fb-pixel Skip to main content
IDEAS

A bitter lesson in Dedham schools

Football coach David Flynn was fired after he questioned what his daughter was learning about race. Now the school district says it’s sorry — but it has only further muddled the issue of free speech in education.

David Flynn, the former head football coach at Dedham High School.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

In January 2021, David Flynn lost his job as Dedham High School’s head football coach after he questioned lessons on race and bias that his daughter was receiving as part of her seventh-grade social studies course. He sued over his dismissal, and this past summer, the case was settled.

The key part of the settlement: a remarkable letter, dated July 22, that was sent to Flynn by Dedham Schools Superintendent Michael J. Welch. “First and foremost, I want to acknowledge and validate the concerns you initially raised regarding your daughter’s experience at Dedham Middle School,” wrote Welch. Flynn, he added, “had every right to inquire” about the social studies curriculum, which had changed without notice to parents. A curriculum advisory committee was now in place to make sure changes like that would no longer happen without such notice. In addition, wrote Welch, the Dedham teaching staff was now prohibited from using the Black Lives Matter emoji on online education material and from wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts in the classroom.

Advertisement



Flynn was dismissed from coaching because of values deemed out of sync with those of Dedham Public Schools. And now, teachers can’t display one specific slogan supposedly associated with the district’s values. Dedham Public Schools lurched from one direction to another — and where that lurching took the district is “a murky place to be,” acknowledges Welch. In the effort to balance parents’ and educators’ rights, everyone’s rights have been trampled.

Dedham school administrators hope that settling the case is a way to move on from an extremely stressful and disruptive chapter in the town’s history. But while the legal battle over Flynn’s firing is over, the division caused by this controversy is not. A community torn apart is not so easily put back together. Respect for others and a willingness to listen — both part of the school system’s educational mission — were also casualties of this controversy.

Advertisement



“We used to stand around the soccer field to watch games and everyone would cheer together. Now people don’t even talk to each other,” says Flynn. “It’s horrible what happened in this town.” Welch also acknowledges that there has been a “chilling effect” on educators who might now have their lessons challenged: “Even the people who weren’t involved are scared. They think ‘That could be me,’” he says.

This story begins in September 2020, when learning was remote because of COVID-19. Flynn, who is a special education teacher at Braintree High School, was working from home and supervising his daughter, a seventh-grader at Dedham Middle School. He was also the Dedham High School football coach — a dream job for the Dedham native and high school football star who went on to play the game at Union College, where he was captain of the 1992 team. Hired as Dedham’s coach in 2011, Flynn grew the program from 40 to 90 students and took the program from a 1-10 season in 2010 to a playoff victory in 2018.

During the first week of school, Flynn noticed a lesson his daughter was receiving in a course titled World Geography and Ancient History I. It struck him as unrelated to that topic. It focused on race, gender, and bias, subjects that are being fought over in public schools across the country. It required students to consider factors that two people — one white, one Black — might use to assess each other. The online instruction materials also included a cartoon version of the teacher wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt.

Advertisement



Given the course title, “I didn’t understand the assignment,” says Flynn. After questioning the classroom teacher and school principal, he eventually ended up in Welch’s office. Among his concerns: The curriculum was changed without notifying parents. In his view, the coursework was not suitable for seventh-graders. And the teacher was not teaching objectively, with Exhibit A being the T-shirt emoji. Flynn also sent a lengthy e-mail to three school committee members and some 20 parents, giving his side of his meeting with Welch. He was not shy about expressing his political views or his disdain for the school system’s stated commitment to teaching diversity and equity through the lens of Black Lives Matter. As Flynn wrote in the e-mail: “My concern is the fact that Dedham Public Schools seems to be supporting the BLM movement. I told him [Welch] we are all for equality, diversity, and inclusion, but will not support hatred of police, hatred of religion, destruction of property and violence.”

He also withdrew his two children from Dedham Public Schools. But the saga did not end there.

