‘Bless you’ school suspension: Free speech debate or teacher frustration?

Kendra Turner, a high school senior in Tennessee, was suspended for telling a classmate 'Bless you' in class. Do administrators and parents need to open a dialogue about how to keep communications open to clear the way for learning?

A Tennessee high school senior Kendra Turner served an in-school suspension this week and is getting death threats after she reflexively said “Bless You” to a fellow student who sneezed during a typing class. Incidents like this may cause parents to wonder if some teachers’ determination to maintain control of the room could be creating an environment in which it becomes too toxic to teach effectively.

The response in many ways speaks volumes about how incendiary debates on faith and free speech have become in the US. According to a phone interview with Reverend Steven Winegardener, one of the people Kendra went to for guidance after the incident, “She has taken a lot of heat for this. She is getting death threats on the phone." 

“Kendra told my wife someone sneezed and she just had that common courtesy reaction of saying ‘Bless You’ without even thinking. Not even ‘God Bless You,’” said Reverend Winegardner. “I’ve heard non-religious people say that just because it’s so ingrained in polite society.”

He and his wife are both reverends and run the Dyersburg First Assembly of God, in Dyersburg, Tenn., which Kendra and her family have attended for the past six years.

As a parent, I wonder if this incident might serve as an opening for parents, school administrators, and perhaps community members – including faith leaders – to begin a dialogue about mutual respect and not getting so caught up in the details as to deter from educational time.

Calls to the Dyer County Schools’ Superintendent for comment were not returned at the time of this article’s publication.

Rev. Winegardner suggests that the unnamed Dyer County High School  teacher’s response to Kendra’s comment may have been due to feeling as if her authority was being openly challenged, rather than being wholly based on a religious issue.

“I don’t think it’s fair for people to be saying this teacher isn’t religious because I’ve been told by a number of people she attends a church in town,” he said. “People need to stop being hateful and laying blame so we can put this behind us and deal with real educational issues at hand like revamping the Memphis schools that are nearby. That’s what our school system is trying to do and they don’t need to be distracted from that ongoing task.”

Winegardner said that he would like to see his church and the Dyer County School system open a dialogue about how to avert this kind of tension in the future.

He spoke at length about how his wife, Rev. Becky Winegardner was approached by Kendra after the incident in search of solutions to the firestorm it was quickly generating.

According to Winegardner, this incident took place in a typing class wherein the teacher speaks commands and tries to get the students to get used to the keyboard.

“This may be more of a case of a teacher who required absolute silence and also had difficulty with words and phrases being used as well,” he said. “I know the media is trying hard to make this all about religion, but part of it is about how different teachers teach.”

Both of the Winegardners have a background in education, according to Mr. Winegardner. Mrs. Winegardner has been a public school administrator and teacher in both public and private school settings according to her spouse.

According to local CBS affiliate WMCTV, the expression “Bless You” was written on the board in the class room alongside words such as “stupid” and “dumb” as words that were banned from use by this particular teacher.

While Rev. Winegardner says that this is not an issue bases solely on religion, his wife pointed out in interviews that this same teacher had allegedly made negative remarks to students on the subject of their faith the previous week. 

“There were several students that were talking about this particular faculty member there that was very demeaning to them in regard to their faith,” Becky Winegardner told WMCTV. “This was something that had come up previously in the last few weeks just since the beginning of school and I shared with all of those students what their rights were.”

Therefore a few days later, when someone sneezed and Kendra told them “Bless You” as her first response, she also commented on constitutional law surrounding free speech, which may have triggered a more harsh response from the teacher.

“She said that we’re not going to have godly speaking in her class and that’s when I said we have a constitutional right,” Kendra told WMCTV.

When Kendra defended her actions, the teacher removed her from class, sending her to in-school suspension for the rest of the class period. According to media reports. Kendra was removed from the classroom for being “aggressive and disruptive.”

The Dyersberg State Gazette reports:

Turner was reportedly instructed to go to the principal's office, where she was placed in ISS for the remainder of the period. The decision by the DCHS administration to place Turner in ISS was one normally followed on a daily basis according to Garner. Once classes changed, Turner was allowed to attend her next class.

"The majority of the time, when a student comes to the office either voluntarily or was sent by a teacher, they are placed in ISS until the end of the period because we have two supervisors in there to watch them," said [Assistant Principal Lynn]Garner. "Also, it gives us a chance to find out what the situation is and what happened in the classroom for them to be in the office in the first place. In this case, this was not a religious issue at all, but more of an issue the teacher felt was a distraction in her class."

Winegardner said. “Kendra is a sweetheart. She’s a timid girl, respectful in every way.”

He added, “As a result of this incident a lot of doors have closed to our church and other faith-based groups who want to help our students and schools be better. I would love to see that door opened up.”

Winegardner says that he’s not talking about going into public schools as clergy to “preach an agenda” but rather as members of a community with life experience and talents to share as mentors. 

Before incidents like this turn the classroom into a battleground over free speech versus a learning environment, now might be the time to talk more about how these incidents can be diffused.

All kinds of toxins are removed from learning environments, from asbestos to junk food. This incident may offer a chance to clear the air in classrooms, filtering out the hostility and breathing new life into the idea of being partners in education.

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