They are getting little bits and pieces, but they don’t always have the capacity to put the big picture together.”

    Following the April 28 class, Gardner was placed on paid administrative leave and the school district conducted an investigatory meeting on May 4. Her teachers’ union representative has reached out twice to the district.

    “I was told to not talk to anyone when this whole thing went down and I thought that I was doing the right thing by staying quiet, but they haven’t made a decision,” she said. “It’s been two weeks and I’m still locked out of my classroom and it’s time to no longer stay silent.”

    Gardner, who is scheduled to retire on May 21, said the union has advised her to “just let this ride” until her contract runs out.

    “But that is so damaging to my reputation because it infers that I am guilty of something wrong by not being returned to the classroom,” she said. Plus, she believes it sets a chilling precedent for teachers who wish to engage students in meaningful classroom conversations.

    “High schools are places where we need to have more conversations about controversial issues,” Gardner said. “Because students, when they get older, don’t know how to have them when they get out into the world, which is why you see people screaming in each other’s faces and pushing or hitting or tearing up somebody’s flyers or posters.”

    “We’re not educating if we don’t teach them how to think for themselves,” she added. “They talk all the time about teaching critical thinking skills and then when you put it into practice in a real-world situation, you get put on administrative leave.”

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    Joel Davidson
    Joel Davidson
    Joel is Editor-in-Chief of the Alaska Watchman. Joel is an award winning journalist and has been reporting for over 20 years, He is a proud father of 8 children, and lives in Palmer, Alaska.

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    31 Comments

    1. These are the thought police. The our district violated this teacher free speech rights and civil liberties. There need to be a lawsuit filed on her behalf against the school district and big brother who is making her problems so that this stops. The actions are meant to intimidate the rest of us and then we will back off of not giving good advice and having good discussions. This was how prayer was taken out of schools and Christian teachers have been punished by the lawlessness of the government education system. By shaming them publicly and unlawfully acting against them. Where are the attorneys and courts to help protect this citizen’s rights?.

    2. I keep saying pull your kids out of school. I do agree with this teacher in this instance but the majority of teachers have gone full libtard. And the parent in this instance is a complete idiot. She’s part of the problem. This particular teacher should move into the private school system. Public schools are just communist education camps

    3. THUGS ARE THUGS NO MATTER THE COLOR,,,, The parent destroyed an awesome teaching moment,,, but then again some just hate our society, Aint it funny on how hard folks fought for desegregation and how quickly they revert to separation because of skin color and agenda. You aint Qualified… classy…

    4. My friend wrote the following regarding this matter: “I saw this elsewhere (I think Breitbart) and actually watched the video. The teacher was accosted by some black woman parent claiming that she had no right to say anything about the topic because she (teacher) is a white woman and the black woman accosting her is a “person of color.” The person of color went more or less ballistic with hostility on the teacher for even discussing the topic, insulting her in front of her students, etc., and then filed a complaint with the school, which immediately suspended the teacher, presumably out of political paranoia. Just another example of how mixed up the whole United States is now; people don’t know their ass from a hot rock and believe anything they are told. I really think American society is mentally ill and mixed up beyond repair.”

      • Amen. I don’t, however, think we’re beyond repair. I think we can pull out of this. We’ve done it before and we’re resilient. We just need to keep shining a light on these situations.

        • It’s much more difficult to win a soul than to win a war. Nevertheless, we may not succeed, but if we don’t try, we definitely will not succeed.

    5. I heard all her comments, she was very much just teaching, the parent on the other hand, is a racist race baiting leftist thug, as she attacked this teacher durring class, and used the usual your race dont got no right, the worst thing you can say in a racist manner like a true uneducated social justice warrior with no idea she is the real racist.

    6. First of all a gripe —— I am so sick and tired of the ‘woman’ ‘person’ whatever, of color c__p. We are all persons of ‘color’. Period. Move on. Treating one another with dignity and respect should transcend skin tone. The racist focus on ones color is perpetuated by the same ‘thought police’ that want to stir division and hatred among citizens in order to eventually destroy our republic. It is just one technique among a list. It is a tragic mindless lack of foresight or understanding.

