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  1. Education

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

Math teacher Lora Jane Riedas is married to chemistry teacher Valerie Chuchman, who is an officer with the teachers union.
Published Apr. 29, 2017

TAMPA — Lora Jane Riedas knew something like this could happen. "I'm out. I'm gay. I work at the same school as my wife," she said.

But when the 45-year-old math teacher got that call from the principal of Riverview High School, she had trouble wrapping her head around the news: She was under investigation in the Hillsborough County School District.

A conservative advocacy group was alleging she didn't let students wear crosses and that her efforts to help LGBT students feel comfortable in her classroom had crossed a line into political activism. It made the others feel "marginalized and excluded, and not full members of the classroom community," they said.

On the eve of an anti-bullying event called Day of Silence, Riedas tried to figure out who had complained and why. The day of the event, April 21, she was called to the district's professional standards office.

"I'm confident I did nothing wrong," she said.

More than a week later, the case is still open. The controversy has spilled over into one of Riedas' freshman classes.

At a time when society is ever more divided on issues of First Amendment rights and morality, angry people are lining up on both sides.

Now, as school district leaders finish their review, they will need to answer a question: In trying to protect one group of students against being ostracized, did Riedas injure another?

• • •

The letter came from Liberty Counsel, the group that represented Kim Davis, the Kentucky court clerk who made headlines in 2015 after refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

It said Riedas was forbidding students from wearing religious jewelry. Not true, she said. "I'm a Christian myself. I would never do that because I would be hurt if someone would tell me not to wear my cross," she said.

She said she did tell a student or two that they could not wear rosary beads, which are against the school dress code as some consider them gang symbols.

But that was at the beginning of the school year, she said.

The second allegation concerned Riedas' work as adviser for the school's Gay Straight Alliance and local co-chairwoman of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

Riedas says those roles are separate from her work as a teacher.

The Liberty Counsel says they aren't. As proof, they have pictures of buttons and posters in Riedas' room. One, in a rainbow motif, says the room is a "safe and inclusive space" for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. A button on an inbox says, "I love my LGBT students." The decor signals that Riedas accepts students who might not be accepted elsewhere.

And it's not just gay students.

"I am trying to let kids know that if they need a sanctuary, my classroom is it," she said. "If they need to get away from a bully . . . if they just want to know that I'm not going to put up with name calling in my classroom. I address it. Some teachers, they let it go because they're kids. But I will address it. 'That's so gay?' Not at all."

Liberty Counsel founder Mathew Staver says the messaging goes too far. It's not just a symbol, he says, but the combination.

It's the rainbow stickers Riedas is accused of placing on student folders. It's a poster that says "Ally," a term for people supportive of their LGBT friends.

"She's free to do what she wants to do in her own time outside of that classroom," Staver said. "She's free to be a sponsor of a student-initiated, student-led club. But she crosses the line when she brings things into the classroom that pushes her ideas onto the students. You talk about being inclusive. But she's not including people who do not agree with her."

It's comparable to wearing a button that reads "I love my Democratic students. Or Republican. Or pro-choice, or pro-life," he says. "That puts a teacher on one side of the issue and makes people not on that side feel like outsiders."

• • •

Riedas is represented by Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, director of the Hillsborough teachers union, whose officers include chemistry teacher Valerie Chuchman, Riedas' wife.

Baxter-Jenkins usually does not comment on an open case, nor would she advise the teacher to do so. But since the Liberty Counsel sent its demand letter to superintendent Jeff Eakins, copies have appeared on a variety of websites, including the Tampa Bay Times' Gradebook blog.

The district said the letter was the first indication it had of any problem at Riverview. Until then, no one had complained to the school or the district.

"The allegations are patently false and, I believe, politically motivated," Baxter-Jenkins said.

"You have a school district with over 200,000 kids. There is no way all of their values will be the same. In the public school, you take kids as they come to you with all that means. You're promoting tolerance, period."

GLSEN considers the campaign a form of harassment. "We've been dealing with this kind of game playing from the Liberty Counsel for many, many years," said executive director Eliza Byard, who called Riedas.

"I told her I'm grateful and proud of every great teacher who's trying to do their best by every single student in their classroom."

Such cases are intended as a chilling effect, Byard said. "Liberty Counsel has been active for years in trying to misrepresent support for LGBT students as some kind of anti-Christian activity, which is ludicrous."

The group should work to improve schools, she said, and "stop getting in the way of people who are trying to do their jobs well under difficult circumstances."

• • •

If there is a hard line between tolerance and advocacy, Riedas says she is careful to honor it.

When a student asked if she could sign up for Day of Silence, Riedas says she told her, "at lunch, in the cafeteria."

She doesn't doubt some kids are curious about her life and marriage. But "when it's math time I am teaching math. Kids try to get teachers off track because that's what they do. And I'm like, 'I'll answer that when we're done with our lesson. Oh, gee, there's the bell, class is over, see you tomorrow.' "

It's a line teachers have to honor for all kinds of reasons.

Eighteen months ago, the district took criticism from civil liberties organizations because of student-led Christian clubs that were getting support from outside evangelical organizations.

The district responded with new protocols for volunteers and clear guidelines to employees to avoid having students or staff feel they were being coerced to embrace any religious belief.

The Liberty Counsel complaint essentially turns that issue on its head, alleging students are being coerced to accept social morals they might find offensive.

Baxter-Jenkins pointed out the schools have Christian clubs, too. She and Riedas find some parts of the complaint especially outrageous. It takes issue with Riedas' Facebook "likes" and Twitter "retweets." It questions whether her views disqualify her as the Gay Straight Alliance sponsor.

The Liberty Counsel's fans and detractors have mobilized with news of the investigation.

Miami Beach blogger David Cary Hart noted the Southern Poverty Law Center considers the Liberty Counsel a hate group.

Local conservative leader Terry Kemple, who ran three times unsuccessfully for Hillsborough County School Board, said in a written statement that Riedas "should apologize to her students" and "should be precluded from coercing any of her students to participate in the so-called 'day of silence.' " If not, "she should be fired."

Riedas is trying to stay out of the fray and focus on bringing her students up to grade level in math.

It's not easy.

As the story circulates, students in one class have taken the opportunity to challenge her. Some came to class with rosary beads. They drew crosses and wrote Bible verses on the back of their math papers.

"They're starting to pull other kids in who either don't care or just want to be part of the drama," Riedas said. "Some of them think it's a game, that it's fun. It's affecting our school like a virus."

Two years ago Riedas was recognized by her peers as Riverview's Diversity Educator of the Year. Now she just wants to quietly teach. She blames adults, not kids, for the disruption.

"I'm just annoyed that they're using my students," she said. "They're manipulating them. They're getting kids as teenagers to lie for their agenda."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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