Toms River student's Trump flag got him kicked out of class. Now his mom wants an apology
Toms River High School North junior Zach Dougherty speaks at a rally in Toms River after a massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
TOMS RIVER - A high school student claims he got kicked out of a virtual class for refusing to remove a campaign banner for President Donald Trump hanging on the wall behind him and felt pressure from another teacher who called the banner a "distraction" and "offensive."
"Looking back I kind of regret it because I have the right in my house to do what I believe," said Anthony Ribeiro, 17, who attends Toms River High School North. "This should not happen to anyone."
His mother, Tara Jost, wants an apology.
“It bothers me because it’s in my home. He is an honor roll student, and if it is in my home. For this teacher to tell him to take it down and then kick him out of class is absurd. I think they have to make an apology to my son," she said.
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School district officials declined to comment on the specifics of the situation, but said in a statement that Ribeiro has the right to post the banner and any effort for him to remove it went against district policy.
The controversy marks new territory for schools headlong into virtual learning in the COVID-19 age, but it isn't the first time such a dispute has arisen.
A northern California teacher came under scrutiny in September when a student was reportedly threatened with being removed from a virtual class if a similar Trump banner was not taken down.
That student refused and signed off before the class ended.
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Trump was at the center of another local controversy involving free speech and schools. Wall High School was forced to reissue yearbooks in 2017 after a photo was digitally altered to remove a pro-Trump message from the shirt of a student.
“I like to join online early to class. I was the only person in class. He (the teacher) looked up but didn’t say anything,” Ribeiro said about the Oct. 8 class with chemistry teacher Andrew Gilman. “Then when he was taking attendance, he came to my name and there were at least 16 to 20 people on and he said, ‘Anthony, take the sign down right now, there is no room for politics in my classroom.’
“I didn’t say anything, and he said it again. I just shook my head no, and then he goes, ‘if you’re not going to get up and take it down I’m going to have to ask you to leave the class for today.’ I waved goodbye, and I was gone.”
Ribeiro said he told his mother, who was at home at the time.
“I said, ‘you can’t be serious?’” Jost recalls.
She called the high school, and a vice principal called back and told her that the teacher had made a mistake. “He was in agreement with me and said they were 100% wrong. He said to leave it up.”
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Ribeiro said the same chemistry teacher had put forth his political beliefs earlier in the semester: “He made it a political subject talking about global warning and saying Democrats are the only choice you have to make for this because they look at facts and science.”
Gilman could not immediately be reached for comment.
When the chemistry class met the next day, Oct. 9, the banner was up and the teacher said nothing, Ribeiro recalled.
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But during his Oct. 9 English class, with teacher Leslie Maryon-Larose, Ribeiro said he was asked again to take the banner down. The teacher, he said, called the banner a possible disruption. Ribeiro said he reluctantly agreed, fearing it might affect his grade if he did not.
“I didn’t have the greatest grade in my eyes, and I thought it would make her grade me harder,” he said. “She said ... 'I respect your view but it could offend a lot of people especially in a time when we are in, it could be a distraction’ so could I take it down? I respected that she was talking to me as a person and asked politely.”
Maryon-Larose could not immediately be reached for comment.
Jost said she spoke to an assistant superintendent who said the request should not have been made by either teacher.
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“Regarding the recent incident at High School North, the district is handling the matter internally,” the district said in a statement. “The student was not in violation of any general code of conduct or any policy specifically related to virtual learning. We have worked with and are continuing to work with all involved parties to resolve the issue and move forward.”
A list of virtual education rules issued to students at the beginning of the school year made no indication of barring political or other background items, stating only that students must follow the district dress code (no pajamas) and cannot attend online classes from their beds.
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Ribeiro said he was never politically active until this year and now supports Trump.
“Before the quarantine I had no idea what a Republican or Democrat was and it gave me an opportunity to really watch things and documentaries,” he said. “And I have friends who have gotten me interested in politics and I am a big Trump guy.”
He said he does not need an apology, but wants to make sure no other students have to face what he considers a violation of rights.
“I hope it never happens again,” he said. “No matter if it’s Trump or Biden, people have a right to express their opinion.”
Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years’ experience who covers education and Monmouth County for APP.com and the Asbury Park Press. He is also the author of two books, including "Killing Journalism" on the state of the news media, and an adjunct media professor at Rutgers and Fairleigh Dickinson universities. Reach him at email@example.com and at 732-413-3840. Follow him on Twitter at @joestrupp