The public agenda portion of the Muscogee County School Board’s work session Monday is expected to last longer than usual as some citizens continue to call for the administration to fire the teacher who used the N-word in conversation with three elementary school students. Meanwhile, others are asking for forgiveness.
The Muscogee County School District announced Sept. 29 that the Reese Road Leadership Academy teacher who admitted to using the N-word on Sept. 1 had been suspended for two days without pay, reassigned to an undisclosed non-classroom position, issued a letter of reprimand that was placed in her personnel file, and required her to attend “cultural competency” training.
Also in the Sept. 29 news release, MCSD said its investigation of the Sept. 1 incident concluded Sept. 26 and found that the teacher used “a racial slur in an attempt to explain to a group of elementary school students that this same word should not be tolerated. The teacher’s choice of language, though intended to teach a lesson about racial tolerance, was misguided. … A teacher should never use a racial slur or expletive in the course of teaching students not to use the same word. MCSD does not tolerate the use of racial slurs in any context.”
Antonio Carter, publisher and editor of Black Voices News and BlackVoicesNews.com, told the Ledger-Enquirer in a phone interview Friday that more than 10 citizens have signed up to speak during Monday’s public agenda “to verbally express our displeasure.” Board secretary Karen Jones said 18 citizens are on the public agenda to speak for “various reasons.”
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“Various reasons” sums up why people in Columbus continue to talk and post on social media about this incident a month later.
Some say the disciplinary action against the teacher is too lenient. They insist racial slurs are unacceptable regardless of the context. They note the students the teacher was speaking to are 9-year-old girls.
Some say the disciplinary action is proper or even too harsh. They insist the teacher didn’t call the students those names but used them to teach against using them. They note the 16-year educator, active in her church, never had been disciplined in her six years with MCSD.
All of which has the teacher and her family, according to her lawyer, Bettina Davies, under police protection “as a result of the threats and half-truths that have been perpetuated in social media and elsewhere.”
Katonga Wright, the lawyer for some of the parents involved in this dispute, conducted a news conference Friday, during which she called for “nothing shy of a termination of this teacher. Their concerns are that these types of racial slurs or behavior toward young children in our community will continue if (the teacher) remains a part of Muscogee County School District.”
Beyond the debate over whether the teacher should have been fired for using the N-word, Carter said, is what he and others perceive to be a delayed and muted reaction from the MCSD administration and most board members when such controversies arise.
“We understand we live in a society with various views and different perspectives and we’re all shaped by our experiences and all of us make mistakes and say things,” Carter said. “But the biggest thing is how the Muscogee County School District responds. People are going to do crazy things and say crazy things, and it’s not a reflection on the Muscogee County School District until you refuse to appropriately respond. When you fail to respond appropriately and swiftly, it’s almost as if you are cosigning these things and accepting these things.”
The teacher, in a statement to the district emailed to the Ledger-Enquirer on Sept. 29, recalled saying to the student, “If someone called me a white cracker, I would be offended. If someone called you a black n-----, that would be offensive. If someone called my biracial cousin mixed girl, that would be offensive.”
During the Muscogee County School Board’s meeting Sept. 18, the parents of the student the teacher was talking to, Equisha and Nathan Frazier, urged the Muscogee County School Board to fire the teacher. They also gave a different version of what the teacher told their daughter.
Mr. Frazier said the teacher was responding to something that another girl directed at his daughter and told her in the presence of another black student and a white student, “At least she didn’t refer to you as a dumb, black n-----,” Mr. Frazier said. “And I’m saying it exactly how she said it to my child.”
The Georgia Professional Standards Commission confirmed Tuesday that an ethics complaint has been filed against the teacher. The Fraziers acknowledged Friday that they filed the complaint. The commission has the authority to sanction a certified educator in any of the following ways: warning, reprimand, suspension or revocation of teaching license.
“We’re not mean and evil people, so we’re sympathetic to what she’s going through,” Wright said of the teacher. “But, you have to understand, she has placed herself in this situation.”
Responding to the explanation that the teacher didn’t use the racial slurs to address any of the children, Wright said, “They weren’t directed in front of the class in a teaching moment to talk about bullying. They were directed at these little girls in response to another racial comment made by a student that she decided to inject some additional racial comments that left the children bewildered, upset, confused and very disappointed and frustrated with their teacher.”
Asked whether the teacher called the students those names, Wright said, “The effect on the children was that she was calling them these names.”
Tuesday evening, Davies, a network attorney for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators and an attorney with Cauthorn Nohr & Owen in Marietta, issued the following statement in response to the Ledger-Enquirer seeking the teacher’s reaction to the complaint:
“The teacher, who is well regarded by parents and colleagues, says that she sincerely regrets her use of a racial slur. She is adamant that her intentions were pure: She was illustrating that the use of this word is unacceptable. It is truly a teachable moment that has been blown out of proportion and misreported. The teacher asked to meet with the parents of the students involved, but they declined the invitation.
“The school system has completed a thorough investigation, one that found inconsistencies in how the children perceived the incident. One of the children recanted her statement of the event, telling school system investigators that what really happened supports what the teacher told investigators. The parents of that child have apologized for getting angry before understanding all the facts.
“The teacher was dealing real-time with a sensitive situation and now — with the benefit of hindsight — there is no question she would have handled it differently.”
Carter countered that reaction with this: “Whether she made a mistake or not, I think being a 16-year veteran of dealing with children, there are certainly things you should know better, and children are always watching us. Those words should have never been uttered by her under any circumstances – period. She should be fired – period. No ifs, ands or buts. That may seem harsh to somebody, but this isn’t a mistake you can recover from.”
Removing her from the classroom isn’t enough, Carter insists.
“Her mentality needs to be eradicated from the Muscogee County School District completely,” Carter said. “Her type of thinking, her type of judgment, has absolutely no place in the Muscogee County School District.”
The teacher has been employed by MCSD for six years and has been a certified teacher for a total of 16 years. She never had been disciplined for any reason as an MCSD teacher, according to an email Friday from the legal assistant for Melanie Slaton, one of the lawyers representing the school district in the Columbus office of Hall Booth Smith.
Superintendent David Lewis’ administration hasn’t answered the Ledger-Enquirer’s questions since their news release last week.
The questions included what non-classroom position the teacher has been moved to, whether her salary has changed, why disciplinary action was chosen instead of termination, what policy was used to determine the action taken, and why the action was disclosed in a press release when the board policy is not to disclose disciplinary action.
Only two of the nine Muscogee County School Board members commented about this controversy in response to the Ledger-Enqurier’s questions this week, asking whether they agree with the administration’s disciplinary action, whether the teacher should be fired, whether they expressed their opinion to the superintendent and what they are hearing from their constituents about the incident.
Board chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 didn’t answer the L-E’s questions, but she did email this statement:
“Please be clear that the Muscogee County School Board without reservation finds offensive and unacceptable any language of racial slurs, profanity and otherwise derogatory used in our schools and work environment.
“I believe and trust that the building leader conducted and completed a thorough investigation. The Superintendent and his staff are required to apply due process and take the appropriate disciplinary actions.
“While we deal with this situation and similar such incidents our goal and focus is on the primary objective of public education. We work daily to provide quality and advance instruction that propels students to successfully compete globally.”
In an emailed interview with the L-E, John Thomas, the board’s District 2 representative, said the superintendent told the board in closed session at the Sept. 18 meeting that the teacher would be suspended for two days and attend “some kind of cultural awareness training.” Thomas contends pressure from “the general public, the media and the girl’s parents” prompted the MCSD administration to add reassigning the teacher to a non-classroom position.
“As usual, the board was not well-informed during the incident and its aftermath, and the board was informed rather than consulted as to the approach taken in regard to disciplining the teacher,” Thomas said. “The punishment became more far-reaching after the facts were brought to the attention of the public.”
Lewis explained in an email Friday from the school district’s legal counsel, Hall Booth Smith.
“The factual investigation of the matter ended on Sept. 18,” Lewis said. “We then reviewed and analyzed the information and conferred with legal counsel. We wanted to be deliberative, thoughtful and fair. We informed the teacher on Sept. 26 and that was the conclusion of the investigation.”
Thomas noted, “There is no current policy addressing this specific issue.” He has proposed a “zero tolerance” policy against racial slurs and asked for the board to discuss it during Monday’s work session.
By “zero tolerance,” Thomas said, he means the consequence for a violation should be termination.
“I find the use of racial slurs to be abhorrent, particularly from a teacher entrusted with the education of our children,” Thomas said. “If a policy rule needs to be established — in this day and age and under the current climate in this country — to curtail the use of racial slurs from the adult employees of the district, then the board should provide that solution. It is sad to confront the fact that common sense and simple human compassion does not guide words and actions in the 21st century in the United States of America.”
Two local residents who have known the teacher for years called the Ledger-Enquirer on Friday to vouch for her character.
Tommy Tante, owner of a business that provides after-school education to children, said he has known the teacher for about five years through Bethesda Baptist Church in Ellerslie and their children playing football and baseball together.
Tante said he never has heard the teacher say any racial slur or “any derogatory term.”
“She’s not a person that would intentionally hurt someone, especially a child in her profession,” Tante said. “She wouldn’t have intentionally said something that would hurt somebody’s feelings or cause the situation that’s been caused.”
The teacher has substituted in the Sunday school class Tante teaches with his wife, he said.
“She is the first person we call if we have to go out of town and we need somebody to cover for us,” Tante said. “She is somebody I trust with my kids and other people’s kids with something we think is a very important setting.”
Tante added, “The Bible says, ‘Let ye who has not sinned cast the first stone.’ We’ve all had situations where we’ve said the wrong thing. Maybe we meant one thing and it was taken the other way. It’s just been made a huge issue.”
The controversy has created a “whirlwind emotionally” for the teacher, Tante said.
“It’s more than hurt feelings,” Tante said. “It has really shocked her as far as it being blown out of proportion. Those are my words, but her intentions or heart were not to defame or hurt anyone.”
David Helms, the senior pastor at Bethesda Baptist, said he has known the teacher for 15 years. She regularly attends services and is involved in church leadership, children and youth activities, Bible study, the choir and the church’s American Cancer Society Relay for Life team, Helms said.
“I have known her to be a person of prayer and commitment, concerned about her family, church and community,” Helms said.
The pastor also has “never known her to use the N-word or any other derogatory word,” he said.
The controversy has “devastated her,” Helms said. “She admitted she used the word and that she should not have used the word even in trying to address the situation. She has been extremely repentant, and it has devastated her and her family. It also has devastated a lot of people in the church because they know her and they do not believe she would use any word that would be detrimental to anyone.”
Helms said it’s not his place to judge whether the disciplinary action against the teacher is fair. Then he added, “She is a Christian, and one thing I would ask is, ‘Where is forgiveness here?’”