“RiceGate”: The Controversy Explained


Liv Casey

Principal Swanson taped a rainbow heart above the Martin Luther King Jr. quote on his door to show support for Hingham’s LGBT+ students and faculty.

On June 9, 2018, one of Hingham High School’s gym teachers, Mr. Jon Rice, retweeted a tweet from the Boston Red Sox Twitter account that displayed images of the team participating in its home city’s LGBTQ+ pride parade. Rice added his own commentary to the image, tweeting, “Rainbow uniform day is coming. I can feel it. Are we celebrating this every day for the month of June? Can’t wait to see what we celebrate next. Can we just play ball please? Enough.”

The comments posted to Rice’s public Twitter account sparked a raging controversy at Hingham High, one rife with emotion, anger, and misinformation. In this article, our editorial staff hopes to dispel any misinformation about the controversy and offer diverse student and faculty viewpoints surrounding the topic.

The tweets

The tweet posted on June 9 was the most widely shared of a series of Rice’s public statements surrounding LGBT+ issues, declared via his public Twitter account.

Previously, on June 6, Rice retweeted a tweet that supported Trump’s decision not to formally recognize Pride Month. The tweet, from the account Educating Liberals, said, in part, “Thank God… who you sleep with does not need to be celebrated by the entire country.”

On June 7, Rice commented on the Red Sox’s celebration of Pride Night, during which the team painted a rainbow pair of socks on the pitcher’s mound. Retweeting the image, Rice commented, “Not necessary. Nothing to be proud of here Red Sox. We don’t need rainbows on the pitcher mound.. what’s next rainbow uniforms ? Rainbow home plate? Rainbow monster? [sic]”

On June 11, Rice twice commented on LGBT+ issues. In the first case, Rice responded to a commenter who was defending the rainbow socks, questioning the commenter’s assertion that LGBT+ individuals continue to face adversity and discrimination (see tweet below).

Again on June 11, Rice retweeted an article about two transgender male-to-female athletes who placed first and second at a Connecticut track meet. The article he retweeted, from Turtleboy Sports, labels transgender individuals as “mentally imbalanced” and refers to the athletes in question as “mentally ill.” Rice accompanied his retweet with a personal remark, writing, “‘Progress?’ Crazy and ridiculously unfair.”

Together, these comments struck many students as homophobic. Two students, Junior Aine Powell and Sophomore Devan Kushnir, responded to Rice’s tweet regarding the Red Sox Pride float via Twitter on Wednesday night, June 13. They both felt the tweet was anti-LGBT+ in nature.

“Actually Mr.Rice, it’s society who has set heterosexuality as the norm. Therefore, people outside of the norm get one month to be proud of who they are. I think it’s great to see sports teams supporting these minorities. See you in class tomorrow! [sic]” wrote Devan Kushnir.

Aine Powell responded, “Honestly I think celebrating pride is pretty cool, Mr. Rice.”

Sophomore Mollie Manley, who is currently enrolled in Rice’s gym class, reflected, “I know many people who feel personally affected by his statements and who no longer feel comfortable around him. I do not think that is how a student-teacher relationship should be and it’s not what HHS stands for.”

Faculty members also found the tweets discouraging. Graphic Design and Photography teacher Mr. Eschauzier revealed, “The [faculty] that I’ve talked to seems very hurt. We want all of our kids to feel very proud to be who they want to be, and to think that there’s any faculty member out there who doesn’t feel that way- or possibly doesn’t feel that way, based upon what’s out there on the internet- is disappointing.”

Not all students agreed with their peers’ outrage. Junior Grant Teed explained, “While I don’t speak for Mr. Rice, I believe that he is accepting of all students.”

In an interview with the Harborlight, Mr. Rice explained that he intended to voice opposition towards the mixing of politics and sports, but that his poor wording of his tweets led to misinterpretation. You can read the full interview later in the article.

