ATLANTA – A North Georgia teacher is on administrative leave and could lose her job after she allowed four students to don mock Ku Klux Klan outfits for a final project in a high school class Thursday, administrators said.
The sight of people in Klan-like outfits upset some black students at the school and led at least one parent to complain.
Catherine Ariemma, who teaches the advanced placement course combining U.S. history with film education, could face punishment ranging from suspension to termination, Lumpkin County School Superintendent Dewey Moye said Monday. Ariemma has spent nearly six years teaching in the rural county about 75 miles north of Atlanta.
She told The Associated Press Monday that students were covering an important and sensitive topic — but one that she might handle differently in the future.
"It was poor judgment on my part in allowing them to film at school," Ariemma said. "... That was a hard lesson learned."
The incident happened at Lumpkin County High School. Ariemma said her students spend the year viewing films and later create their own films to watch in class. She said the students brainstorm and pick topics to cover. This particular class decided to trace the history of racism in America.
She said the class has 15 students of multiple races, but no blacks.
A group of five students took on the subject, which included covering the history of the notorious white supremacist group which had large chapters in Stone Mountain, Ga. and Tuscaloosa, Ala. One student filmed and did not wear sheets, she said.
"The kids brought the sheets in, they had SpongeBob party hats underneath to make it shaped like a cone," Ariemma said. "They cut out the eyes so they could see."
Ariemma said she led the students through a cafeteria to another location where they shot the scene. Later, she said another teacher approached her.
"That's when I heard there were a couple of students who were upset," she said.
Ariemma said she wasn't able to find those students to explain the project to them.
Monday, student Cody Rider told Atlanta's WSB-TV that his cousin was among those who saw the group in white sheets and was frightened.
"I got mad and stood up and I tried to go handle it," he told the TV station.
Moye said a black parent went to the school to complain that evening.
Ariemma has no history of missteps at the school, Moye said, but administrators of the roughly 90 percent white school system are taking the incident seriously.
"This stuff happened in history. Do you ignore it? No," he said. "But you certainly don't walk the hallway in the garb."
Ariemma says administrators will review the film and decide if it will be shown in the classroom. She said the students who wore the sheets were shaken when they realized that other students were upset.