An education trilogy: A tale of three hot topics in local education circles

Rick Wagner • Dec 31, 2019 at 7:30 PM

First, a national group became upset with a church’s mentoring program at a Kingsport elementary school.

Then a Sullivan County elected official expressed concerns over middle school “word art” accompanying a poem, although it was never meant to make it into the hands of students.

And most recently, a local pastor and statewide ministers group president from Sparta spoke against a flier promoting free birth control and pre-pregnancy services. Did I forget to mention the flier was sent home in his 7-year-old son’s homework folder and the minister teaches sexual abstinence?

These three issues have put Sullivan County and Kingsport schools in the news recently and at the center of discussions about what is and is not appropriate or legal in public schools.


The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation basically sent a cease and desist letter to Kingsport City Schools, asking that the system end a mentoring program Christ Fellowship Church holds at Adams Elementary for students who, among other things, don’t have two parents in their lives or are facing difficult circumstances.

The group presented it as an illegal mix of church and state, proselytizing not allowed by the U.S. Constitution. The three-year program was heralded by school system officials, including Superintendent Jeff Moorhouse, church members and other school officials.

Assistant School Superintendent Andy True recently said City Attorney Mike Billingsley was working on a response letter to the group. As of this writing, however, there is no word on when the letter will be sent or what it will say. The story detailing the controversy garnered the most comments on timesnews.net for more than a week.


County Commissioner Angie Stanley launched a public discussion on the “Blue Lipstick” book of “concrete poetry” with a Saturday afternoon Facebook post about how it was inappropriate for sixth-graders, although Director of Schools David Cox said it was never to be shared with or used by sixth-graders and was simply in a resource used in that grade’s language arts, not something that would be studied by any sixth-graders across the county system.

Stanley said she became aware of the word art — which depicts a cheerleader’s breasts — from an upset mother, who’s never been identified or come forward. However, by the time of the Nov. 7 school board meeting, “boobgate,” as it has been called on social media, went by the wayside when the local preacher complained about the flier sent home with his 7-year-old son.


The Rev. Rich Penkoski of Piney Flats said his second-grade son never should have been sent home with a flier promoting the Nov. 13 Remote Area Medical Free Clinic’s birth control and pre-pregnancy services. Cox said the information was passed along from RAM through East Tennessee State University to the school system nursing supervisor to school nurses, and a school nurse at Mary Hughes shared two fliers printed on each side of a piece of paper.

Cox said the unintentional and unfortunate sharing has prompted a review of policies and procedures of what is shared by the school system through fliers sent home to parents, adding that the fliers always have been intended for the parents, not the students, but that he understands how parents might be put in tough spots by a birth control flier.


Of the three, the mentoring seems to be the least resolved, with the birth control issue having possibly reached a conclusion and the word art controversy apparently dying out altogether. Predicting what will happen next in any of these situations, however, is an inexact science. Social media can make some issues appear to be larger or smaller than they are, depending on who is on your Facebook or Twitter feed.

Maybe one of the jobs of local media is to sort of “bring it all together” for a civil but spirited public discourse. More times than not, local issues that go viral on social media start out in the local media.

The teachable moments here are all about the separation of church and state, the freedom of ideas versus age-appropriate content and the promotion of birth control and pre-pregnancy services via a flier delivered home by students. Somewhere in the region, maybe some middle or high school students will become involved in a discussion about all three of these controversies and other such issues.

As the old television catch phrase goes, stay tuned to us in local media to learn what does or doesn’t happen with these and other local issues.

Rick Wagner is the education writer for the Kingsport Times News and can be reached at (423) 392-1381 or rwagner@timesnews.net.