Community reels from substitute teacher Nazi salute

Some in the northwestern Vermont town of Georgia just want to put behind them an incident in which a longtime substitute teacher was fired for teaching third-graders the Nazi salute and to say “Heil Hitler.”

Others remain perplexed and say they’re having a hard time separating the incident at the Georgia Elementary and Middle School from a resurgence of white supremacy and neo-Nazism nationally.

The long-term substitute teacher, who was filling in for a regular teacher who was out on maternity leave, was fired immediately after the administration was made aware of the events on Sept. 21, school Superintendent Ned Kirsch said in an interview Thursday.

Kirsch said the substitute teacher, whom he refused to identify, had asked the children to line up, extend their right arms and touch the right shoulder of the pupil in line in front of them — a common technique used to ensure adequate space between children queuing up.

She then modeled raising her arm somewhat higher and told the children, “And now we say ‘Heil Hitler’,” Kirsch said.

The incident was first reported by the Burlington-based newspaper Seven Days.

Substitute teachers serve at the pleasure of school administrators. Darren Allen, spokesman for the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association teachers union, said a full staff teacher is given “due process,” before being fired.

Kirsch sent a letter home with students for parents the day of the incident. “We are dedicated to ensuring a safe learning environment for our students and families,” Kirsch wrote. “This incident was completely unacceptable and I apologize.”

A week later, Sen. Carolyn Branagan, a Georgia resident and Republican who represents Franklin County, said there had been intense talk around the town over the weekend about the incident, but that it seemed to be dying down.

Branagan said she fully supported school officials’ decision to fire the substitute teacher immediately.

“If I had a child in that class I would be furious,” said Branagan, who previously served on the local school board for 10 years. She called the incident, “simply an act of poor judgment.”

“But you do not have the luxury of doing stupid things when you’re dealing with other people’s children,” Branagan said.

Kirsch said the woman had worked as a substitute in the Franklin West schools for years and that he was unaware of any past complaints about her. He said he was not clear what motivated the Nazi salute demonstration.

“I don’t know if it was a joke,” Kirsch said. “We felt this crossed a line … We addressed it right away. Our school is about respect and community acceptance. Our schools are about love; they are not about hate.”

Both Kirsch and Rabbi James Glazier of Temple Sinai in South Burlington said they could imagine older students learning of the Nazi salute in the context of a history class or other school programming. But both said it was not age-appropriate for third-graders.

“There’s enough hate in the world,” Glazier said. “You don’t have to teach them … things that are well defined as hatred.”

The incident occurred against a backdrop of an apparent increase nationally of expressions of white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Neo-Nazi marchers used the same salute last month in demonstrations held in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In Vermont, legislators and other public officials on Thursday received the latest in a series of anti-Semitic and racist messages from Christopher Hayden, 48, of Burlington. The newest email from Hayden targeted Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who is Jewish, with anti-Semitic language.

Vermont Public Radio reported recently that Hayden was charged in June with disturbing the peace by electronic means with a hate-crimes enhancement after calling Democratic Party Chairman Faisal Gill, who is Muslim, an “agent for creeping Sharia law” and warning that he should “get out (of Vermont) or we will make you wish you did.”

Branagan said the national context makes the substitute teacher’s actions difficult for the local community to bear.

“Does this issue become more serious in our minds because of what we’ve heard nationally? Yes, I think so,” Branagan said. “Anybody who reads the press I think would have concerns that this is going on.”

Kirsch said he had heard from a number of people about the incident, including “some Jewish parents who were concerned.” The superintendent, who is Jewish, said, “It’s happened to me so much I have say it didn’t shock me.”

State Sen. Dustin Degree, R-Franklin, said people he had spoken to in the community about the incident had responded with “bewilderment.”

“My first thought is I hope the school is going to do a little more research on exactly what happened, and the people of Georgia are going to have some insight on what it was,” Degree said.

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