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After photo of teacher giving finger to Trump sticker goes viral, John Carroll School dismisses her, changes social media policies

A recently hired John Carroll School history teacher became the subject of a social media firestorm last week after a 2-year old photo of her surfaced making an obscene gesture toward a bumper sticker supporting President Donald Trump.

Now, the teacher has been fired from the Bel Air Catholic school, and John Carroll administration overhauled its presence on social media, removing a public Facebook page and setting up private pages for current students, parents and alumni.

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In the photo, Najia Stallworth is seen giving the middle finger to a “Trump-Pence” bumper sticker. She said the photo was taken by her husband in a parking lot after they went to see a concert.

Stallworth, who had taught in public schools and other institutions since 1996, said she was fired from John Carroll on Tuesday, but said the administration did not reference the viral photo as the reason for her termination.

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She said Principal Tom Durkin told her she was being let go because of behavior unbecoming of a Catholic school teacher and referenced how she had used the word “sperm” on a page shared with students on their online learning platform.

Stallworth said the context of her using that word was trying to get in front of students sarcastically rearranging letters in PERMS, an acronym in teaching history that stands for political, environmental, religious, military, social.

“Every time I have ever used that, in the last umpteen years of teaching, somebody’s trying to be witty,” she said.

But Stallworth said she doesn’t believe using that word in her course materials was the real reason for her firing; rather “it was an excuse,” following blowback on social media after her photo went viral and an online petition that became too much for the school to weather.

Kathy Walsh, a spokesperson for John Carroll, said the social media post of Stallworth was brought to the administration’s attention Sept. 9, but would not elaborate on the circumstances of Stallworth’s firing because it was a personnel matter. She said those decisions are not made “based on the court of public opinion.”

“That’s not how we operate, that’s not how we do business,” Walsh said. “I would love to be able to tell you more and reassure people why this decision was made and that it’s not in response to any outside influences but rather for other reasons that we can’t get into because it’s a confidential, personnel matter.”

The online activity and comments surrounding the post, though, did seem to contribute to John Carroll’s administration making significant changes to its presence on social media.

Social media changes

On Tuesday — the same day Stallworth was fired — a message from Walsh was sent to the John Carroll community announcing that it would no longer have a public Facebook page and other changes to its social media, “based on the recent destructive and divisive social media attack waged by third parties with no direct connection to John Carroll, and the overall climate of social media.”

The day after the administration became aware of Stallworth’s photo, a message was sent to the school community that noted it was being “promulgated by third-party organizations and individuals unknown to the employee.”

But Walsh said John Carroll had already been transitioning to Facebook groups versus public-facing pages before the dust-up over the photo, noting private groups for parents and this year’s freshman class had already been set up.

“It really just hadn’t occurred to me to take that step with our main school page, but in just trying to think about ways to expand our efforts that we had already taken in that direction, it seemed like the right time to make that move.”

Last week also wasn’t the first time John Carroll has seen a third-party group “latch onto a piece of content that they take out of context and use to advance their own agenda.”

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Walsh mentioned at least one other instance when an extracurricular club posted a photo and some “fringe religious groups” attacked the school on social media.

“And it’s all sides of the aisle and issues, it’s not like we’re under attack only by right-wing groups, everybody has an agenda these days,” Walsh said.

Switching to private groups will enable the school’s community to use the good things about social media and “keep people out who don’t have any business — there’s no reason for someone in California to be commenting on something that’s happening at a small Catholic high school in Bel Air.”

In addition to setting up private group pages on Facebook, the school also disabled comments on its Twitter and Instagram accounts from individuals John Carroll does not follow. The school also temporarily disabled access to the Meet the Faculty page of its website.

Before the photo

The photo of Stallworth giving the middle finger to the Trump bumper sticker gained traction when it was shared Sept. 11 by Paul Lemon, a Fort Worth, Texas, resident who has about 19,000 Facebook followers. As of Thursday afternoon, the post had approximately 2,400 impressions, 8,200 comments and more than 146,000 shares.

Lemon describes himself on his Facebook profile as “A Patriot, a TEXAN, a NRA member, and a God fearing defender of the Constitution."

But Stallworth said issues at John Carroll arose before the 2-year-old photograph became widely shared.

According to Stallworth, who was hired to teach AP United States History over the summer, the school had received feedback from parents calling a text she had assigned as “Marxist,” and accused her of using a quote from a Nazi on her syllabus.

The text in question was Howard Zinn’s “The People’s History of the United States,” a staple in high school and college history classes, although one that the late author himself recognized is an alternative view of U.S. history opposite textbooks he once said “offered the same fundamental nationalist glorification of country.”

The quote on the syllabus, “History does not belong to us; we belong to it,” is by Hans-Georg Gadamer, a German philosopher that lived during the era of Nazism, but was never a member of the National Socialist Party.

It was after those accusations that the photo surfaced online and a petition titled “Justice at John Carroll” was launched on Change.org. The petitioners stated they were “tired of the school’s apparent bias,” and called for the school to take action against Stallworth, but did not mention her by name.

It’s unclear who started the petition, but comments by its signers reference “a communist textbook” and “using quotes from Hitler’s period,” which Stallworth said were references to the Zinn book and Gadamer quote. Some signers identified themselves as John Carroll alumni.

The petition was updated several times, including a post Monday stating “The school has let the clouds clear and no change has been done. We believe this unacceptable,” and an update titled “The End” on Wednesday, after Stallworth was fired, that stated “You all spoke, and John Carroll listened. News broke today that the teacher will not be returning to John Carroll. ... You guys did it!”

Walsh reiterated that outside influences do not have an impact on personnel decisions, and noted “there are always parents who have varying opinions on things, who may not agree with decisions we make in terms of those hiring decisions and operational decisions.”

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Stallworth said that the administration was generally supportive of her and responded to parents, refuting their claims about the book and the quote.

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Even when the photo emerged, once she provided context — the photo was on her husband’s page and claimed that it become public because of changes to Facebook’s privacy settings — Stallworth said she thought the principal and department head indicated they had her back.

“It came across as a very caring ‘we’re got you, don’t worry,’ we’re just going to ride though this and in a couple of years, you’ll only be remembered as the subject matter expert for AP U.S. History at this school,” she said.

The matter regarding her use of the word “sperm” on a document, she said, was initially addressed in an email from an assistant principal. He questioned her using the word after he received an email about it and encouraged her to “leave the humor to the comedians.” Stallworth said she responded she understood, changed the master document, and didn’t hear about it again until her firing Tuesday.

Stallworth said she didn’t take the online attacks personally, because she was new to the community, having recently moved to the area from Tennessee, where she last taught. She’s not sure what’s next for her, but said John Carroll’s administration handled the situation “horrendously,” and she’s afraid she might become “an educational pariah.”

“I’ve dedicated my life to teaching, and I don’t know if there still room in the educational world for me, and I honestly don’t know if I want to be part of it anymore,” she said.

However, she’s not backing down from her political beliefs.

“I don’t put anything out there that I won’t stand behind,” Stallworth said. “I’m not ashamed of this post, I’m really not. People can argue that it’s not the most mature thing, but I’m not ashamed of it and I stand behind the sentiment. And all of the death threats and ugliness of people who are slamming me for not being a good Christian, the irony is not lost.”

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