Two candidates for the Hamilton County school board, Tom Decosimo and Marco Perez, have taken the opportunity to speak out about the student protest in Chattanooga on Monday over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.
The student event at Coolidge Park was advertised with a black-and-white image on social media showing a raised fist above the words "silent and nonviolent" and called on students to "protest against police brutality."
Incumbent Kathy Lennon — the school board member Decosimo and Perez are vying to replace — posted the image on Facebook, something Decosimo criticized in a post of his own which has since been deleted.
"Our current District 2 School Board member posted this on her Facebook page," Decosimo wrote above a picture of the event flyer. "I don't think any further comment necessary. I ask my opponent, who has received the full-throated endorsement of this member and served as her treasurer, what say you? Is this the strident attitude we want our students to adopt? Let's get our school board back into the hands of people with conservative values and traditional values!"
Some educators are concerned about Decosimo's own post.
"To date, all of Mr. Decosimo's comments have been squarely focused on appealing to his perceived base, rather than on students and their needs. It was unfortunate that Mr. Decosimo's first real mention of students was in an effort to stifle their voices and restrict their First Amendment rights," said Kendra Young, a teacher at East Hamilton School and one of the founders of Hamilton County United — a local teacher advocacy group that has endorsed Perez, as well as candidates in the other school board races on the ballot this August.
"We were glad to see the District 2 community take such a swift stand against Mr. Decosimo's anti-student rhetoric. The ultimate role of any school board member is to lift the voices of the students and families they represent. It was painfully clear yesterday that Mr. Decosimo is not interested in lifting student voices in any way, especially if he disagrees with them, nor are his views representative of District 2 as a whole," Young said.
Giselle Palmer, a teacher at East Side Elementary, said that she was also worried about Decosimo speaking out against student voices. She noted that although school board members are elected by constituents in their district, they have an obligation to advocate for their students — and they often weigh in on policies that have to do with some of the social justice issues students were protesting Monday.
"School board members help to inform policies in schools related to things such as social-emotional supports, discipline and resources that are approved for those at-risk communities," Palmer said. "This is why it is crucial that we have people on the board who are there, first and foremost, to advocate for the needs of all students."
Decosimo said that his post has been mischaracterized. He told the Times Free Press that he is in favor of students protesting and speaking out on issues they care about, but wasn't in favor of the imagery the flyer advertising the event invoked.
"I think students will always need to speak out on what they believe. That's part of growing. That's part of finding your voice. That's part of leadership building. I don't think it's a school board member's business to stifle our students. Our students are our future leaders in training. I want students who speak their mind as long as it's respectful, lawful and safe," Decosimo said. "The symbol was something that I thought screamed violence. I don't want a clenched fist. I rejected that symbol of violence. I viewed it as a symbol of hate."
Decosimo also worries that protesting against "police brutality" as a blanket term is an indictment of local law enforcement.
"I'm against police brutality. But I know what our police and first responders do. I know we have some bad apples, but I feel like that statement kind of was an indictment against all of them," he added.
Decosimo and Perez are both running for the District 2 seat that will be left vacant by Lennon, who initially filed papers to qualify for re-election, then pulled out of the race in April.
She told the Times Free Press that she was proud of the hundreds of students who showed up and spoke out in Coolidge Park Monday.
"It's a teachable moment, and I think as educators that we are supposed to teach our students and our children how to do that, how to navigate the political systems peacefully. I would walk right beside them," Lennon said. "We have to listen to the voice of our kids."
Perez was present at Monday's protest, alongside his 17-year-old daughter, who wanted to participate, he said.
"I went because I believe that students have the right to speak in a peaceful, nonviolent way. They have a right to voice their concerns. I think we as a school board have an obligation to listen to their concerns, and listen to all stakeholders and their views, regarding the future they see ahead of them," Perez told the Times Free Press.
Lennon acknowledged that during her four years on the school board it has sometimes been a balancing act between ensuring she is representing the interests of District 2 constituents and doing right by all 45,000 students in Hamilton County.
"That is what the school board is about. It's about making the best possible decisions for the 45,000 students we were elected to represent," Lennon said. "I think the kids are our constituents, too. They are the future of our city."
Hundreds of high school and college students gathered in Coolidge Park Monday afternoon to speak out about police brutality, racial injustice and the death of Floyd, an African American man, in the custody of a white officer.
The students shared their experiences and then silently marched across the Walnut Street Bridge holding signs with the names of nearly 80 people who have died as a result of police violence. The protest was just one of more than a dozen that have taken place in Chattanooga for more than a week.
Four seats on the Hamilton County school board — Districts 1, 2, 4 and 7 — are on the August 6 ballot this year. The District 2 race is the only race without an incumbent seeking re-election.