Fifth grade teacher Diantha Harris was one of several Americans interviewed for the Sveriges Television documentary Från Bill till Barack (‘From Bill to Barack’), which aired on Swedish public television just days before the election.
The film was made by Swedish journalists Folke Rydén and Bengt Norborg, who travelled to the United States last autumn to film a documentary on US politics.
The trip including visits with several families the journalists had met while filming an earlier documentary ahead of the 1992 presidential election.
In a sequence during which Harris discusses the 2008 US presidential campaign with her class, she asks a girl who has expressed her support for Republican-nominee John McCain to speak out because the girl’s father serves in the military.
When the girl offers no response, Harris chimes in.
“It’s a senseless war,” she says.
“And by the way, Kathy, the person you are picking for president said that our troops will stay in Iraq for another 100 years if they need to.”
After being posted on the YouTube video-sharing website, the sequence caught the attention of conservative bloggers, who criticized the teacher’s statements.
A blog about Islamic extremism, The Tundra Tabloids, said Harris “willingly browbeat and belittled a student in class for her choice of a presidential candidate.”
Harris’s boss, Cumberland County Schools’ superintendent William Harrison also expressed his concern over the exchange she had with her student.
“I was shocked when I saw the clip of an interaction between a Cumberland County Schools teacher and her students as posted on YouTube. While neutral discussion of the political process is appropriate, at no time, particularly with elementary students, should a teacher infuse his/her political views into the discussion,” he said in a statement, adding that he has launched an investigation into the matter.
“Personnel laws prevent me from releasing information regarding individual employees and personnel action taken. I can assure you that upon completion of the investigation, I will take appropriate action,” he added.
According to the Citizen-Times newspaper, Harris said the sequence was heavily edited.
She added that she didn’t mean to advocate for one candidate or the other, but was merely responding to a request from Rydén and Norborg to discuss politics in the classroom.
Rydén said the sequence hadn’t required much editing, but also defended Harris’s comments, believing they had been “exaggerated” by McCain supporters who are frustrated at the results of the election.
“They have kind of interpreted the situation in a very evil way,” he told the Citizen-Times.
“Our feeling on Mrs. Harris is that she had a very special relationship with her students.”
Rydén said the exchange about keeping troops in Iraq for 100 years was simply an ploy used to provoke debate which “everyone knows is a joke”.
“I think her students know that as well. But if you want to, of course you can interpret the situation in a way that is not favourable for her, for the teacher, and I think that is what you are seeing,” said Rydén.
Rydén nevertheless believes that Harris, while being an excellent teacher, was somewhat caught up in the excitement generated by Obama’s candidacy and couldn’t help getting “carried away with the extraordinary feeling that Barack Obama is so important to the country”.
See the video clip below: