Some five months after the first of at least six incidents in which teachers or other staff members were alleged to have used the N-word in front of students, the Madison School District has yet to describe the circumstances surrounding any of the incidents, even though all of the staff members have been fired or resigned.
Now, one of those teachers is filling in some of the blanks.
The former Hamilton Middle School teacher said she used the word in what she realizes now was a misguided attempt at teaching a black seventh-grader a lesson after the student called a white student a “cracker,” a derogatory term for whites.
The teacher, who is white and had worked in the district 12 years, was never formally disciplined but chose to resign. She spoke with the Wisconsin State Journal on condition her name not be used because she is looking for a teaching job elsewhere.
The Oct. 31 incident was first reported by the online news outlet Madison365. Its Nov. 6 report quotes the child’s mother, without identifying her, as saying “the teacher repeatedly said, ‘How would you like it if I called you (the N-word)?’” She accused the teacher of calling her child the slur.
But the teacher told the State Journal that the white student was upset at what the black girl allegedly called him, so she went over and told the girl, “you can’t say things like that.”
“We had a conversation,” she said.
“I’m like, ‘The reason he’s reacting the way he is is because’ — talking about the context or the meaning of the word — and I said, ‘It would be like, similar, the opposite (of) if he called you the N-word,’” she told a reporter, though she admitted she used the actual word with the girl.
The teacher said the girl did not appear upset by the conversation. “And I said, ‘Do you want to go talk about this somewhere else?’” she said. “And so we walked to another classroom and discussed it further.”
She also said she might be more sensitive to the word “cracker” after having spent much of her youth in the deep South.
“I’ve been called that word at the grocery store in Alabama, so my reaction was probably very different than most Madison people would respond, having experienced different life experiences,” she said.
Ruby Clay, who has identified herself on social media and to other news outlets as the girl’s mother, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But Sabrina Madison, an advocate for Madison’s black community who accompanied Clay to the school to complain the day after the incident, said there is “no equivalent to” and “no justification” for the N-word.
It’s “no teaching lesson to say that to a black child,” she said.
The Oct. 31 incident at Hamilton was the first in a string of similar incidents in which white teachers used the N-word in front of students. The Madison teachers union, Madison Teachers Inc., has said it is “not aware of any circumstance in which staff have directed the word at students with derogatory intent.”
District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham has said there is a zero-tolerance policy toward saying the word in the schools — regardless of the context — although MTI president Andrew Waity and the teacher said they were never made aware of such a policy, and the district could not provide evidence that it exists. The word has long found its way into the classroom, in Madison and elsewhere, through the study of literary classics such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
In the most recently disclosed incident, Karyn Stocks Glover, principal of Capital High, one of the district’s two alternative high schools, wrote to parents on Feb. 21 of a “staff member allegedly using an inappropriate racial slur while reading from a book, in front of several students.”
District spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said the teacher resigned, but declined to say what race the teacher was or what book the teacher was reading.
“It has simply never been OK for an educator to use a racial slur with children,” Strauch-Nelson said. “That is a basic standard for the professional conduct of educators. That’s also part of our discrimination policy. And it is also a basic standard for caring for the humanity of our students.”
The word “is based in extreme hatred and violence and causes deep harm,” she said. “It is essential to our core values and beliefs that we not tolerate that kind of harm to our children, our families and our staff.”
Neither the N-word nor “slur” appear in the district’s non-discrimination policy, but it makes clear that its list of examples of harassment is not comprehensive and defines harassment against a student as “behavior ... based, in whole or in part, on their protected class(es) which substantially interferes with a student’s school performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive school environment.”
The Hamilton teacher said she was initially told she’d be suspended for 10 days, but after news of the event broke, the investigation was reopened. She also said that almost immediately after she said the word to the girl, she tried to call the girl’s mother to explain what had happened, and that as the incident was investigated, she made clear to her supervisors that she was willing to undergo any additional training or participate in a restorative justice process to help resolve the matter.
Strauch-Nelson declined to comment on the teacher’s version of events or explain why the recommended sanctions against her changed. A Nov. 15 memo from Cheatham to the teacher recommends her firing for “use of inappropriate racial language with a student.” Madison said she had no opinion on whether the teacher should still be working in the district.
The teacher and the State Journal have both asked for the district’s report of its investigation of the event, but the district has refused to release it, citing student privacy. The state open records law permits the district to black out information that would identify students.
Emails that were sent to Hamilton staff regarding the teacher — and released to the State Journal under the state’s public records law — refer to her initial suspension, recount the event and otherwise support the teacher’s version of what happened on Oct. 31 and in the days after. Several, along with two letters in her personnel file, also laud the teacher’s work and interaction with students.
The teacher’s personnel file, also accessed through a public records request, includes no prior incidents of disciplinary action against her. She said she had never before been subject to such action.
“I’ve never even been called to the principal’s office and said, like, ‘That lesson plan wasn’t a great idea’ or ‘You probably shouldn’t have done that,’” she said.