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Staff file photo by Ben Benton / David Smith, of Whitwell, Tenn.

A groundswell of support for a Marion County, Tennessee, principal who ended up in hot water over a social media post about the Democratic presidential ticket will culminate in a support parade on Sunday in his hometown of Whitwell.

David Smith's job as principal at Whitwell Elementary School is in limbo after a complaint was filed earlier this month with the state Department of Education over a social media post Smith made saying Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and running mate Sen. Kamala Harris were "The New Pad Party," labeling Biden with "pee pads," referring to his age, and Harris with "knee pads," a sexual reference.

The post was taken down within minutes but not before some who read it voiced outrage.

Smith met with director of schools Mark Griffith on Aug. 16, issued a letter of apology and Griffith initially agreed to Smith's request for a demotion from principal to an assistant principal position.

However, a complaint was filed with the state the next day that caused school board members to take the matter into closed session with the board's attorney. Griffith said that means he can't discuss the matter in much detail. On Thursday, Griffith said there had been no further action in the school board probe on Smith's post.

Griffith said the system's central office is continuing to get calls and emails from both supporters and critics as Smith's situation "is still being vetted by state and local" officials. For the time being, Smith is working as assistant principal at the school, Griffith said Thursday.

In his Aug. 16 letter, Smith said, "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."

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."

The post generated immediate criticism and calls for Smith's firing while others said Smith had a right to his own opinions and free speech. Many critics posting comments on the Times Free Press social media page weren't from Marion County but thought the post was out of line.

"He's an educator! You can't say this kind of stuff and not lose your career," Cleveland, Tennessee, resident Charla Combs Filter wrote in her post.

"You have to keep your political views and religious views to yourself," she wrote. "My sister is a principal and she will be the first to tell youdo not post stuff like this on your page, he should've known better. He's been doing this job a long time."

"I'm not so sure I'd feel comfortable with him being in charge of my children, after that comment," she said, adding, "I hope he doesn't lose his job, cause [sic] I'm sure he will never do [it] again."

Since those developments, many members of the Whitwell and Marion County school community have jumped to Smith's defense, saying they believe the school leader wasn't aware of what the posts meant. Many contend the fact that he removed the post as soon as he learned its offensive reference shows he meant no harm to anyone, supporters contend, and Smith's record of service to his community and school shows his true character.

A private Facebook group called "Citizens in support of David Smith" had more than 1,600 members and hundreds of comments on Thursday. Group members praised the veteran principal and called for the community to rally around him by posting stories and photos on the site and participating in a parade to show him their support Sunday evening.

The plan is for Smith's supporters to line the street in Whitwell as he rides through starting at 5 p.m. CDT Sunday. Masks and social distancing are recommended to avoid the spread of COVID-19. It also happens to be Smith's birthday, supporters note.

"He was my principal in middle school and has been both of my kids' principal at the Elementary school for 7 years now," parent and former Whitwell student Brooke Goforth said in an email to the Times Free Press.

Goforth is one of the administrators of the support page for Smith.

"I can't tell you how many times he has helped me with them being sick and sitting with them while they waited on me, eating lunch with them, helping them when they got hurt," Goforth said. She said Smith helped with concerns over some threats made by another student that led to help for that student.

"His compassion for his students past and present is unprecedented," Goforth said. "He comes to sporting events to support them. He mows the school's grass himself without pay and does projects himself to better the school."

Virginia Henry, another former student, current school parent and longtime acquaintance of Smith, said the principal's misinterpreting of the meme that drew so much fire drew undeserved reaction.

"I personally attended church with Mr. Smith for years. I have been his student, my children attend his school, and I babysat his children in his own home," Henry said in her email to the Times Free Press. "I have never seen anything that was inappropriate out of Mr. Smith."

Henry said Smith's misinterpretation grew from political sentiments regarding the act of kneeling in protest.

"As a Christian, Mr. Smith is somewhat conservative and naturally would share views with the Conservative party," Henry said. "The Liberal party/Democrats have made a practice of kneeling as a protest against our national anthem and anything that they do not agree with. Mr. Smith and many others made the same mistake of thinking that the knee pads reference was a joke about all of the kneeling the liberals have done over the past four years."

Henry said "in her heart" she knows Smith meant no offense toward women.

"I have known him for over 25 years and never seen anything of this nature from him. The whole community is grieving over this. Such a fine man doesn't deserve to have his life torn apart over a naive mistake," Henry said. "He has apologized and is horrified by how the meme was misunderstood. The kids at Whitwell Elementary do not deserve to suffer from this mistake."

Henry said Smith is selfless in his dedication to his community.

"He devotes his personal time and money to the kids at our school to be sure that each of them have the greatest chance of success," Henry said.

Whitwell student grandmother Peggy Hudson said Smith showed his love for children in his community when he made a special effort on a mother's behalf.

"This sweet baby girl lost her mom to cancer in July of 2018," Hudson said in a post on the support page, alongside a photo of her granddaughter.

"Her mothers wish was to see her little girl start to pre-K. Sadly she knew she probably would not live long enough to see that. But she did, thanks to David Smith," Hudson said in the post. "He had a mock 1st day of pre-K so her mother could witness it. He followed this baby around school all day and took pictures so her mother could see the things she did. And this is the kind of man David Smith is!!"

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

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