Other accusations

The tweets also encouraged one student to come forward regarding an incident in Rice’s class that she perceived as homophobic. According to sophomore Sydney Starling, who is openly lesbian, Rice actively discouraged her from showing affection for her friend. Starling believes he incorrectly perceived the contact between the two female students as romantic in nature. In her own words: “We linked arms real quick, but [Mr. Rice] basically confronted us and said, ‘can you not do that right now that’s unnecessary.’”

When Starling brought up the incident with Rice during his meeting with the Gay-Straight Alliance, he stated that he would have treated a heterosexual couple in the same way. Starling and her aforementioned female friend are not in a romantic relationship.

Starling also claimed, “He gives me dirty looks all the time because I’m openly lesbian.” Junior Curran Dillis compounded her claim by asserting, “I think a lot of people have had experiences where they have been uncomfortable.”

Junior Grant Teed blamed this discomfort on Mr. Rice’s outgoing personality, explaining, “I think we’ve all felt somewhat uncomfortable. Being a shy kid myself, I’m always scared when Mr. Rice starts talking to kids about random stuff like music preferences and stuff because I don’t like being singled out, but he clearly has no bad intentions.”

The Harborlight is not aware of any further accusations against Rice, nor did any other interviewees express concern about his in-class behavior.

Thursday, June 14

By Thursday, June 14, Mr. Rice’s tweets had been widely shared on social media among HHS students and his Twitter account had been privatized.

During the day, Rice apologized for his comments to the students, all sophomores, in his gym classes. A witness to one in-class apology characterized it as emotional but underwhelming. The student, who wished to remain anonymous, described, “[It was] not so much an apology as defending his actions.” The student continued, describing that Rice blamed the controversy on the poor wording of his tweets, but clarified that, as a student who does not belong to the LGBT+ community, it is “difficult to say” whether the apology was adequate.

Another witness to the in-class apologies, who also wished to remain anonymous, called his apology “insincere.” The student added, “I think he was sorry that he got caught, but not sorry about what he said.”

Later that afternoon, at 1:26 PM, Principal Rick Swanson sent an email to the HHS community regarding the incident. In the email, Mr. Swanson mentions speaking to Rice, quoting Rice as having said, “I am truly sorry for making a statement that clearly offended and hurt people. I respect and value all of my students, and I deeply regret making statements that might suggest otherwise.”

In the email, Swanson affirms he believes Rice’s apology to be sincere, but added, “…I remain very disappointed by the Twitter comments, since they did not reflect the spirit of community we work so hard to build in our school.”

Swanson also commended the Gay-Straight Alliance for its contributions to the school environment and expressed his hope to continue to strengthen the community bonds in place at HHS. He concluded the email by detailing plans for sensitivity training in the fall, including a visit from the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students. His full email is below.

By the end of the school day, Swanson’s apology had reached most students. The GSA club was preparing to meet with Mr. Rice the next morning, something Swanson had included in his email as well. However, the controversy was far from over.

On Thursday afternoon, the GSA spearheaded calls to wear rainbow clothing to school the next day as a means of expressing support for LGBT members of Hingham High. However, as students posted this positive message across social media, heated debates exploded within various community Facebook groups.

Hingham Pinboard 2.0, a student-run group, saw the brunt of the fighting. Its strict “no-posts-deleted” policy encouraged a number of posts, ranging from angry parents calling for a resignation to the propagation of the hashtag #FreeRice, a show of support for the teacher.

The online arguments seemed to heighten tension surrounding the controversy. Students seemed split, and adults equally divided. As parents, students, and other townspeople clashed online, the controversy took on a new nickname: RiceGate.

Friday, June 15

Friday, the last official day of classes at HHS for the year, kicked off with Rice’s meeting with the GSA. The meeting began with several students airing grievances against the teacher. Rice apologized for his tweets, reiterating his assertion that their poor wording resulted in widespread misinterpretation.

Rice remained fairly defensive during the meeting, rebutting several points and interrupting a student at least once. Many of the rebuttals were to correct misinformation, but his argumentation frustrated some who attended the meeting.

