Hamilton County school officials respond to concerns of photo allegedly showing transgender teacher

Staff photo / East Ridge Elementary School, 1014 John Ross Road, is seen on July 25, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. A photo of a substitute teacher at the school circulated on social media Monday caused district officials to reiterate their standards for appearance.
Staff photo / East Ridge Elementary School, 1014 John Ross Road, is seen on July 25, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. A photo of a substitute teacher at the school circulated on social media Monday caused district officials to reiterate their standards for appearance.

Hamilton County school officials fielded concerns Monday about a substitute teacher at East Ridge Elementary School after a photo circulated on social media with a caption saying the teacher pictured was a transgender woman who asked students to call them "Mrs."

The photo appears to show the teacher standing in a school hallway, wearing a long dress with long sleeves and with dyed pink hair. Several students are also in the photo, with marks added to obscure their faces.

"Pray for this individual that they find the help they need, but making the kids call you 'Mrs.' and letting this individual in a school to lead children is not acceptable, Hamilton County," the caption on the photo, which appears to have since been removed, said.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga rally calls on Gov. Lee to veto bills limiting drag shows, transgender procedures for minors)

The person who originally posted the photo to Facebook did not return a request for comment Tuesday. The substitute teacher could not be reached for comment.

Hamilton County Schools received several calls and emails in response to the photo, spokesperson Steve Doremus said in an email Monday. He said Tuesday the district was not tracking exactly how many comments were received.

"HCS believes its schools should be safe, welcoming and inclusive spaces for all, and we believe our schools should provide disruption-free environments that facilitate student learning," Doremus said. "This includes an expectation that adults who interact with our students present a professional appearance that does not cause distraction."

District officials spoke to the agency that provides substitute teachers, Education Staffing Solutions, to "reiterate our expectations for the appearance of adults in our schools going forward," Doremus said.

The district did not respond to questions about its policies on dress codes for teachers and background checks for substitutes, an issue raised by some on social media. The school's dress code, available online, is aimed at students and does not address adult employees.

The substitute agency's website says it complies with Tennessee law requiring substitute teachers to undergo a criminal background check before being hired.

Multiple calls and emails requesting information from the agency were not returned Tuesday. Doremus said in an email Tuesday that the school's principal was not available for an interview.

According to a policy posted on the district's website, "It is the policy of the Hamilton County Board of Education to provide a work environment free from discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or appearance, race, national origin, color, creed, religion, age, marital status or disability."

(READ MORE: Drag show law leaves Chattanooga area performers, officials confused)

Angela Favaloro, a member of Moms for Social Justice whose children attend school elsewhere in Hamilton County, said she felt the photo being taken and spread was a violation of the teacher's privacy. A person's appearance, especially one as modest as the teacher's in the photo, is not a distraction, she said.

"Nobody wants to be bullied for their appearance," Favaloro said by phone Tuesday. "It's a perfect example of what we don't want kids doing."

In most cases, Favaloro said, school policy requires a person to get explicit permission before taking photos inside school buildings and posting them online.

"We don't even know anything about this person, to be honest," Favaloro said. "Short of really personal and intimate questions, could we even begin to say that the claims that were thrown around on social media were even true?"

Ashley Kaye Cox, a Chattanooga-based influencer who posts on Instagram as "Unsilent Patriot," posted the photo to her page after a follower sent it to her, urging people to call the school.

(READ MORE: Tennessee bill banning transgender youth surgeries, procedures headed to Gov. Lee's desk)

"Any adult man who would demand children to refer to them as a woman is mentally unstable and confused," Cox said in an email Tuesday. "If an adult needs children to validate their pretend fantasies, they should seek mental health help immediately and never be around children especially teaching them in school."

Cox and others commenting on her post said the district should not allow children to be exposed to the teacher's behavior. The photo was also shared on Instagram by Kendall Bailey, a Kentucky-based Newsmax commentator and Turning Point USA ambassador with more than 180,000 followers.

"If you are in this district, if you are near this district, I suggest you call and find out why the school is using your tax dollars to pay someone who is mentally unstable to be teaching your child," Bailey said in a video Monday, which had been viewed more than 70,000 times by Tuesday afternoon.

Contact Ellen Gerst at egerst@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6319.

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