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West High School students and staff participated in walk-out Friday in support of fired security guard Marlon Anderson.

The Capital Times supported Kaleem Caire for the Madison School Board in last April’s election because we thought he had the right perspective on a number of issues facing our schools in this time of transition, trial and opportunity. Caire did not prevail. But we absolutely believe that he has the best perspective on the wrongheaded decision by Madison School District officials to fire Marlon Anderson, an African American security guard at Madison West High School, for objecting when a disruptive student used a racial slur — the “n” word — against him.

Anderson reportedly repeated the word in challenging what the student had said. School officials said that violated a “zero tolerance” policy regarding the use of racial slurs by employees.

Caire, a veteran education activist and leader, says, “I am so glad Marlon is fighting this. MMSD needs to modify this lazy, harmful and hole-punched policy that allows it to avoid doing the real work that any HR department should do by looking at the context in which such a word (or any other) is used. They are an academic institution and should be educating themselves and young people about the use of words like the N-word, not running from it.”

In a thoughtful essay posted on the Madison365 website, Caire explained that, “MMSD also needs to look up the meaning of a ‘slur’ in the dictionary. A slur is defined as an ‘insulting or disparaging remark’ that is ‘shaming or degrading’ to someone. Telling a student, who was repeatedly calling him a ‘Bitch ass N****’ and ‘Ho Ass N****’ to ‘Stop calling me a n*****, I’m not a n*****… Stop calling me that’ should not get you fired from your job. In Marlon’s case, the word was not used as a slur. It was not used towards anyone. He was simply telling the student to stop calling him that.” 

Caire argues that the decision that led to the firing of Anderson, a veteran school employee, was “inappropriate and unfair given how it doesn’t take context into consideration at all.” 

We agree with Caire. We agree, as well, with the members of the West Black Student Union and their allies who organized a walkout on Friday to call for Anderson’s reinstatement. And we think it is good that Madison Teachers Inc., the union that represents teachers and staff at West, has filed a grievance on behalf of Anderson. The union is appealing this firing, seeking Anderson’s reinstatement with full back pay. We hope that the union will press the issue aggressively on behalf of Anderson and all of its members.

Ultimately, this controversy points to the need for smarter and more sensitive policies that address racism rather than punishing responsible school district staffers who are doing their jobs in sometimes difficult circumstances.

The use of a racist word as a slur is unacceptable. We understand and respect the desire of school officials to guard against hurtful language, and we recognize how this can lead to the embrace of “zero tolerance” policies. But there has to be room for nuance and flexibility, and for common-sense approaches that get all the facts and respond appropriately. In this case, common sense tells us that Kaleem Caire is right when he argues that school officials should acknowledge that they made a mistake, and that they should reverse their decision.

Marlon Anderson should get his job back. He should be awarded any lost pay. And school officials should look for ways to assure that best practices teach the best lessons: about rejecting racist slurs and about treating people fairly.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

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