Classroom debate over Obama goes viral; teacher suspended

The teacher at the center of a controversy over a classroom video has now been suspended with pay, according to the Rowan Salisbury School System.

Tonya Dixon-Neely teaches Social Studies at North Rowan High.  She is heard on the video telling a student that he could get arrested for being critical of President Obama, and that people were arrested for being critical of President Bush.

“Effective today, Tanya Dixon-Neely has been suspended with pay while a thorough investigation is being conducted,” school officials told WBTV when asked about Dixon-Neely’s status.

The link to the video first showed up at WBTV on Tuesday of last week.

It came from a man who said he was a former teacher in the Rowan Salisbury School System.  He claimed that a student inside a classroom at North Rowan High School was being verbally abused in a debate over President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

“This video is circulating the internet.  It is about a North Rowan High School social studies teacher that is verbally abusing a student regarding a question about the President and Mitt Romney,” he told WBTV in his email.

“Please watch and listen to the actions of the teacher in this video and bring this type of bullying of students by the staff of RSS to light.  As a former social studies teacher in the RSS system, I can tell you that this type of behavior is commonplace,” his email continued. “This should not be allowed to be covered up by RSS, as they nearly always do.”

The video was shot on the student’s cell phone as it sits on a desk, staring up at the fluorescent light on the ceiling, capturing the often out of control conversation between the teacher and several students.

When one student begins criticizing President Obama, the teacher seems to go on the defensive, telling the student at one point that he can be arrested for being critical of the President.

WBTV contacted the Rowan Salisbury School System last week about the video.

Public Information Officer Rita Foil said she was not aware of it and WBTV forwarded the video to her.

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On Thursday, the video was discussed on WSTP Radio, generating several angry calls over the teacher’s handling of the situation.

The Rowan-Salisbury School System expects all students and employees to be respectful in the school environment and for all teachers to maintain their professionalism in the classroom,” a statement from the school system stated on Friday. “This incident should serve as an education for all teachers to stop and reflect on their interaction with students. Due to personnel and student confidentiality, we cannot discuss the matter publicly.”

School board member Kay Wright Norman calls the incident “unfortunate.” She says that educators have an obligation to speak fact. Norman feels the teacher was baited from the beginning but said a teacher can’t let let personal interest interfere with classroom discussions.

Several students at the school Monday defended Ms. Dixon-Neely by saying she is a “good teacher” who “cares about her students.” Others say the issue is being blown out of proportion.

“It tends to be a one-way conversation in certain classrooms. And if America is going to have a dialog on politics, it really needs to be a two-way discussion,” Rowan County resident Vernon Shurtz said.

“He was wrong for setting her up like that, he could have just went in and talked to her,” Student Desmond Turner said.

An article in the Salisbury Post by Sarah Campbell brought more attention, and when the Post article was spotted by several on line news organizations, including the Drudge Report, the incident got national attention.