Junior GSA member Eleanor Smith asserted, “I think it was a good start, but I do not feel satisfied by what went down.” Smith described Rice as “unnecessarily defensive and argumentative” and explained, “He just needs to acknowledge how his actions affect his students, and how he’s in a place of authority in the school. He needs to recognize that the people below him are in a place of vulnerability and that he needs to, well, step up and make sure everyone feels safe.”

“It was frustrating to me,” explained Mr. Eschuazier, who attended the meeting, adding, “If it was framed as a beginning to a constructive dialogue, maybe it was fine. As a beginning, middle, and end of a dialogue, no, it wasn’t enough.”

The GSA, with the help of several other clubs, mobilized a moderate portion of the student body to wear rainbow colors in support of Pride. About 50 students in each grade donned rainbow colors.

Many teachers also expressed their support for LGBT+ Pride. Starting in the history hallway, teachers throughout the school taped colored construction paper to their doors, forming a rainbow pattern. Some teachers, including the entire art department, joined with students in wearing rainbow clothing to school or pinning rainbow hearts to their shirts.

Some students refused to don rainbow colors. Grant Teed, a junior, said his non-participation was not because he was against LGBT+ students, but because he did not “…want to attack Mr. Rice. While some kids were saying it had nothing to do with Mr. Rice, it obviously did.”

The controversy, and the political spin it took on online, served in one case as a breeding ground for extreme acts. Multiple witnesses reported that an HHS sophomore wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with images of the Confederate battle flag, an enduring symbol of slavery and black oppression classified as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. Witnesses reported that he would tell those passing in the hallways to “Free Rice.”

His comments in the hallways suggest the student saw a connection between the two issues. To be clear, Rice’s Twitter contained very little in regards to race and his tweets did not reflect racism, so it is unclear why the student wore the sweatshirt. The faculty demanded that the student remove the garment.

The controversy was a prominent topic of conversation throughout the day. At several points, voices calling to “Free Rice” echoed down the hallways.

After school let out, around 5:00 pm, local news vans began rolling into the HHS parking lots to conduct interviews and report on the story. On Friday night and into the weekend, articles covering the story were released from the local branches of Fox, CBS, and WHDH. Among those interviewed were Principal Swanson, School Superintendent Dr. Galo, and Sophomore Devan Kushnir.

Speaking with Mr. Rice

The Harborlight also sought to interview Mr. Rice himself in order to effectively portray all sides of this highly debated issue. When approached in person on Friday, Mr. Rice initially declined to comment, saying he had already given his apologies. However, he later contacted the Harborlight, willing to conduct an interview with an editor via email. After an editor sent some questions Saturday, Mr. Rice answered with the following on Sunday afternoon.

EDITOR: Many of the students have felt that the comments you made were homophobic. What message did you intend to send with your tweets?

MR. RICE: The tweets in no way were intended to be homophobic. I do not care about the sexuality of anyone. I form opinions on people based on the content of their character and the impact they have on others – not their sexuality. The message that I was trying to send was that there are many people in our society who view professional sports as a healthy diversion from the political issues of the day. I think the Red Sox should also consider this perspective.

EDITOR: How do you feel about the students who have offered you their public support with statements such as “#FreeRice”?

MR. RICE: The support I have received from my students has been humbling and overwhelming. They are the reason I love coming to school every day and I am incredibly grateful to the many parents and students who have reached out to me to show their support. I am so thankful that my students know me well enough to realize that I am a fair and moral person.

EDITOR: Do you consider the apologies you made adequate?

MR. RICE: As soon as I realized I could have offended any student at HHS my instinct was to apologize. I love the students at HHS and the last thing I would ever want to do would be to hurt any one of them. I was devastated to learn that my remarks were being misinterpreted because I did not word them carefully enough. I’ve apologized to every one of my classes and I’ve also met with the GSA to apologize and listen to their perspective. Coupled with offering my perspective to the Harborlight, I think the contrition I have expressed is adequate.

