Monday, January 22, 2018
Education

Riverview High teacher cleared after group claims she pushed gay rights on students

TAMPA — A teacher at Riverview High School who was accused by a conservative organization of banning crosses while advocating for gay rights has been cleared of wrongdoing after a school district investigation.

Lora Jane Riedas, who teaches freshman math and is faculty advisor of Riverview's Gay Straight Alliance, said she did not allow rosaries, as they are considered gang symbols and not allowed in the school dress code.

She said she did not discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in class. All 10 students interviewed by district investigators backed her up on that point, although some contradicted her on the issue of the crosses.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: At Riverview High, a teacher who supports LGBT students is accused of shutting out others

"I am just relieved, relaxed, for the first time in two weeks," Riedas said Monday. She viewed the two-page letter from the district's Office of Professional Standards as saying she was "100 percent cleared."

But the Liberty Counsel, which initiated the complaint, didn't see it that way. The counsel's founder, Mat Staver, pointed out a paragraph at the end of the letter that warns Riedas to "use caution whenever interacting with students" — a line Riedas described as standard.

Staver also said the fight is not over.

"We'll be following up with another letter to the school," he said. "We have other students who have come forth in other classes as well. We'll likely get that letter out tomorrow, Wednesday the latest."

The case against Riedas attracted widespread attention, and from both sides of the LGBT rights debate.

It created a stir in the school as well. For awhile, some of Riedas' students wore rosaries and drew religious symbols on their math papers as a form of rebellion. A small group of pickets carried signs outside the school that disparaged Riedas.

Days later Riedas and her wife, Riverview chemistry teacher Valerie Chuchman, were presented with signed posters of support.

"The kids' response to the protesters was really amazing," Riedas said. "Not just the kids, but the teachers, parents, the PTA and the school. I had a couple of kids from four years ago come and give me a hug, saying 'I'll miss you' and 'thank you.'"

District investigators delved into issues beyond what the Liberty Counsel outlined in its April 19 complaint.

There were allegations that Riedas would not let students wear "Make America Great Again" hats around the time of the presidential election in November. When questioned, the students acknowledged that — again, in accordance with the dress code — Riedas did not allow hats of any kind.

The original complaint took issue with posters in the classroom that say "Ally" and "Safe Place." Principal Danielle Shotwell saw nothing wrong with the posters. Riedas said the terms do not refer specifically to gay and transgender students, but to anyone who fears being bullied.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins said Monday he is pleased to have ordered a thorough investigation. "We, as a district, have a responsibility to our employees to give them due process," he said.

"This investigation revealed that we are being respectful to all students. We're being respectful to our employees in giving them due process. We always have to make sure that we are hearing the whole story."

Had students or their parents complained to the principal about the issues of the hat or the rosary beads, Eakins added, it would have been easy to explain school policy to them. But that didn't happen, and instead the Liberty Counsel began building its case months later.

"I still have no idea what student is even complaining," Riedas said. "No one asked to be taken out of my class."

Churchman said she fears the chilling effect that the case might have on LGBT students who have seen the very public campaign against their teacher.

"This shook them," Chuchman said. "They were starting to feel safe and now not so much."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

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