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OPINION

Did questioning his daughter’s world history course make David Flynn unfit to coach football?

The controversy opens a local front in the ongoing culture war waged in public schools across the country over critical race theory.

A student stands atop the steps of the Idaho Capitol Building on April 26 in downtown Boise. The Idaho Senate has approved legislation aimed at preventing schools and universities from “indoctrinating" students through teaching critical race theory, which examines the ways in which race and racism influence American politics, culture, and the law.
A student stands atop the steps of the Idaho Capitol Building on April 26 in downtown Boise. The Idaho Senate has approved legislation aimed at preventing schools and universities from “indoctrinating" students through teaching critical race theory, which examines the ways in which race and racism influence American politics, culture, and the law.Darin Oswald/Associated Press

David Flynn was a popular Dedham High School football coach with a winning record — and the father of a Dedham seventh-grader — when he raised concerns about his daughter’s world history curriculum. A few months later, his contract was not renewed and he lost his coaching job.

In a federal lawsuit filed against three Dedham school administrators, Flynn claims his termination was punishment for objecting to the course material and therefore violated his First Amendment rights. “This was a straightforward retaliation claim, where someone complained about an issue in their school and they were fired for it,” Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative group representing Flynn in court, told me.

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Flynn and his wife were questioning a course that was called “World Geography and Ancient History,” but, according to the complaint, it focused instead on race, gender, and discrimination issues and was taught by a teacher who was allegedly using an avatar of herself wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. The controversy opens a local front in the ongoing culture war waged in public schools across the country over critical race theory, an academic framework that analyzes how racism is woven into American institutions and life. But it comes with an interesting twist: Did raising concerns as a parent make Flynn unfit to coach football in Dedham?

The school system denies that’s what happened. But, according to a letter cited in the lawsuit, which was publicly released at the time of Flynn’s termination and signed by the three defendants, Dedham parents and football players were told that Flynn “expressed significant philosophical differences with the direction, goals, and values of the school district. Due to these differences, we felt it best to seek different leadership for the program at this time.” The letter didn’t specify what values were at issue. But hypothetically speaking, what if a parent-coach expressed concerns about a teacher who created an avatar sporting a red MAGA hat? Whose job would be on the line then?

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Dedham school officials didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Brian E. Lewis, the lawyer representing the three defendants — Dedham Superintendent Michael J. Welch, Dedham High School principal Jim Forrest, and athletic director Stephen Traister — e-mailed a copy of the answer filed in response to the suit. In it, the defendants deny the allegations but say that even if true, there was “a superseding state interest” in making the decision at issue in the complaint.

Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment cases, said the lawsuit is among several filed “around the country by plaintiffs who claim to be victimized by the increasing politicization of education.” In his view, it has “a rough uphill climb because the school has a very broad pedagogical authority.” But does that authority also mean that every faculty member and coach must share the same political view? “I guess the outcome might turn on which persona emerges as the primary one — coach or parent,” said Silverglate.

So far, there’s no evidence Flynn imposed his politics on the locker room. What he did was build a successful football program. The year before he was hired, the team had a 1-10 season. Since 2017, the team has compiled an overall 19-14 record. As a coach, Flynn seemed to be well-liked and respected. According to the complaint, he “invited a female student to join the JV football team and welcomed a student with special needs to serve as team manager.” As a parent, he didn’t like what his daughter was being taught and complained about it. Unhappy with the response, he transferred his two children out of Dedham Public Schools and communicated his displeasure to several school committee members and to parents of other students.

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Flynn’s cause has been taken up by the Massachusetts Republican Party chairman, Jim Lyons, who at the time of Flynn’s dismissal, denounced it as an example of “the far-left’s moral enforcement authority.” Lyons also appears in a video produced by Judicial Watch in which he calls the case “cancel culture on steroids.”

Words like that only divide us. They don’t help us figure out how to teach critical thinking about race, gender, and class in a way that brings us together and lets Flynn coach football in Dedham.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.