After 11 of the 13 residents who spoke during the public agenda at Monday evening’s work session called for the teacher who used the N-word to be fired, the Muscogee County School Board debated a proposal to establish a “zero tolerance” policy against racial slurs.
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.”
As he introduced his proposal, Thomas said, “I know that most of us have been troubled by incident of the teacher using a racial slur in a classroom setting and the events that have transpired since. Children cannot be protected from every bad thing in the world. They’re innocent and impressionable. School children are under the district’s care and charge during the educational day, and with their immature minds and lack of experience cannot control what they might naively say or do. Adults, on the other hand, should be held to a higher standard.
“Adults have the moral responsibility to do no harm to innocent children. ... I believe the time has come for the district to adopt a zero tolerance policy prohibiting the use of racial slurs by all employees of the district.”
Thomas then read his proposed policy:
“The Muscogee County School Board 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 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.”
Board chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 said, “It’s a good idea and a great start to improve where we are, but I do want to, and hopefully after all the input, we can come to some kind of consensus and make sure that we don’t give the impression that we are making any kind of political gesture or any kind of grandstanding because it is important that we be very clear that any policy that we discuss and vote on and approve does not supersede any state law of any federal law. … Our certificated employees, especially those who are tenured, are protected under the Fair Dismissal Act.”
Green also expressed concern about defining a racial slur.
“Sometimes there are stereotypes, stereotypical language that people use that may be offensive to me and should be considered a slur,” Green said. “Maybe we should offer something more definitive. And, more importantly, to me, any kind of derogatory language, not just a racial slur, should be considered to include here, any type of derogatory language, referring to not just race but gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, any kind of slur we should protect our children from.”
Green also emphasized, “This type of policy will likely affect our non-certificated workers, our lowest-paid employees, more so than certified, tenured-protected teachers.”
Kia Chambers, the nine-member board’s vice chairwoman, policy committee chairwoman and lone countywide representative, said that, during last month’s closed session, while the administration briefed the board about the incident, she asked board secretary Karen Jones to pull the current policy. It covers all the derogatory comments Green mentioned, Chambers said, but it doesn’t include “zero tolerance.”
“So I think that this is sort of an extension, not necessarily a new policy,” Chambers said. “… It doesn’t matter what the purpose is. This makes it very clear that at no time is it acceptable to use a racial slur. It’s point blank, and I will be supporting this. I’m hoping we can add this to the current policy.”
District 4 representative Naomi Buckner also voiced support for the policy but she expressed concern about teachers getting “bogged down” obtaining permission to use historical or literary material with racial slurs.
Thomas responded to Green’s comment when he said, “As far as addressing other types of derogatory language, if the board wants to take that up on an individual type of slur basis or comment or whatever, it’s at this point to me irrelevant. We have what I think is a serious problem right now that we need to address and show that we’re taking some type of positive steps toward addressing it. It’s not political grandstanding, and I resent the implication that was intended to be aimed at me. I’m deeply offended.”
Green clarified, “We should be intentional so we don’t look as though we are making a political gesture or grandstanding. We are going to have to add some definition. We can’t just say ‘racial slur,’ because some people use stereotypical words that I consider a racial slur.”
Thomas asked whether Green means the policy should include a list.
District 7 representative Cathy Williams interjected and asked, “Short of having a list, who is going to define what is and what is not a racial slur? I know that the Supreme Court said pornography is ‘you know it when you see it,’ and maybe that comes into this realm, but it seems awfully subjective to me. This is so broad and yet it is so narrow because it’s not speaking of derogatory terms; it’s talking about racial slurs, and there are things that Ms. Hugley Green, our esteemed chairperson, may find intolerably offensive, which may surprise me, and vice versa.”
Nonetheless, Williams added, “I think we need to do something. Let me be on the record, just like everybody else. What happened is unacceptable. It was an act of pure stupidity, but I don’t know that this policy, Mr. Thomas, actually gets to the root of what happened, which was pure stupidity. We have a policy against derogatory language against another. I think we need to look at the policy we have and see if there are ways we can tighten that up to ensure zero tolerance for this type of stupidity.”
Williams added, “To throw such a broad net to try to create a zero tolerance over something so subjective, to get to that 0.001 percent of the time is a little problematic to me.”
Thomas replied, “I disagree. I think there’s plenty examples of derogatory language that could be used, but racial slurs have a very clear meaning, I would say, to everybody at this table.”
Buckner noted principals determine which words are racial slurs when they discipline students.
The current policy doesn’t state that there is zero tolerance for racial slurs, Chambers explained. “It just says that it shouldn’t be used,” she said.
Williams asked whether it’s better to “consider changing the policy on the books to indicate zero tolerance or to adopt another almost, kind of, sort of mirror policy but not. I’m a little worried about redundancy and where that gets problematic.”
District 8 representative Frank Myers said if board members have alternative proposals, they should bring those as substitute motions to next week’s meeting. “We’re sitting here parsing this language when it’s really common sense,” he said. “… Tonight, a cancer was exposed in this room, and we’ve got to do something about it. This board has to act. It’s not a time to sit around and talk about political grandstanding, which is hilarious knowing John Thomas as I do.”
Myers asserted, “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the administration brings policy to the board, and that’s how policy is made in this school system, 99.9 percent of the time, and I think that’s backward. The board ought to have a much bigger role in proposing policy. But on this policy, it’s actually working the way the system is designed to work, at least in my view. But ... I want to hear what the superintendent thinks about John Thomas’ proposed policy.”
Lewis replied, “Well, I absolutely agree that we need to do something in terms of defining what we’re talking about here. When we start talking about zero tolerance, that carries with it a pretty broad net.”
Lewis noted Thomas’ proposed policy doesn’t state the consequences for violations. Thomas said zero tolerance means termination.
“So in that regard,” Lewis continued, “we’re here to enforce and implement the policy the board votes on, and we will implement to the best of our ability whatever policy is enacted. It’s that simple.”
But the superintendent said he would like to hear from the board’s legal counsel because “there are concerns raised at the state level about zero tolerance policies.”
Responding to Williams, Myers said, “If it is stupidity, or whatever Cathy said, it will now be on the books, and everybody will know you can’t be stupid like this. We just don’t tolerate it – zero tolerance.”
Myers insisted Thomas should “have an up-or-down vote on his policy as written, and I can’t wait to vote for it next week.”
Green countered, “We’re just trying to have dialogue. We’re in our work session.”
Williams told Thomas and Myers, “I think you’re onto something, but I think we want to do it right. I’m not disagreeing with you. I just want to make sure we’re not doing something that’s going to conflict with any existing policy.”
Chambers reminded her fellow board members that a new policy must sit on the table for 30 days before being up for a vote. She said she doesn’t mind adding to Thomas’ proposal “but not if it’s going to muddy the water. I think we have to send a clear and concise message that racial slurs are not going to be tolerated. I think this does that, and I am going to support it.”
But she agreed with Lewis’ suggestion to seek the legal counsel’s input. Williams concurred and said Thomas should join Chambers and Lewis in that conversation with the legal counsel.
Buckner recalled MCSD had zero tolerance for the driver who was fired last week after leaving a child unattended on a bus.
“We need to be consistent,” she said.
Board members Vanessa Jackson of District 3, Laurie McRae of District 5 and Mark Cantrell of District 6 didn’t speak during the 30-plus-minute discussion of the proposal.