Thursday, September 21, 2006

Flag Burning Teacher Beats The Rap

Kentucky high school teacher Dan Holden, who recently ignited a firestorm of controversy (our earlier coverage here) by burning two U.S. flags in his classroom, won't be facing any criminal charges:
A Stuart Middle School teacher won't be arrested for burning two American flags in his classroom because authorities said his students were not put at enough risk to warrant charges.

But teacher Dan Holden won't return to teaching until the Jefferson County school district decides whether he violated school rules with his unorthodox lesson on freedom of speech. He has been assigned to noninstructional duties.

A 98-page investigative file released yesterday by the Louisville Fire & Rescue arson squad found that Holden left the students with the burning flags while he went to get water to extinguish them.

"On two occasions, teacher set fire to combustible material (flag), allowing material to burn in garbage can and on desk, then left the classroom filled with students in an attempt to find water to put the fire out," the investigation concluded.

Both the commonwealth's and county attorney's offices reviewed the arson investigation and determined that criminal charges weren't warranted.

Bill Patteson, a spokesman for the county attorney's office, said the evidence failed to meet the standard for a charge of criminal wanton endangerment -- an act causing a significant risk of serious injury or death.

"Based on the evidence that we had, we could find neither of those elements present, (and) we could not recommend prosecution," he said.

Steve Tedder, a spokesman for Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Stengel, said his office also would not pursue criminal charges.

"The issues are with the policies and procedures of the school board, not with the criminal justice system," Tedder said.

Patrick Bissig, whose daughter was in Holden's class, agreed with the decision.

"I did not look for him to be prosecuted," he said. "He doesn't need to be fired. Reassigned? Perhaps. You dabble in sensitive areas when you burn a flag."

Although flag burning is constitutionally protected speech, the district hasn't decided whether Holden acted appropriately, said Lauren Roberts, a spokeswoman for Jefferson County Public Schools.

Holden hasn't commented publicly since he burned the flags.

Administrators said Holden told them he wasn't making a political statement, but rather was trying to provoke students to think about free speech, discuss it with their parents and write about it.

But the incident fueled a national uproar among parents and made headlines on CNN, The Drudge Report and elsewhere. The district was deluged with calls and e-mail messages.

Holden burned a flag in two classes, one with 30 students and another with 24 students.

The flags were about 18 inches by 12 inches with wooden poles. He lighted the cloth on each flag while holding it over a small metal trashcan, according to investigation documents.

Holden told school officials that he had wet paper towels surrounding the trashcan on his desk, but several students told investigators that Holden had to leave the classroom to get more water to put out the fire.

As part of the fire department's investigation, arson detectives questioned several of Holden's students, and school officials provided detectives written statements of what they saw.

One student told investigators that smoke from the fire made students cough.

"It was smokey (sic), cause I'm like allergic to smoke and the whole room was full of smoke and like I was coughing, a lot of people was coughing," the student said in a transcribed statement in the file.

Asked whether the fire was frightening, the student replied: "Not really. I just thought he could have dropped the flag and could have, you know, made the whole classroom on fire."
Given the time and place where Holden pulled his stunt, it's quite possible that he might just lose his job over this one.
See our latest EduPosts and today's Extra Credit Reading.