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Staff file photo by Ben Benton / Marion County, Tenn., principal David Smith.

A Whitwell Elementary School principal under scrutiny over a recent online post attacking Democratic presidential ticket candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris has an unclear future in Marion County, Tennessee's school system, now that a complaint has been filed with the state and school board members have begun discussing the matter in closed session.

David Smith, principal at the elementary school in Marion County since 2003, issued a letter to the Marion County Board of Education and director of schools Mark Griffith apologizing for the post after he and Griffith met early Sunday. The post has drawn online criticism and even some calls for Smith's firing, balanced by contentions he has a right to express his own opinions under the First Amendment.

The posted meme consisted of photos of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, titled "The New Pad Party," labeling Biden with "pee pads" to mock his age and labeling Harris "knee pads" in an offensive reference to sexual activity that Smith said he didn't understand when he posted it.

Griffith said Smith asked during a Sunday morning meeting to be demoted to an assistant principal position, a move that was initially approved.

"Since that time, someone has contacted the state Department of Education and we did have a board meeting last night [Monday] and we did adjourn and went into executive session regarding [a] personnel matter. As of now we're still reviewing his status," Griffith said. An employment contract with the school system has not been signed, leaving Smith's status in limbo, he said.

State officials had nothing to say about the complaint when contacted this week, noting that because of "federal and state privacy laws, the department does not comment on complaint investigations."

Attempts this week to reach Smith directly for comment were unsuccessful, but in his letter he said he was unaware of the "true meaning" of the meme he posted of Biden and Harris.

"I want to start by sincerely apologizing for any trouble, embarrassment or personal strife that my actions have caused you or the members of the board," Smith begins his letter, noting he has been an educator for 27 years. "My Facebook post was not intended to hurt anyone's feelings or demean any person. It was a meme that I interpreted differently than its intent and by the time I Googled the true meaning of the meme, it was too late."

Smith took the post down "within minutes and apologized on the thread for having posted it," he said in the letter. "It was not what I had thought and not what I believe. I even contacted the few people who I personally knew who commented on the meme and apologized to them individually. I definitely am not a racist, sexist or bully. I love people from all walks of life and embrace love among groups."

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Staff file photo by Allison Kwesell / Cole Tucker, 16, walks in front of the Children's Holocaust Memorial at Whitwell Middle School. The memorial began as a class project in 1998 to address issues of tolerance, prejudice and hatred.

But one Marion County teacher entering her 41st year in the profession was outraged over the meme.

"I have never witnessed such sexism, racism or ageism in this county," Mendy Curtis, a teacher at Jasper Elementary School, said in an email to the Times Free Press about Smith's post.

"As educators, our job is to impart a message of acceptance for diversity in our world," Curtis said. "To suggest that women rise in this world through the inappropriate measure that he suggests is disgusting.

"Mr. Smith is a school leader and travels around the world delivering speeches for the PaperClip organization," she said, referring to the Paper Clips Project and Children's Holocaust Memorial at Whitwell Middle School. "How could any employee step back into a teaching environment that is led by someone that posts these bullying memes. What a disgrace to the Jewish foundation to have this man representing them around the world."

(Read more: Israeli consul general visits Chattanooga area, drawn by school's famed Paper Clips Project)

Curtis said the system's policies are in place to prevent such behavior.

"Many teachers are frightened to speak up about this abomination," she said. "I have spent my life advocating for students, and now I will step up for teachers and parents. Students and parents also had the opportunity to view this meme. We have a weekly bullying curriculum in place. How do we teach this when a leader presents this?"

Some readers commenting on the Times Free Press Facebook page about the posting defended Smith, saying he had a right to free speech and to his own opinions, while others pointed out that people are often fired by their employers for offensive posts that don't reflect well on the organization, free speech or not. Several people posted sentiments that no one should stand in judgment over another.

Whitwell High School graduate and resident Josh Leonard posted that people don't know Smith "like we do."

Smith "is the best principal in all of Marion county," Leonard wrote. "The man will give the shirt [off] his back to u feed your kids and will protect them like his."

Meanwhile, Griffith said he made inquiries to the state on what's being reviewed in the complaint, but he hasn't heard back.

"I don't know exactly what the substance is in that complaint," Griffith said.

"What happens now is it was filed yesterday, there'll be a few days of review and we'll go from there," he said.

Now that Smith's status has become a closed-session discussion, Griffith said he'll be limited on what he can say about the matter.

"His status is still under review," Griffith said. "After the Tennessee Department of Education contacts me, our attorneys will be involved to see where we go next."

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

Whitwell Elementary School principal David Smith’s emailed letter:

Subject: Facebook Post

From: David Smith

To: Mark Griffith

Date: Sunday, 08/16/2020 9:33 AM

Dear Dr. Griffith and the Marion County Board of Education,

I want to start by sincerely apologizing for any trouble, embarrassment, or personal strife that my actions have caused you or the members of the board. My Facebook post was not intended to hurt anyone’s feelings or demean any person. It was a meme that I interpreted differently than its intent and by the time I googled the true meaning of the meme, it was too late. I did immediately take the meme down within minutes and apologized on the thread for having posted it. It was not what I had thought and not what I believe. I even contacted the few people who I personally knew who commented on the meme and apologized to them individually. I definitely am not a racist, sexist, or bully. I love people from all walks of life and embrace love among groups.

I am a 27-year educator. My passion is children and making sure that our children get the best education possible. I took over Whitwell Elementary School in 2003. It was a school with many problems in academics, management, and environment. After years of hard work and many changes, we are now the only State Reward school in Marion County. I love Whitwell and the people who live here. It is where I live, shop, go to the ballfields, go to church, and where I spend my time. I invest back into my community with hard work, helping my neighbors in need, and sharing my hope that we can help Whitwell grow. I have been sick about the negative impact this has had on my family and community. Seeing the toxicity of social media, I have completely deleted all my social media accounts. I have been overwhelmed by hundreds of emails of support and supportive texts from community members, students, former students, and friends from all over.

This school year will be unprecedented in our attempts to educate children. I do not want to make that any more complicated than it already is. I want to make this a smooth transition into the school year and one where students feel safe and loved. I believe my presence will serve to calm and reassure our children, as they try to acclimate to the “new normal” for school. As we head into two important transition weeks, I do not want this Facebook issue to distract from our educational endeavors. I am still laser focused on ensuring that our students and teachers are prepared for a successful school year. For the 2020-2021 school year, I think in the best interest of our school, I am asking to step down to the role of Assistant Principal and let Nicole Condra take over the leadership roles as Principal at Whitwell Elementary School. I think that this change would allow us to continue to grow as a school and is what would be best for my Whitwell Elementary School Family.

Again, let me apologize for any strife that I have caused during these already stressful times.

David Smith

Whitwell Elementary School

Source: Marion County Board of Education

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