EDITOR: You gave in-person apologies to the students in your gym classes. Is there anything you would like to say to any students who are no longer in your class?

MR. RICE: I would want them to know that my tweet was impulsive and was sent out because I am bothered by the degree to which politics has infiltrated sports. We all know many examples of this. I think one of the most powerful lessons here is that we all need to constantly remind ourselves of the power of social media. I think regardless of your age or level of experience, people slip up and make mistakes sometimes. I am obviously embarrassed that I have brought so much unwanted attention to the school community over this. I am deeply sorry and would ask for forgiveness from any student (current or former), colleague or friend whom I may have offended.

EDITOR: After this experience, do you plan to change anything about your teaching style?

MR. RICE: I have never brought my political perspective into my classes. I have always done my best to make ALL of my students feel welcomed and appreciated. The reason I love my career is that I have the opportunity to teach young people how exercise, sports, humor, friendship togetherness, and friendly competition can have a powerful and healthy impact on all of us. This has always been at the core of my teaching style and it is not my intention to change.

EDITOR: If there is anything else you would like to say that these questions do not cover, feel free to add that as well.

MR. RICE: I think that diversity is a wonderful thing in society and is one of the things that makes our country great. I also think it’s essential for all of us to allow for diversity of thought. Many of my closest friends do not share the same political [viewpoints] as I. However, we remain friends because we realize that it is possible to not see the world the same way, yet get along and value one another, regardless. I fully understand that my tweet was not a shining example of reflection and tolerance. However, I would like to reiterate one more time, it did not originate from a place of hate and homophobia. I apologize for the mistake and I will endeavor to work to regain everyone’s trust and confidence in the future.

Lingering controversy

Though Rice apologized for his comments, numerous debates still divide the community. The most prominent topic is whether his defense of his tweets is adequate.

As stated in his interview, Rice intended his comments to argue against the inclusion of politics during sports events. The teacher has espoused these views before surrounding the NFL National Anthem controversy.

It is also worth noting that not all of Rice’s Twitter activity surrounds the intersection of sports and politics. His aforementioned retweet on June 6 did not address politics and sports. The tweet (below) even implies that LGBT+issues should not be considered political at all.

Some were also quick to refute the idea that LGBT+ Pride is related to politics. Junior Eleanor Smith reiterated a widely used hypothetical question: would Mr. Rice be opposed to the Red Sox attending a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration?

Similarly, Mr. Eschauzier questioned the idea that Pride represents a political stance. “He has very conservative viewpoints, and that is completely fine. But this went beyond that because, to me, it’s not a political viewpoint. Why be against somebody else’s pride? It just seems like a strange thing.”

Though debate continues about whether Pride is political or simply a celebration of human rights, RiceGate seems to be subsiding, with the stress of final exams largely supplanting student concern. There seems to be no indication that Mr. Rice is in any danger of being fired, and very few students are advocating for those consequences; junior Curran Dillis stated, “Speaking as a rep for the GSA, we don’t want to see him fired, there’s no reason for him to be fired just for the tweets he showed.”

The outpouring of support on Friday proved that many in Hingham High remain firmly opposed to anti-LGBT+ sentiment. Regardless of the true intent of Rice’s tweets, the controversy has provided motivation to reaffirm Hingham High’s commitment to being a welcoming environment for all students. “Moving forward, I think we should all be more accepting of everyone in the LGBTQ+ community, and make more of an effort to make everyone feel like the school is a safe place,” explained sophomore Devan Kushnir.

In a written statement to the Harborlight, Principal Swanson echoed this sentiment, asserting, “While I recognize how potentially divisive an incident like this can be, I hope our community will instead use it as an opportunity to reaffirm the values that should unite all of us… This incident has generated a great deal of emotion (understandably so) and we cannot expect healing to happen immediately. But ultimately I hope our community can emerge stronger and more united from the discussions that ensue. If we approach those discussions in an open and thoughtful manner, then I believe we can turn a very regrettable incident into something that is ultimately productive and meaningful.”