S.B. High instructor says he’s being wrongfully moved to new campus for comments in classroom about election
A Santa Barbara High School government teacher says he is being wrongfully transferred for expressing his conservative viewpoints in class.
Wes Ratelle, who has taught at the school for 11 years, is scheduled after this week to move to Dos Pueblos High School, where he would teach U.S. history, career choices and driver education.
A student’s complaint to parents following a class discussion about the presidential election led to the action, he said.
“I think it’s because I’m a white Protestant conservative,” said Mr. Ratelle, 37, adding that he thinks his honesty enhances students’ education. “They know Ratelle is not trying to B.S. you . . . If you already know a person’s political bias and they share both sides, there’s no hidden agenda there. . . . There’s no deception.”
The case raised the question of whether it is appropriate for a teacher to express his or her political views in the classroom.
According to the Santa Barbara school district board policy, teachers are prohibited from “promoting any partisan point of view” when discussing controversial topics.
“The teacher should help students separate fact from opinion and warn them against drawing conclusions from insufficient data,” it reads.
About 100 people — students, parents and teachers — have signed a petition supporting Mr. Ratelle.
Santa Barbara High School Principal Kristine Robertson declined to comment, citing the district’s policy of keeping personnel matters confidential.
Interim Superintendent Brian Sarvis dismissed the teacher’s claims.
“He’s just trying to divert attention from the real problem,” said Mr. Sarvis, who cited district policy in declining to elaborate on what the “real problem” is.
Mr. Ratelle is asking that the district take 30 days to investigate the veracity of the complaints, instead of transferring him after Friday.
“I have a degree in political science,” he said. “I’m basically being bumped down.”
Mr. Ratelle, the head coach of the school’s mock-trial team for eight years, would swap places with a Dos Pueblos teacher.
The current complaint is not the first against Mr. Ratelle.
In the week after last year’s presidential election, a student complained about the views he expressed in a class discussion touching on the ability of President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry to appeal to voters in the middle.
Mr. Ratelle said he told the class that Mr. Bush had done a better job of finding that middle ground, and that Mr. Kerry was too far left of center to appeal to a large cross-section of Americans.
After vehemently disagreeing, a student in the class told parents, who wrote a note to the principal, Mr. Ratelle said.
He said he makes no secret of his political viewpoints, but is careful to ensure that both sides are addressed in his college-level class.
He said he’s registered to vote as a Democrat. “I am considered more of a conservative in the classroom, especially when it comes to ethics and morality.”
He said the school’s Advanced Placement government teacher for the junior class is known to be more liberal.
“The students just know when they are juniors they get a more liberal teacher and when they are seniors they get a more conservative teacher,” he said.
Often, the two teachers will debate one another in front of students on hot topics, such as whether the state should allow teachers to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms. That teacher also signed the petition supporting Mr. Ratelle.
The other complaint filed this year had nothing to do with his political beliefs, Mr. Ratelle said. In that complaint, a student disagreed with Mr. Ratelle’s zero-tolerance policy for handing in extra-credit assignments after the deadline. But that student, Nick Martin, said he thinks the transfer is heavy-handed, and his father has since withdrawn the complaint.
“He’s a good teacher,” Nick said. “His class is exciting.”
Other students seemed to agree.
“In the past, students have found offense,” said Lizzie Collector, who describes herself as a mild liberal. “But in my class there hasn’t been any comment by him I found offensive. If it’s based on whether or not he should be voicing his opinion, he’s certainly not trying to change anybody else’s opinion.”
“How the district is handling it is just ridiculous,” said Raad Mobrem, who is also a student in the AP government class. “You don’t just take a man’s job and totally swap it around and his whole lifestyle” without a thorough investigation.
Ann Lippincott, associate director of the teacher education program at UCSB, said she doesn’t think it is always inappropriate for a teacher to express his or her political view point.
“It depends,” she said.
“Ultimately what we want is students — especially 12th-grade government students who are able to vote and be drafted — to engage in critical thinking. . . . The teacher needs to create space for multiple perspectives and multiple points of view.”
STEVE MALONE / NEWS-PRESS PHOTO