Epping Hopes 'Respectful' Forum On Trump T-Shirt Issue Can Set Example

Apr 19, 2019

Epping residents and school officials applaud as high school junior Faith Williamson calls for adults to show more political civility on social media.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Residents in Epping say their schools need to encourage acceptance of all kinds of political speech, in the wake of a controversy at the high school earlier this month.

At least 100 people came to a forum about the incident, centered on a a student's pro-Donald Trump T-shirt, during Thursday night’s school board meeting.

The Epping High School principal apologized after telling freshman Ciretta Mackenzie, during an America-themed spirit day in early April, to cover her shirt that displayed President Trump’s campaign logo.

Mackenzie and her family say they believe the principal had good intentions: to protect Mackenzie from harassment. But they say the bigger problem is that harassment for political beliefs was a possibility in the first place.

Attendees at the forum said the incident shows school leaders need to help students understand their right to free speech and teach them to respect views they disagree with.

An Epping resident in a spangled shirt and "Make America Great Again" hat advocates at the forum for more civic education.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

“The real test will be if, in six months from now, another kid comes in and wears a shirt like Ms. Mackenzie wore,” said Dana Buckley of Candia. “And the parents of that student say, ‘How was school today?’ and they say ‘Great, I wore my Trump shirt, and nobody bullied me or harassed me or intimidated me today.’”

Rose Mackenzie, Ciretta’s mother, says Epping should also work to remove what she sees as liberal bias in the classroom.

“I think that both sides need to be taught,” she says. “Civics needs to be taught, the Constitution needs to be taught.”

Epping state Rep. Sean Morrison, a Republican who's also a parent in the school district, said he plans to push for changes to school ethics laws that would seek to prevent politicization in the classroom.

School officials say they plan to conduct a survey on ways the district could improve. And they say they’ll hold a diversity training to find ways to talk about sensitive issues in the classroom.

Residents say they were happy Thursday’s hour-long forum remained civil and largely positive.

Attendees waited outside the forum with Trump campaign flags.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

But they say they also hope that tone will spread to social media, where the T-shirt incident has made Epping schools the target of harsh criticism from across the country in recent days – as well as a flood of hundreds of comments with memes supporting President Trump.

Faith Williamson, a high school junior and school board member, said what she called the “respectful” tone of Thursday’s forum should be an example for adults online to follow.

“Students had to watch as adults were speaking terrible things about a principal that we respect,” she said. “I just ask, that following this event and in the future, for everyone to think before they’re posting. Students are on that page too, and we want to be able to feel like our opinions matter too.”

Williamson’s comments, near the end of the forum, got a standing ovation from school faculty and residents.