Complaint alleges bias, discrimination at Spanish Fort High


Spanish Fort High School student Julia Coccaro and other concerned students and parents have filed an official complaint with the Baldwin County School System regarding numerous issues they contend show bias and discrimination on the part of the school system.

The complaint stems from the recent controversy involving a reading list at Spanish Fort High School that included a number of texts from majority conservative and right-leaning authors including Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, Ron Paul, Thomas Sowell, Chuck Colson and Ronald Reagan. Parents and students complained about a perceived lack of diversity of ideas in the texts and questioned the instructional validity of the reading list.

On her Facebook page, Coccaro said she filed the complaint regarding issues of bias, discrimination and violation of student rights, and that it had been received by Superintendent Eddie Tyler.

“I expect a full investigation, timely response and corrective measures to be taken by Eddie Tyler,” Coccaro wrote.

The complain contends

The complaint, signed by students and parents in Baldwin County, contends:

- The complaint alleges that on or about June 2017,  12th grade Spanish Fort High AP Government teacher Gene Ponder published a summer reading assignment that was “unbalanced, contained titles that are offensive and content that is unsuitable for academic study.”

According to the complaint, Ponder’s actions were in violation of Baldwin County policies and school polices stated by school officials and Tyler.

- The complaint alleges that on or about March 2017,  a student’s quote in the “Self Expression” page of the yearbook was censored due to a slight mention of her sexual orientation.

“The student (name redacted) initially included the phrase ‘After coming out of the closet’ into her quote, which is a reference to her becoming open about her identification as a member of the LGBT community,” the complaint stated. “However, Brian Williamson, the Principal at Spanish Fort High School, informed all students involved (portion redacted) that he would not allow any reference to ‘coming out of the closet’ or ‘coming out’ to be published in the yearbook because it was a reference to her non-heterosexual sexual orientation. The Principal explained that he feared it would draw negative attention to the school, and in making his rationalization, the Principal also mentioned that he did want the school to be held responsible for ‘bullying.’”

The complaint states those who were in attendance at the meeting with Williamson voiced objections to that policy, saying it was discriminatory in nature, “both in terms of directing censorship towards the expression of LGBT students, as well as the act of censorship of free speech and expression in general.”

“Despite student objections, Principal Williamson instructed students to change the phrase to exclude references to sexual orientation,” the complaint stated. “We feel that this had the effect of discriminating against an LGBT student, as well as violating a student’s rights to free speech and expression.”

The complaint states such acts are a direct violation of the First Amendment.

- The complaint alleges on or about March 2016,  a driver’s education teacher at SFHS spent an entire class period discussing his personal religious beliefs, including making descriptive references to the “pearly gates.”

“(Name redacted) declared at the beginning of class: ‘I’m sorry if I offend any students but this has to be said…,” the complaint stated. “(Name redacted) proceeded to preach his personal religious beliefs to students at extreme length and in great detail. (Name redacted) brought up “god” on at least 12 separate occasions through his uninterrupted sermon, during what students were expecting to be in a ‘Driver’s Education’ class.”

The complaint states such actions are a direct violation of the Baldwin County Board of Education’s policy regarding religious harassment and the First Amendment, as well as an Alabama Education Association Publication entitled “A teacher’s guide to religion in public school.”

- On or about March 2016, the complaint alleges a driver’s education teacher at SFHS spent two entire class periods discussing his views on “capital punishment, reproductive rights and gun control.”

The complaint goes on to say the teacher also discussed his views on former U.S. presidential candidate and Senator Marco Rubio, and went on to discuss the similarities between communism and socialism before “spending thirty minutes (or more) drawing his own economic plan on the classroom whiteboard and then comparing it to former President Obama’s economic policies.

The complaint alleges the teacher would “often speak about political matters during class time in general.”

The complaint said a student felt “intimated and obligated to listen, without an option, as a captive audience member, to a teacher’s personal political beliefs, instead of being afforded adequate academic instruction.”

According to the complaint, the actions taken by that teacher violate Baldwin County Board of Education policy regarding political activity.

