Fayetteville teacher says video clip doctored
One of the first Web sites to report the video was a blog called Tundra Tabloid. Initially, some Web sites misidentified Harris as still teaching in Asheville.
Teacher Diatha D. Harris appears in a video posted on YouTube on Friday in which she questioned pupils at Mary McArthur Elementary School who said they supported John McCain for president.
A Fayetteville teacher is defending comments she made to fifth-graders who expressed support for John McCain in class last spring.
The interaction between Diatha D. Harris and pupils at Mary McArthur Elementary School was captured in May by a Swedish television documentary crew. Harris says “Oh Jesus” when, during a discussion about the election, a few students said they supported McCain. She tells one girl whose father is in the military that McCain would prolong the Iraq War, “so that means that your daddy could stay in the military for another 100 years.”
Ashville N.C. School teacher browbeats student over being a McCain supporter
A video clip of the discussion spread on the Internet on Friday, with bloggers and other viewers demanding Cumberland County fire the veteran educator. In an interview late Thursday, Harris says the clip was doctored and blames the controversy on McCain supporters who aren’t happy about the election.
Nonetheless, schools Superintendent Bill Harrison took an unusual step Friday of making his own YouTube video, in which he reads a statement saying he was “shocked” and “disturbed” by what he saw. He promises to take “appropriate action” following an investigation.
Superintendent Responds to Video
The documentary, “From Bill to Barack: A Journey from 1992 to 2008,” is about how changes in American society might influence the 2008 presidential election. It aired on a Swedish-language TV channel in Finland on Sunday night, according to the filmmaker’s Web site.
The clip filmed in Fayetteville shows Harris quizzing pupils about their presidential preferences. Harris, 53, asks the children why they support McCain or Barack Obama.
One child said she supports Obama because he would end the war. Then Harris turns to a girl, who says she supports McCain because her parents did, and says, “Talk to me, because your dad is in the military.”
The girl doesn’t respond.
“It’s a senseless war,” Harris says. “And by the way ... the person that you’re picking for president said that our troops could stay in Iraq for another 100 years if they need to. So that means that your daddy could stay in the military for another hundred years.”
Three children in the class had parents in the military, Harris said.
In an interview, Harris said somebody edited the video to make it appear she was an Obama partisan imposing her views on a child. Harris, who has been licensed to teach in North Carolina since 1978, said she made gestures after pupils voiced support for Obama.
“It has been doctored,” Harris said. “They didn’t show anything about Obama.”
In another sequence on the video, however, Harris sports an Obama button during a pep rally at her school.
Cumberland school officials were overwhelmed with protest calls Friday. Harrison called the father of the girl in the video to apologize. The father, whom school officials wouldn’t identify, was unaware of the classroom conversation until Harrison called, said Wanda McPhaul, a spokeswoman for the school system.
McPhaul said state law prohibits them from revealing what discipline, if any, would be taken against Harris. Personnel records show Harris has taught school for 27 years, the last four in Cumberland County.
As of Friday afternoon, Harris remained employed.
Harris said she received no complaints about the political nature of the classroom dialogue until a reporter called her Thursday night. She blamed the controversy on McCain supporters still smarting from their defeat this week.
“If John McCain had won, nothing would be said about this video, doctored or undoctored,” said Harris, who is a registered Democrat.
Folke Rydén, the Stockholm-based producer of the documentary, couldn’t be reached for comment. But he told the Asheville Citizen-Times that disappointed McCain backers are taking revenge on Harris.
“They have kind of interpreted the situation in a very evil way because our feeling on Mrs. Harris is that she had a very special relationship with her students,” Rydén told the newspaper.
Rydén said Harris exaggerated her classroom commentary to get the conversation going with her pupils.
But conservative bloggers weren’t accepting that view.
On the Web site www.stoptheaclu.com, a headline read: “Teacher Demonstrates How to Abuse, Intimidate and Brainwash Children for Obama.”
On Friday, the Drudge Report linked to a story about the controversy on The Fayetteville Observer’s Web site. The story logged more than 18,000 page views within three hours.
By the afternoon, Harrison had posted his YouTube response.
“I was shocked when I saw the clip,” Harrison said. “I was particularly disturbed to see the uncomfortable position in which our children were placed due to the inappropriate actions of one of our teachers.
“Once the video was brought to my attention, I immediately launched an investigation,” Harrison added. “I can assure you that upon completion of the investigation, I will take appropriate action.”
Harris said said she normally wouldn’t discuss politics in a math class, but the TV crew asked her to engage the children in the political dialogue. The teacher said she knew the crew members from an award-winning documentary that they did on American politics in 1992. In that production, Harris said she is featured because she hosted former President George H.W. Bush and his wife for lunch at her home, which was then in Asheville.
The video crew wanted to catch up with her in the recent documentary, according to Harris, who said the filmmaker had permission to shoot video in her Fayetteville classroom.
McPhaul said she couldn’t confirm that the crew did have authorization from the school system and parents to photograph the children.
Overt political activity is generally discouraged in county schools, McPhaul said.