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Arkansas Arts Academy Students protest firing of teacher for comments to lawmakers over 1619 Project curriculum

Josh Depner was fired after sending heated letters to state lawmakers about two educational bills - one banning certain curriculum from being taught in schools.

ROGERS, Ark. — Students from the Arkansas Arts Academy in Rogers walked out in protest Friday (Feb. 5) morning over the termination of a teacher who sent emails to state lawmakers criticizing House bill (HB) 1218 and HB 1231 - a bill prohibiting the use of public funds to teach the 1619 Project curriculum.

The 1619 Project curriculum states that the slavery of African people in a Virginia colony long before the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was signed is the true beginning of American history. 

U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) has filed similar legislation at the federal level blocking the 1619 Project curriculum. 

RELATED: Sen. Cotton writes bill to 'defund' 1619 Project curriculum centered on slavery

RELATED: Educators fight back on bill to remove 1619 Project from being taught in Arkansas schools

Josh Depner, a former history/social science teacher at Arkansas Arts Academy, was fired after sending an email to Arkansas lawmakers criticizing the bills. The school said the email violated their personal technology agreements and the educators' code of ethics set for faculty and staff. 

Depner's letter stated:

Dear Fascist White Supremacists,

I teach U.S. History. Within my curriculum, we address marginalized groups within American Society.  Your recent bill is an appalling attempt to FURTHER whitewash history. It is absolutely nothing less than an attempt to codify white supremacy in Arkansas schools. Stay the f*** out of my curriculum. You want a say in what is taught? Get your f***** teaching license and come teach. Otherwise, f*** off. None of you have any f****** business dictating my curriculum, or even THINKING about doing so. I WILL continue to teach about marginalized groups regardless of the outcome of your cute little Fascism project, though I was happy to hear it has no chance of passing. Speaking of no chance, I can't wait to contribute to your opponent when you are up for re-election.  If you are running unopposed, maybe I'll even primary you.  I am a school teacher, after all, not a money-grubbing, small-time government crook.

Teaching about diversity and social conflict between groups does not promote division. It reckons with it. It is absolutely fundamental to drawing meaning out of a social studies class. If you were f****** stupid enough to write this bill, be sure to send your own children, grandchildren, etc. to the b******* backwoods private schools that teach creation science instead of evolution.

Stick to politics. Stay out of education.

Depner then sent another email to lawmakers apologizing, saying he is emotional and stressed out from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The apology email states:

Representatives,

I am performing one of our nation's most demanding professions and I am experiencing a high degree of stress and burnout and lost my temper this afternoon. This doesn't excuse my language and tone, but I hope it provides some context.

I am vehemently dedicated to my students and their learning. Our school has a disproportionate number of students belonging to the LGBTQ+ community. Like all Arkansas schools, we also have students of color. In reading your bill, I was deeply concerned by what this would mean to them and their families.

I am indeed concerned with how the proposed legislation would impact educators' ability to facilitate necessary conversations about discrimination and race. It is impossible to teach about our history without paying ample attention to these matters.

I am, however, sincerely sorry for how I addressed these concerns. It is no way to speak to anyone, regardless of any disagreements. I hope that you can appreciate that we all have weaknesses and flaws, and in this case I succumbed to frustration. I know that you are each faithful representatives of our state, and not any of the unsavory things I said out of contempt. Otherwise, you would not have been elected to office. I am moreover regretful that I sent them from my professional address; the concerns are my own as a private citizen and I should have conveyed them through the proper channels. They in no way represent my employer. If you would like to contact me, please contact me (email address removed).

I hope that you can forgive the hurtful and unprofessional sentiment and words of my initial email. I was wrong to compose it and solemnly promise to address any future correspondence in a dignified and respectful manner. Beyond all being Arkansawyers, each of us are civil servants, and none among us are perfect.

I wish you well in your work in our state government.

Depner was fired shortly after sending the emails.  

When asked if he should be reinstated, Depner told 5NEWS, "Absolutely." 

"I’ve been with the school for three years," Depner said. "I have an exemplary record. I have no documentation of ever being written up. In fact, on the day I was fired, I received a teacher of the year nomination from my principal that terminated me."

Upset about their teacher being fired, some of Depner's students walked out in his support on Friday. Depner was also there and said schools in Arkansas should be teaching all sides, not one over the other. 

“Conservative, progressive alike agree that we need to be teaching the truth," he said. "And so that includes Black history, Black history is our history, Black history is American history. You can not omit from classrooms in Arkansas."

Some of Depner’s former students at the protest said their teacher deserves a second chance, and there need to be more teachers willing to fight for their education.

Other students say Depner should receive consequences for his actions, although firing him went too far.   

5NEWS received a statement from Arkansas Arts Academy School Board Vice President Jeff Hunnicutt about Depner's termination:

"Arkansas Arts Academy administration and the board are actively working on the situation regarding Mr. Depner. Our regularly scheduled monthly board meeting will be taking place this coming Tuesday evening, where we will be dedicating time to hear from the public on this matter.”

Arkansas Arts Academy is a charter school in Rogers, Ark. that takes an arts-based approach to learning.