- The complaint alleges that on or about January 2016, the teacher sponsor of the Democrats Club at SFHS notified Coccaro, the club’s president, that “LGBTQ-related topics were banned from being discussed within the meetings of the SFHS Democrats Club.”

“Assistant Principal Cindy Wilson had instructed him not to allow LGBT discussions during the club meetings,” the complaint stated.

According to the complaint, the actions taken are again a violation of the students’ First Amendment rights and are “specifically targeting the free speech of LGBT students.”

Remedies listed in complaint

The complaint then lists a number of remedies that are recommended the system take, which include:

- An investigation of the curriculum of Gene Ponder, including all assignments as they relate to “his use of a biased curriculum and instruction as a means of swaying the minds of students towards his own political beliefs.”

- An investigation of the violation of policies, specifically as related to Ponder breaching SFHS school policy and BCBE policy, when “he assigned students a reading list that contained books which were not from an approved list” as mentioned by school officials and Tyler.

- An investigation into the “long-time use of an unapproved summer reading assignment by Mr. Gene Ponder, which has been reportedly used for as long as 4 years or more.”

- An investigation into “the breakdown of leadership that led to Mr. Ponder being able to present unapproved curriculum for years.”

- Closer monitoring of the “curriculum and instruction of Mr. Gene Ponder, with an emphasis on preventing him from using his authority as a teacher to promote his ideologies to students.”

- An official written complaint against Ponder and his “biased instruction tactics” and documenting his alleged violation of school and BCBE policy.

- An investigation into the violation of the policies and how they relate to the unnamed driver’s education instructor using classroom time to promote personal religious beliefs and political ideologies.

- An official written complaint in the file of the driver’s education instructor for those behaviors.

- An investigation into the violations of civil rights as it relates to “preventing LGBT students from freely expressing their sexual orientation in school, specifically in regards to the yearbook incident and the banning of discussions on LGBT issues during the SFHS Democrats meetings.

- An investigation into the “culture of bias and discrimination that is widespread at Spanish Fort High School and within the Baldwin County Public School system.”

- An immediate amendment to the Baldwin County Board of Education policy to include sexual orientation within the equal opportunity statement.

- Mandatory objectivity training for all teachers within the school system, specifically on objectivity and preventing bias within the system.

- Mandatory First Amendment training for all teachers within the system, specifically relating to excluding religion from school.

- Mandatory student rights training for all teachers within the system, with regards to student speech, freedom of student expression, the First Amendment and matters of LGBT student rights.

- Sensitivity training for all teachers within the system, specifically with regards to LGBT students.

“Lack of confidence in Superintendent Tyler”

The complaint then goes into Tyler’s statement sent out on June 29 that was meant to clarify why Ponder’s reading list was cancelled.

“It is also concerning that the Superintendent was unable to bring himself to condemn books with titles like ‘Liberalism is a Mental Disorder,’ when there are both liberal and students with mental illness attending classes within the Baldwin County School District,” the complaint stated. “Your inability to condemn the offensive, non-academic titles chosen by Mr. Ponder goes against the spirit of offering a balanced education and is offensive to many students.”

The complaint criticizes Tyler’s statement that he is “not losing any sleep over what folks in California think about what we are doing in the Baldwin County Public School System.”

“We would like to clarify that we are not in California or Illinois - we are in Baldwin County, Alabama,” the complaint stated, and goes on to say that students and parents from within Baldwin County were the main sources for many of the articles published nationally about the reading list controversy.

The complaint goes on to express a lack of confidence in Tyler to perform his job.

“Your lack of objectivity, lack of sensitivity to students of liberal political viewpoints and the mentally ill, lack of leadership, lack of curriculum oversight, dismissal and/or willful ignorance of parent and student concerns by claiming that those complaining are in California or Illinois (we’re not), and your lack of professionalism overall, exemplify characteristics that are unworthy of the position of Superintendent of Baldwin County,” the complaint stated. “In light of this, as students and parents, we express our lack of confidence in your ability to perform your job duties.”

School system response

Gulf Coast Media reached out to the Baldwin County School System for their response. Spokesman Terry Wilhite sent the following statement from the superintendent:

“I have received the Spanish Fort student’s complaint,” Tyler wrote. “I will review it.”