      Our mess of public education, and it is a mess, despite good and well intentioned teachers — has taken more than a few decades of removing real history , civics, patriotism, respect for religion from our schools, leaving a void that has been filled by darkness, hopelessness, ramped up obsessive twisted sex Ed, narcissistic identity politics, to name a few education vices, to get to where we are. Our schools have become vehicles of social engineering that sadly have been effective. Those teachers that want to really teach, and challenge their students to think, are on administrative leave.

      In a state that has the best freedom of education and parent autonomy in the nation – I do not understand why any parent that really cares about what their kids are learning, would leave them in the public school classroom. I also do not understand why the teachers thar can really teach would not be organizing and starting their own private schools where they can actually do so. Alaska statue allows for a myriad of options and opportunities.

    7. Wow! I wonder how many of the people commenting have actually had children in public schools. Both my kids attended schools here in Fairbanks. It’s not a perfect district but no school district is. As an African American woman who has lived and worked in Fairbanks for almost 40 years, I can say that parents and teachers actually DO work together for the best for our kids. My daughter led her Christ-Centered Youth group at West Valley High School when she attended there. She was also the president of the NHS her senior year. I know many teachers who are Christians. We try to engage and be lights in the schools. The one thing that will never draw people to Jesus is name calling. This parent was within her rights to try to protect her child. Unless you have raised an African American son, you don’t know what it’s like to be concerned about their safety in today’s climate in our country. If y’all are Christians, please pray for Ms. Gardner as well as the parent. I think that’s what Jesus would do.

      • I do. So the teacher should be fired? Without warning, without standards on what she can and cannot say being stated? Do you want to live in a world where play backs and emotional reactions override a teacher of 30yrs in good standing? Would you like to have someone standing over you every day, evaluating your every move and firing you at the first subjective mishap? I don’t.

      • Look, Viletta, if you’re raising your boy to be a moral and honorable man who makes wise decisions then you have nothing to worry about whatsoever.

        He’ll enjoy favored treatment in admission to many universities due strictly to his ethnicity and he’ll go on to enjoy similar favored treatment when seeking a job in much of the public and the private sectors.

        Conversely, if you’re raising a punk with a chip on his shoulder who believes he’s an entitled victim or potential victim due strictly to his ethnicity then don’t be terribly surprised if he gets a rude awakening some day.

        Pull yourself together. Mrs. Gardner was spot on.

      • So you claim to be a christian and then you want to play the IM AN AFRICAN AMERICAN card. Yep you are also part of the problem

    8. As someone who read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time as an adult (just a few years ago), I was startled to see this whole conversation launched out of the observation the innocent man was shot in the back/“while he was running away.”

      I got the impression that the book itself, which treats a number of unhealthy situations as something to ignore, endure, or even treat as normal (e.g. incest and verbal abuse), frowned firmly at the literal overkill of a man the evidence (if not the jury) proved innocent.

      To make it a lesson about “do as you’re told” ignored the many layers of interaction (already in the story!) that exist to this day. It was irresponsible and over-simplifying to suggest that non-compliance was what got people dead. As if that was the primary death-dealing variable, and not the people with all the power. Which people had the power.

      As a piece of literature there have been reams of papers written on what this book is about. To draw one conclusion, to trace a single line of inquiry without challenging the narrative or a single conclusion isn’t “teaching critical thinking.”

      At best it’s connecting literature to the present, but by choosing this angle of focus, the teacher displayed a lack of understanding outside of her own culture/experience. To say her Whiteness limited her perspective was (is) fully valid.

      • You buy into the Marxist rhetoric of divisiveness, Wren. People are allowed their opinion regardless of their color – and whiteness (like other pigmentations) is nothing for which she needs to apologize!

      • Gosh, Wren, I really want to say something kind and sympathetic but I’m fresh out of words other than to note that you’re clearly an uncomfortable and delusional oaf who’d feel much more at ease among your own in Portland, Seattle, or San Francisco.

        Please just go away.

    9. The sad story behind the sagging jeans is the absence of a real father figure in the home for the boy to teach him conduct. its same thing with girls provocatively dressed cause she thinks that’s they way to get attention, and she does get boy attention; however its not the right kind. She had no real father to tell her cover up reminding her A real woman doesn’t advertise herself. It seems single mothers who aren’t in the Word of God and regularly attending church making God her Father and Christ her husband over her family, they have a harder time getting respect out of their children than that single mother when the mother lived faithfully to God and the church family.
      You know! A real black father will agree 110% percent and stand in front of this teacher supporting her little parenting lesson teaching her students about good conduct and respect for authority.

    10. Classic American writers John Steinbeck and Mark Twain used ‘N’ word in their writing. It was acceptable and normal in the context of their time. Nevertheless, today many school districts either discourage school teachers to use these authors in the classroom or completely banned these authors from the school curriculum. Shame.

    11. The Teacher was Spot on! The people that want to incite and promulgate racism will do so just because it’s the thing to do these days and they know no better. There was nothing racist here just facts that some people like to twist and make a motive out of nothing. Good Teacher, and good comments other than I’d like to see the verbiage of African American thrown in the trash can. You’re either an American or not, we don’t need sub categories.

    12. Mrs Gardner is SO RIGHT, on what she was saying.
      Stop running are fighting with the officers. No mater if your Red, Yellow, Black or White.

    13. Yes mrs Gardner you should stop this conversation.
      So she Did GOOG FOR HER, and then turned off the parents connection.
      It’s the teachers classroom.

    14. I read a recent article that reminded me that our nation should return to focusing on “excellence”. Excellence is a common standard that challenges people of all backgrounds and it beats diversity, race, or gender every time. Courage to stand for Excellence! That’s what we need in our businesses, schools, families, and children. How we dress, speak, write…all of it should propel us to excellence. Thank you Ms. Gardner for having courage and thank you for the other perspectives offered by Jen and Viletta.

    15. The teacher was doing her job, which unfortunately for everyone has become much more than teaching education. Teachers nowadays are expected to teach ethics and values– something that most parents stopped doing 2 generations ago. She was trying to instill in these students an awareness of how to handle themselves in a tense situation, trying to encourage them to behave rationally rather than to behave in a manner that would likely accelerate the problem.
      To the parent on Zoom and many who have responded: Stop the name calling! Stop yelling! Stop sterio-typing! Stop labeling! People are people, each of us unique in our own way. Conversations deteriorate almost immediately when the name calling/labeling/yelling begins. Yes, we are all angry about something. But rather than trying to out-shout each other, let’s behave rationally and listen to each other. Take the mature attitude to step back and actually talk one on one to get down to the root of the matter. Yes, we have problems….big problems! Everything that is right and everything that is wrong in our society starts at HOME. Yes, we have bad people—on the streets, in our schools, and wearing uniforms throughout every faction of our society. That will NEVER change. What has changed is the decorum of respect with which we treat each other. Practice what Martin Luther King Jr. promoted–peaceful protest. Active Listening. Treating everyone with respect, even when respect has not been earned. Our country, the very foundation of our families, our communities, has become so polarized, so focused on narcistic behavior that the “me first” behavior now dominates nearly everything we do. Because I am different than you, am I entitled to be rude and disrespectful to you? NO. Do I deserve or am I entitled to receive special rights and special treatment? NO. Our history is our history. Yes, It is ugly–REALLY ugly. But our present is even uglier because we’re destroying the very foundation upon which this nation was created. What will our future be? We can learn by examining our history, understanding what happened, acknowledging the atrocities, and striving to be better, not more polarized or more biased. We can learn from our mistakes, but only if we try to learn. You are as much a human as I am. I am part AK Native, part Native American, part white, part black, and 100% American. My skin color and my bloodline make me no better and no more deserving than you, or vice versa. We can’t undo our history. But we can shape and mold our future. It starts at HOME. We can teach our children and each other how to treat each other with dignity and respect, even if respect isn’t earned or deserved. We can strive to avoid the death spiral this nation is in. This requires that everyone be willing to shut up long enough to listen, and to strive for understanding in order to find a common ground. There will be no big win–no one will get everything they want, because that’s simply the law of human nature.
      On the other hand, if you hate this country so badly, you do have the right to LEAVE! I encourage you to leave, to step out to find your Utopia where all your demands are met with open arms, where all your “me first entitlements” are readily available and fully funded, where the government stands ready to satisfy your every want, and where everyone looks like you, walks like you, talks like you, works like you, and lives like you, and where your life is perfect in every way without any effort or compromise or sacrifice on your part.

    16. Congratulations Alaskan gal, that is the most common senseical comment I’ve read in a long time. Everyone should take note. God bless everyone, what ever color you may be.

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