At the fourth public gathering they discussed this controversial proposal, Muscogee County School Board members engaged in 50 more minutes of debate during their monthly meeting Monday night before approving a "zero tolerance" policy against racial slurs.
The nine-member board’s vote was 7-1-1. Laurie McRae of District 5 voted no. Cathy Williams of District 7 abstained. Voting yes were chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1, vice chairwoman and county-wide representative Kia Chambers, John Thomas of District 2, Vanessa Jackson of District 3, Naomi Buckner of District 4, Mark Cantrell of District 6 and Frank Myers of District 8.
District 2 representative John Thomas made the proposal in the wake of the Muscogee County School District announcing 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.
MCSD has said its investigation 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.”
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But on Oct. 9, during last month’s work session, 11 of the 13 residents who spoke during the public agenda called for the teacher who used the N-word to be fired. Parents of two of the three children involved in the incident have retained a lawyer, Katonga Wright, who last month called for the teacher to be fired.
Wright and Equisha Frazier, the mother of one of the students, again spoke to the board during its Nov. 13 work session. Frazier again disputed MCSD’s account of the incident, and Wright asked for MCSD’s response to the complaint Nathan Frazier, the father of one of the students, filed against the teacher with the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.
Here is the text of the policy, titled “Zero Tolerance for Racial Slurs” and given the descriptor code GAEC, which the board approved:
“The Muscogee County Board of Education believes that all students can learn better in a safe school environment. Behavior that infringes on the well-being of students will not be tolerated. The Muscogee County School Board thereby adopts a prohibition against communication of racial slurs, either verbal or written, by all district employees in all classifications of employment.
“This zero tolerance policy is defined as review for termination of employment. This prohibition will not extend to the instructional and classroom use of historical or literary works which include racial slurs, but any teacher employing such instructional material must give prior notification to the school principal of the intent to use it and obtain acknowledgment that the material will be presented and discussed in order to establish an educational context for its use in the classroom.
“Further, the prohibition against racial slurs extends beyond the classroom to every department and job description in the district; the prohibition is a system-wide, whole workplace, all-inclusive ban of racial slurs in the Muscogee County School District regardless of job, department, or intent.
“Such prohibition shall be included in the Personnel Handbook for all District employees and be included in the Student Code of Conduct for all schools within the school system.”
The board already has two similar policies against harassment, one protecting students, the other protecting employees:
▪ Descriptor code JCAC, adopted in 2012, says in part:
“It is the policy of this School District to prohibit any act of harassment of students by other students or employees based upon race, color, national origin, sex, or disability at all times and during all occasions while at school, in the workplace or at any school event or activity. Any such act by a student or employee shall result in prompt and appropriate discipline, including the possible termination of employment or suspension or expulsion of the student.”
▪ Descriptor code GAEB, also adopted in 2012, says in part:
“It is the policy of this School District to prohibit any act of harassment of employees by other employees based upon race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age or disability at all times and during all occasions while at school, in the workplace or at any school event or activity. Any such act shall result in prompt and appropriate discipline, including the possible termination of employment.”
McRae and Williams objected to Thomas’ proposed policy being called “zero tolerance” because the policy leaves open the possibility for the offender to not be terminated.
Although she praised the “good intentions” of the proposal, McRae called it “reactionary and short-sighted” because the “zero tolerance” contradiction puts MCSD at risk of lawsuits, minimizes other causes of harassment by singling out racial slurs and is unnecessary in light of current policies, she said.
McRae also questioned how teachers effectively could receive approval to have lessons about racial slurs and wondered whether they would inhibit spontaneous discussions and even prevent reporting incidents of those words being used at school.
“People’s jobs are at stake,” McRae said.
Williams asked Thomas whether he would consider changing “zero tolerance” to “prohibition” or “ban” so the “conflicting language” would be removed and the legal concern would be reduced.
Thomas, who emphasized his proposal has been on the table for nearly two months, refused to change the wording.
Williams asked Thomas, “Your reason is ‘Just because’? You want to finish it with a ‘So there’?”
Thomas replied, “If people have problems with it, vote against it.”
Green called it a “very sad day” for the board to feel compelled to create such a policy, but she supported the proposal to “send a specific and precise message” that racial slurs won’t be tolerated.
Myers countered, “I don’t think it’s a sad day; it’s a great day.” He called the policy “groundbreaking” and said the board should have enacted such a policy “years ago” and he hopes other districts will follow.
Green responded by noting MCSD previously had “zero tolerance” language against harassment “removed based on recommendation from the state” and she expects this policy to need subsequent editing as well. She also clarified that she said “sad day” because “we are trying to legislate home training.”
Williams criticized Green for saying she wanted to “send a message” through this policy.
“This is not a policy that’s enforceable,” Williams said. “... Anyone who votes for it needs to know it’s ‘zero tolerance’ but not really.’”
Chambers said, “It is our job to have a policy in place so there isn’t a question” about where the board stands on racial slurs, especially as the school district tries to prepare students to “live, work and play in a global society.”
Cantrell said, since the September incident at Reese Road, he has heard accusations that five MCSD teachers and one principal used the N-word while speaking to students.
“This is what this is all about,” Cantrell said, “that we’re not going to put up with this.”