South Middle School teacher accused of racist remarks last year says district led ‘witch hunt’ against him

South Middle School students hang out on the patio outside the school after early release on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017.

More than a year after entering a settlement agreement and quietly leaving his post with the Lawrence school district, the South Middle School teacher accused of racism is breaking his silence on the investigation that he now describes as a “witch hunt” led by district leaders.

In an email interview with the Journal-World, Chris Cobb said Friday that he had been “railroaded” out of his job in the district, where he had worked for 17 years.

“I am coming forward now because I am fed up with our culture of lies, often propagated by an all-too complicit media,” Cobb wrote in an email. “I want people to know my side of the story, because the powers that be want me silent.”

District officials on Friday denied Cobb’s allegations.

Cobb, who taught sixth-grade social studies at South, was suspended with pay in fall 2016 after a parent complained that he had made racist comments during class. Administrators then launched an internal investigation into Cobb’s alleged remarks — the details of which were never revealed by the district — and eventually entered into a settlement agreement with Cobb that promised to withhold information about the investigation in exchange for an assurance that the district would not be sued over the matter.

The teacher, who denied all wrongdoing at the time while remaining largely silent about the specific allegations, still maintains he did nothing wrong. Cobb said he chose to speak out after being advised by Ty Cobb, his cousin and, incidentally, personal attorney to President Donald Trump, about a failure on the district’s part to include in its settlement agreement what is known as a “clawback clause.” Such a provision can allow employers to require their staff members to repay compensation, and can be triggered by any number of events, including the employee’s misconduct, termination, resignation or subsequent work for a competitor.

Because the district has already compensated Cobb with the pay and benefits he was promised in the settlement agreement, he is now able to speak freely about the incident without facing legal consequences, Cobb said.

And Cobb has a lot to say — namely, that he was the target of a “very carefully orchestrated” attack planned and carried out by district leaders, including then-Superintendent Kyle Hayden. (Hayden transferred to another role, as the district’s chief operations officer, in a much-publicized move last summer.)

While Cobb said he could not recall the specific remarks that prompted allegations against him in October 2016, he said complaints arose from a class discussion relating to that fall’s presidential election.

“Since it was an election year and I taught social studies, I decided to approach the election differently than usual,” Cobb wrote in his email.

“I asked students to generate a list of topics for discussion — no subject off limits,” he said. “I then permitted students free time over the course of several weeks to research whatever topic they chose in depth from candidates’ websites.”

Cobb said he provided students with a template to fill out with their findings, asking them to cite sources and include arguments from each of the major presidential candidates, including the Green Party’s Jill Stein and the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson in addition to Trump and Hillary Clinton. The students, after doing their research and comparing the candidates, were then instructed to choose whom they most agreed with.

After several weeks, Cobb said, he began implementing a classroom discussion technique that had been introduced to him via one of the district’s in-service programs for teachers. The concept calls for the teacher to read a statement that students must choose to agree or disagree with — those who agree move to one side of the classroom, those who disagree move to the opposite, and those who are undecided take a seat in the middle, Cobb explained.

“I asked students which topic they would like to discuss first and race was a hot button issue,” Cobb said. “So, I read a statement intended to get a reaction. It obviously did.”

It’s still unclear what, exactly, Cobb said to his students that triggered the complaint. The Journal-World interviewed multiple parents who had children in Cobb’s class at the time. Four parents interviewed in fall 2016 said their children had experienced discomfort and confusion when Cobb allegedly began discussing income disparities between black women and their white counterparts. Other accounts alleged Cobb attempted to explain the scientific reasons behind skin color.

Cobb defended his provocative teaching style Friday, saying that he “never shied away from controversial topics in class” because to do so, he believes, “is a disservice to students.”

He also said the district chose “wisely” in picking the student who made the initial accusation against him. The student, Cobb said, was African American and on an IEP (individualized education plan), meaning the child was enrolled in special education. Cobb said this factor legally prevented him from “discussing anything about” the student. Cobb also said district officials had ample reason to believe the student was being dishonest in the matter.

Because the child had a learning disability, Cobb said, “he probably didn’t fully comprehend what we were discussing or the idea behind” Cobb’s intentionally controversial discussion-starter.

While Cobb’s teaching style sometimes ruffled parents’ feathers over the years, he said, conflicts were usually resolved after meeting with the parent and explaining how classroom discussion topics were chosen.

But Cobb wasn’t afforded that opportunity in fall 2016, he said.

“The new administrator at my building, Jennifer Bessolo, refused to permit me to speak with the parent, despite my (documented) requests to do so,” Cobb said. “Why? … The district knew full well that, were I to speak with her, the whole issue would have gone away and they would lose their opportunity to railroad me out of my career.”

Cobb alleges now that the district targeted him because he had written several letters to the Lawrence school board expressing concern about the district’s treatment of its teachers. Cobb, who also served on the local teachers union’s negotiations team, didn’t specify which of his comments might have spurred the district to retaliate against him, however.

In a statement to the Journal-World Friday, district spokeswoman Julie Boyle relayed information from David Cunningham, the district’s chief legal counsel and executive director of human resources:

“We disagree with Mr. Cobb’s characterization of the investigation,” the statement said. “The district did not hand-pick a student. There was no orchestrated attack. The investigation had nothing to do with any letters Mr. Cobb may have written to the school.”

The statement from the district reiterated that “Cobb resigned his position” and that the district did not terminate his contract.

“After Mr. Cobb was placed on administrative leave while the district conducted the investigation, the district may have advised him not to speak to the complainant,” the statement said. “This is standard practice during an investigation.”

Cobb accepted the district’s settlement agreement in the end, he now says, because the ordeal left him feeling powerless and had made his life miserable.

“How long do you want to drag the misery out?” Cobb wrote in an email. “Victims just want things to end.”

Throughout the investigation and its aftermath, Cobb said he received multiple death threats, that his daughters were exposed to “absolutely vile trash” about their father on social media and that he felt like a “pariah” in his own hometown.

“I became a hermit, cutting off most of my social contacts and staying in my house for the most part,” Cobb said.

At the time, he was roughly five years away from being able to retire with full benefits, Cobb said. He’ll never receive those benefits now, he said. As for seeking another job in education, Cobb said he’s “not interested in working for anyone at this point,” much less working in a public school again.

For now, he’s living on savings. Despite everything that has transpired since that fateful classroom discussion in fall 2016, Cobb said teachers shouldn’t shy away from addressing race with their students.

“Yes, we need to talk about it,” he said simply. “As Trump (whom Cobb despises and considers a racist) has made perfectly clear, we still have a huge race issue in this society. Not to talk openly about it does students a disservice.”