After lawsuit threat, Volunteer principal 'ready to rethink'' denial of anti-animal cruelty club

Jeff Bobo • Apr 8, 2019 at 1:03 PM

CHURCH HILL — A Nashville attorney said Thursday he is prepared to file a lawsuit against Volunteer High School, Principal Bobby Wines, and the school system for denying a student’s request to start an anti-animal cruelty organization.

In February, VHS junior Thomas Flack filed the proper paperwork required to start a school organization he named Students Against Animal Cruelty and Testing (SAACT), including the support of two faculty sponsors.

Wines denied the request, stating that SAACT wouldn’t bring any additional benefits to students that weren’t already exhibited or available in the existing clubs.

Since being informed of that decision, Flack has received a letter in support of his organization from PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals), and last week Nashville attorney Kevin Teets agreed to represent him.

A lawsuit threat from Nashville

On Thursday, Teets sent a letter to Wines, Director of Schools Matt Hixson, and District 2 Board of Education member Chris Christian stating:

“On behalf of Mr. Flack and other similarly situated students at Volunteer High School, my office will be filing a lawsuit against you, Volunteer High School and the Hawkins County School District if the students’ plan to organize as an extracurricular club at Volunteer High School is not approved within 10 business days from the date of this letter.”

On Friday, Hixson told the Times News he had spoken to Wines, who “is ready to rethink it at this point.”

Hixson said that Wines met Friday with SAACT’s faculty sponsors and informed them that if they will resubmit the application for the organization, “the administration will reconsider approval of that club, as long as everything is filled out properly and everything is kosher with regards to the policy.”

Hixson added, “It’s not our intention to deny that level of passion in the pursuit of this club. The ball is in their court. If they get everything resubmitted and it lines out as far as policy, I think Mr. Wines is of the opinion to go ahead and approve it.”

The origins of SAACT

Flack told the Times News Friday his goal for SAACT is to raise awareness and conduct fundraisers for anti-animal cruelty efforts and local animal shelters.

“I’ve been at the Humane Society for like five years now, and I have over 1,000 volunteer hours,” Flack said. “I’ve been on a lot of rescues with them too, so I’ve witnessed animal cruelty in Hawkins County firsthand. I think that’s what really got me into it.”

Flack started a petition online seeking support for SAACT and received almost 1,600 signatures, which was submitted to Wines with the application.

“The first time I turned it in, I got the two teachers to sign it, and he didn’t get back in contact with me for like three weeks,” Flack said. “He just said that wasn’t student-beneficial.”

Flack added, “I have no idea why Mr. Wines is against this. I don’t see why it would be a bother to stay after school with students to talk about animal cruelty because it should be completely up to them if they want to stay or not. A bunch of people want it. He’s the only one in the way. I have over 30 friends who want to participate in it.”

PETA sent a letter to Flack and Wines expressing support for the school organization.

“I asked him if he got that letter from PETA, and he said, ‘Yeah, I tossed it,’ ” Flack said.

Flack said he’s ready to go to court.

Strong words from the attorney

“Respectfully, Mr. Wines, it appears to me that Mr. Flack is exhibiting the characteristics, drive and passions that most schools and principals would be rewarding and recognizing,” Teets stated in his letter Thursday. “Is this not the very type of civic engagement and entrepreneurial spirit that we want all students to have so that they can become leaders of tomorrow? What message does it send to youth when their enthusiasms and passions to make the world a better place are met with decisions from adults in charge, like yourself, who choose to stifle their creative energies rather than support them?”

Teets added, “What is even more troubling and disheartening to me is that you even told Mr. Flack during a meeting with him that you threw the letters of support he received from an animal rights organization in the trash — an act that perhaps shows your personal feelings towards organizations that advocate on behalf of animals. Regardless, I think it is fair to say that this behavior is unbecoming of someone in your position as a principal who should encourage, rather than extinguish, the dreams of students desiring to make their community better.”

Teets said the rights of students to assemble and form an extracurricular organization such as SAACT is guaranteed under federal law, thanks to the U.S. Congress passing the Equal Access Act in 1984, which compels federally funded secondary schools to provide equal access to extracurricular student clubs.

Director supports principals ... to a point

“My No. 1 avenue of support is to support my principals and their decision-making, but I do ask that they keep me on the same page with them, to keep me updated as far as what decisions they are making, especially in light of this,” Hixson said. “If there’s pushback on a decision, or if there’s a negative reaction to a decision, just to keep me updated on the reason why the decision was made. As long as we’re on the same page, and I support the rationale, one of my jobs is to support my site administrators and the decisions they make on a daily basis, and protection of their instructional program.”

Hixson added, “We’ve also had discussions as an administrative group, when kids become very, very passionate about something, maybe in light of that it might be time to reconsider, and it may not be a field that we want to die on necessarily. I will give it to Mr. Flack that he is very passionate about it, and he has gone above and beyond to elicit support, and he’s done a great job at that. He obviously feels very strong about it. That being said, unless there’s something I don’t know about from Mr. Wines’ perspective, my guidance will probably be to go ahead and see if we can work something out with the student.”

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