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What teachers can and can’t say. Did a Citrus County educator’s podcast cross the line?

By Marlene Sokol and Colleen Wright, Times Staff Writers
Published: March 6, 2018 Updated: March 6, 2018 at 06:23 AM
Florida teachers are advised to hew closely to state standards, which encourage students to arrive at their own conclusions on controversial issues. Teachers can offer facts, but are told to keep their opinions to themselves. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

TAMPA ó Is a public school teacher allowed to promote controversial political views?

That depends on a lot of things, including where, when and how the ideas are presented.

Those details will matter as Citrus County school officials investigate the case of Dayanna Volitich, a 25-year-old social studies teacher who was removed this week from her classroom duties at Crystal River Middle School after revelations that she hosted a podcast espousing white nationalist views.

"If what they say is true, itís beyond the pale," said Dennis Holt, high school social studies supervisor for the Hillsborough County School District.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Teacher accused of hosting white nationalist podcast said it was Ďpolitical satireí

But what about Volitichís right to do what she wishes, as long as it is legal, in her spare time? And what if the material in the podcast had been more mainstream?

"Itís interesting," said Jennifer Morley, president of the American Civil Liberties Union for greater Tampa and a former high school government teacher.

"Some people consider it hate speech, so thatís a problem. But if itís not on school time Ö itís nuanced. As as a government employee, you donít have unfettered free speech rights, so thatís something that has to be kept in mind."

In a statement from her attorney, Volitich described her podcast as "satire" and denied that she is a white nationalist. She produced the podcast, called "Unapologetic, under the name "Tiana Dalichov."

News about the podcast, first reported by Huffington Post , broke over the weekend. In response, the Citrus County School District announced Sunday that Volitich has been removed from the classroom while it conducts an investigation.

The Huffington Post found Volitich and her guests espoused anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and suggested that Muslims be exterminated "from the face of the Earth" to prevent terrorism."

A guest on one show said it was hard to believe that "a kid from Nigeria and a kid who came from Sweden are supposed to learn exactly the same," to which Volitich agreed, adding that "science" proved some races are more intelligent than others, according to the Huffington Post .

The report said she also bragged about spreading controversial beliefs in the classroom and dodging school administrators after some parents complained.

Education officials said Monday that the case flies in the face of measures most teachers take to avoid being accused of imposing their views on impressionable students.

Teachers are advised to hew closely to the Florida standards, which encourage students to arrive at their own conclusions on controversial issues. Teachers can offer facts, but are told to keep their opinions to themselves.

"You should never say who you are voting for," said Rebecca Kaskeski, manager of the Hillsborough districtís Office of Professional Standards. "You should not say whether you believe in God."

Kaskeski went as far as to say a teacher should not try to talk a student out of belief that climate change is a hoax, or that the Holocaust did not happen. They could be learning those views at home. "You cannot get into offshoot opinions," she said. "The potential to offend someone greatly is so strong."

Morley, of the ACLU, remembers taking great pains in her teaching years to present both sides of an issue. "I did debates, I did mock elections, I was all in," she said. "But I was always really, really careful."

By sticking to the state standards, a teacher can avoid problems even when dealing with a hot-button issue such as slavery, abortion or gun control.

"Without saying, ĎHereís what I believe,í you can say, ĎHereís what some folks believe, hereís what other folks believe,í" Holt said.

"You feel like youíve done your duty if, at the end of the day, they say, ĎThis is what I believe and hereís why,í even if it is diametrically opposed to what you believe. Itís not your job to dissuade them from a strongly held belief."

Thatís not to say personal views never creep in. But complaints about teachers expressing them are rare. "I think teachers really get it," Kaskeski said. "And they are so busy, thereís not a lot of room for sidebars."

Sometimes, controversy can arise that has nothing to do with the class lesson.

Lora Jane Riedas, a math teacher at Hillsboroughís Riverview High School, ran afoul of the conservative Liberty Counsel in Orlando last year in a dispute about religious jewelry, posters that signaled her acceptance of LGBT students, and a studentís "Make America Great Again" hat.

Riedas, faculty advisor for the schoolís Gay Straight Alliance, defended herself successfully against all the allegations. Rosaries, not crosses, were banned in accordance with the school dress code, the investigation found. So were hats of all kinds, not just those in support of Donald Trump, also by school policy.

READ THE GRADEBOOK: The talk of Florida education

"I teach the curriculum," Riedas said. "Thatís what I do. I just teach. The mere fact that a student may know about who I am, if that upsets them, I canít change that. But I still teach them."

Citrus school officials would not comment on the Volitich case on Monday.

Martin Powell, chief of staff and general counsel for the Florida Education Association, said Citrus will have to take a hard look at Volitich to see if any of her views espoused on the podcast transferred into the classroom.

"The line generally is whether or not it impairs the ability to do whatever the operation is," Powell said. "If anything youíre saying or doing in that capacity is directly impacting the ability of the school district to run in the manner theyíre supposed to run Ö thatís really where the line is."

Even if the district canít find proof that Volitichís views affected classroom instruction, Powell said Citrus could have grounds to take action against her by claiming "loss of effectiveness." The State Board of Education could also investigate Volitich and take action regarding her teaching certificate.

Loss of effectiveness means the public has lost confidence in the teacher to do his or her job effectively, Powell said. Parents might not want that teacher teaching their children. Colleagues might feel uncomfortable working alongside her.

"Theyíre determining at what point the First Amendment right allows you to do something in the classroom," he said. "Does it cause disruption? Does it cause safety concerns? Does it disrupt the learning environment?"

But using that as grounds for punishment may get complicated. Powell says that term is tough to define and is highly contested.

"It is possible but itís a difficult hurdle," he said. "Those things do have their process."

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