In January 2021, Flynn was asked to attend a meeting with Welch, along with the high school principal and the athletic director. He was given a copy of the e-mail he had sent to school committee members and was told the school system “was going in a different direction” with the football program. After the meeting, school administrators released a letter informing Dedham High football players and families that Flynn would not be reappointed. The reason: He had expressed “significant philosophical differences with the direction, goals, and values of the school district,” and, due to those differences, “we felt it best to seek different leadership for the program at this time.”

Advertisement



With that news — first reported by tbdailynews.com — “this town split,” says Flynn. “There were the supporters of Coach Flynn. The other side started calling the supporters of Coach Flynn white supremacists and racists.” Much of the hostility played out on social media, but some of it happened the old-fashioned way. “I was called a racist — once when I was with my mother,” says Flynn, 52, who insists he is not one. His football team had “Black kids, Muslim kids, Puerto Ricans” — even girls. The fallout from questioning his daughter’s assignment was “crazy. It breaks my heart.”

But Dedham educators also came under ferocious attack. “I have wonderful, talented, dedicated teachers and principals that have been subjected to horrible vitriolic accusations online, and they are scared,” says Welch. “Many of these posts came from out of town and out of state. However, the impact is the same. None of our educators or leaders deserve this.”

Dedham Superintendent Michael Welch, center, at the announcement of a labor agreement with teachers in 2019.Erin Clark for The Boston Globe

In February 2021, lawyers for Judicial Watch, a conservative activist organization, filed a lawsuit in federal court on Flynn’s behalf, charging Welch and the two other Dedham administrators with violating his First Amendment rights. Last May, Flynn’s lawsuit was dismissed. In her opinion, Judge Indira Talwani wrote that Flynn’s speech regarding his daughter’s curriculum was made “as a parent on a matter of public concern” but that school administrators were not prohibited from refusing to renew Flynn’s contract based on his criticisms of school administrators and programs. In this case, “countervailing government interests” outweighed his free speech rights. In June, Judicial Watch filed an appeal and in August announced that the settlement had been reached. Under the settlement terms, which were published in the Dedham Times, Flynn also received $9,944 in coaching pay.

Advertisement



Michael Bekesha, the Judicial Watch lawyer who represented Flynn, says the settlement is “a win for parents” because “if you’re persistent and raise valid concerns, change happens.” And for sure, improved communication with parents over curriculum changes can be viewed as a positive outcome. But what about the school system’s supposed commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, which has its own page on the Dedham Public Schools website? Welch says the subject matter to which Flynn objected is still part of the middle school curriculum — but no longer as one unit. Instead, it is “sprinkled in different parts of sixth and seventh grade.” The change is “not in direct response” to the Flynn case, he says, but to better align with new state learning frameworks. Asked whether any Dedham teachers are still using the specific worksheet that triggered Flynn’s initial reaction, Welch said, “I highly doubt that.”

Why did Welch also agree to forbid teachers to use the Black Lives Matter emoji or wear BLM T-shirts? He says this decision prompted a difficult conversation with the teacher who had taught Flynn’s daughter but the conversation was necessary because BLM material was “disruptive.” Why that political slogan and not others? That, he agrees, is a legitimate question, and “I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this.” But what happens next will be someone else’s headache. After nine years in Dedham, Welch plans to retire as of Feb. 1.

Flynn is happy about the letter from Welch but not about other consequences. While his children are content in their new schools, he and his wife are now paying two private school tuitions. He’s happily coaching fourth- and fifth-graders in youth football, which his son plays, but he will not realize his dream of coaching his son at Dedham High. He says he’s not sorry for what he did — “I spoke out as a parent from day one” — but he’s sad about what happened as a result.

The whole episode really is sad. According to the middle school curriculum on the Dedham Public Schools website, “The primary purpose of a history and social science education is to prepare students to have the knowledge and skills to become thoughtful and active participants in a democratic society and a complex world.” Part of the mission is to “develop civic knowledge” by learning “respect for others, commitment to equality, capacity for listening, and capacity for communicating in ways accessible to others.”

The Flynn controversy taught the opposite lesson: In these polarizing times, there is no safe place where people can talk through their differences with respect and civility. Instead, the safe middle ground is where opposing views are silenced.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.