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Principal says honors banquet no place for politics; critics say Gold Star mother ‘canceled’
Lisa and Matthew Freeman
Lisa and Matthew Freeman, in a photo provided by Lisa Freeman to the News in 2012

A decision to prohibit a scholarship given in honor of Capt. Matthew Freeman, a local Marine officer killed in Afghanistan, from being awarded by his mother at Richmond Hill High School’s upcoming senior honors night has been portrayed as either an effort to “cancel” a Gold Star mother or as an attempt to keep her beliefs from hijacking a night meant for students to celebrate their successes.

The school’s principal, Bivins Miller, said the decision to not allow Freeman’s mother, Lisa Freeman, to present the award at the school’s 2022 senior honors night was based on her use of the 2021 event at the RHHS gym as a place to “platform both her political and religious beliefs to a captive audience of over 200 stakeholders,” according to a mass email he sent Wednesday to RHHS parents.

The measure was not intended to dishonor Capt. Freeman’s memory or the scholarship, Miller wrote.

Lisa Freeman said Tuesday she wasn’t informed of the school’s decision until she reached out to Miller to find out why the scholarship hadn’t been listed on the school website.

She said she will give the scholarship privately this year to students from Richmond Hill, whether they’re home schooled, go to a private school or, evidently, attend RHHS.

Freeman, who retired from the Bryan County School System after her son was killed in August 2009, had annually presented the scholarships, worth thousands, to students at his alma mater.

She had taught in Bryan County Schools since 1991.

After her son’s death Lisa Freeman began the Matthew Freeman Project, which supports a number of causes dedicated to education and supporting family members of U.S. service members killed in war. As the COVID-19 pandemic continued, Freeman became increasingly active protesting mask requirements for children as well as questioning curriculum.

She’s also open about her belief God is guiding her actions and they are what her son wants her to do.

Freeman said she used the Capt. Matthew Freeman Memorial Scholarship presentation last year to voice her opposition to the school system’s mask requirement, urging those in attendance to take them off.

She attended the event without a mask, though school policy at the time required masks be worn.

In September, Freeman again told school board members to remove their masks, likening the school system’s mask mandate and its curriculum to CIA mind control efforts in the 1950s referred to as MK-Ultra.

She’s since become co-director of a Richmond Hill chapter of Atlanta-based Truth in Education, which is a “ nonprofit organization founded to educate parents and legislators on the radical ideologies being taught in our schools.”

The group is described as “far right,” or “right wing,” and its presence in Bryan County led to the establishment of Forward Coalition and its School Action Committee, which according to founders Adrienne Jackson and Tamara Huff, “stand in solidarity with our Board of Education, school administrators, and teachers in validating the right of every child to feel safe, valued, and welcomed in Bryan County School District regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, and gender expression.”

The debate locally over everything from critical race theory to gender has mirrored that elsewhere, and has put Bryan County school officials in the difficult spot of trying to both run the district and deal with critics who accuse them of not being transparent.

Along the way, it’s clear some of what is taking place is fracturing relationships in a community that, while growing, is still one in which many people know one another. Freeman said Tuesday her efforts to exercise her right to free speech have left her ostracized by and wary of a community she once felt embraced by.

“I love this community,” she said. “When we moved here and I started teaching here in 1991, I thought I’d gone to heaven. And when Matthew’s death happened, this community gave me so much love and care and support. It was amazing. Now, since this, I feel like I’ve been used by some of those same people.”

While disagreements over local education means all open school board seats in 2022 will be contested both in the Republican primary and in November, much of the debate has taken place on social media such as Facebook, where at least one poster on Wednesday accused the school system of trying to “cancel” a Gold Star mother.

In the email sent out to parents Wednesday, Miller wrote that it was sent to “clarify a great deal of misinformation that has recently presented itself on social media.”

It goes on to say, “Richmond Hill High School Senior Honors/Scholarship Night is a night reserved to highlight and congratulate many deserving members of the Senior class that have earned an esteemed level of recognition. However, last May 2021; Mrs. Lisa Freeman utilized the scholarship presentation opportunity of the “Matthew Freeman Scholarship” as a place to platform both her political and religious beliefs to a captive audience of over 200 stakeholders.”

Miller continued: “ It is unfortunate this behavior distorted an event that should have been completely centered around celebrating student achievement. To prevent the possibility of any future disruption; as well as, make certain student success remains the focus of the event; it was communicated with Mrs. Freeman and her scholarship board the actual presentation of the scholarship could not take place at Richmond Hill High School; however, Richmond Hill High School would exhaust every avenue possible to ensure RHHS students could ascertain the information. It is not uncommon for scholarships to be awarded at an alternate venue. In my most recent email communication with Mrs. Freeman she asserted she was making the personal choice to exclude RHHS students. As stated in her email, “Since I started the Matthew Freeman Project, and I give the award every year, and, most importantly, I know what my son’s beliefs would be toward what has transpired, I think it is best for me to offer the scholarship privately to include students who are home schooled or are in private schools and not include it on the RHHS website. Should the school, or all involved, reconsider its stance, the Capt. Matthew Freeman Memorial Scholarship board would be open to offering it again in the future.”

“ In NO way is Richmond Hill High School trying to dishonor the memory of Captain Matthew Freeman or the scholarship offered in his name. Richmond Hill High School is committed to promoting opportunities for students and will certainly make the “Matthew Freeman Scholarship” available should Mrs. Freeman choose to no longer prohibit our students from applying.”

In her email to the “Bryan County School Board and Principal Miller,” Freeman said she didn’t find out the scholarship wasn’t listed until “a parent of a RHHS senior sent a message to me through a mutual friend asking why the annual Captain Matthew Freeman Scholarship wasn’t listed on the website.”

Freeman said she wondered why a school counselor hadn’t “called me this year as she always had in past years,” and decided to go to the school March 9 to talk to Miller, who was in a meeting.

Freeman said she left her name and number and asked him to give her a call when he was able, but never heard back until she convened the Freeman scholarship board on March 10 and asked a member to reach out to Miller.

He called Freeman on March 15, Freeman said, and told her the scholarship could be announced on the website but would have to be awarded privately – something not uncommon, apparently.

Freeman said she attended Gov. Brian Kemp’s meet and greet March 18 in Richmond Hill and was told by both BOE Member Derrick Smith and Richmond Hill Mayor Russ Carpenter, a teacher at RHHS, that the scholarship was “listed on the website,” but when she checked, it wasn’t there – though she was led to believe it would be put on the site, something she became opposed to.

“While I appreciate the efforts to still honor my son and award this scholarship to a deserving senior,” Freeman said, in her email to Miller and the school board, “I believe that open dialogue should have taken place with me concerning the scholarships removal and then deciding to add it back.”

After telling Miller and school board members she believed “it best for me to offer the scholarship privately,” her email ended in part with: “May God bless you all and most importantly, the children of Richmond Hill.”

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