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The Madison School District is reiterating to staff that the use of racial slurs “is not tolerated in the workplace” after one employee who repeated the N-word with a student was reinstated and another who used the slur was placed on leave.

“In spite of recent media attention, we still have a strong stance, we still believe hateful, violent language has no place in our schools or District,” Nichelle Nichols, the district’s executive director of equity, partnerships and engagement, wrote in an email to principals and central office staff last week.

While noting the district is in the midst of re-examining its zero-tolerance approach to use of racial slurs by staff, Nichols wrote, “We need to stay strong on creating the climate that our students deserve first and foremost.”

The message followed the reinstatement of Marlon Anderson, a black security guard at West High School who was fired for repeating the N-word as he defended himself from a student calling him the slur.

On Thursday, parents of Hamilton Middle School students were told a substitute teacher was put on leave after recently “using a racial slur around a student,” Principal John Burkholder said in an email.

Ruby Clay told the online news outlet Madison365 her daughter was going to school on Oct. 17 — the day after Anderson was fired — and children on the bus were talking about Anderson’s situation.

Last school year, another Hamilton teacher resigned after using the N-word with Clay's daughter, who is black. 

Upset about the conversation on the bus, her daughter looked to confide in the teacher, who is white, but the teacher “breached her trust” and asked about last year’s incident, repeating the N-word, Clay told Madison365.

“I thought this was like a sick joke,” Clay told the news outlet. “This was the same month it happened last year.”

Nichols’ email, intended as a resource to help school leaders “talk with staff and lead through complexity” on the issue, reiterates the administration’s view that it’s never acceptable for a staff member to use a racial slur, seeks to address questions that have emerged from the firing and quick reinstatement of Anderson, and speaks to the complex historical and contemporary use of the N-word.

“The district is trying to balance a firm stance in our anti-racism work that does not tolerate the use of racial slurs, particularly (the N-word), as well as understand the complexity,” said the message, which was signed by Nichols and the central office team. “We will continue to learn together.”

The Madison School Board is also due to review the zero-tolerance approach, which was implemented last year under then-Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham and resulted in the firing or resignation of least seven employees who allegedly used a racial slur last school year.

The memo doesn’t say what, if anything, has changed to allow Anderson to be rehired. But Nichols addressed directly that it did not mean it was OK for African American staff to use the word in school.

“Our stance is still the same,” Nichols wrote. “We do not tolerate the use of racial slurs by staff, especially the n-word, which is considered one of the most obscene words in the English language.”

The message acknowledges the “complicating factor” of several perspectives within the black community on the use of the word.

Some view variations of the word as a term of endearment; others see it as the black community reclaiming the word in the form of empowerment; and some believe it should never be used, the message said.

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“Black youth in particular, who may not know the historical origins of the word, may use it as it has been used in pop culture and in other settings,” the message said. “They may also have varying perspectives on the use of the word.”

Addressing questions

Although she objected to the characterization of the approach as a “zero tolerance policy,” Nichols said the ban on use of racial slurs is supported by the district’s nondiscrimination policy, expectations for professional conduct in the employee handbook and a belief in anti-racist work, and was put in place last year to “unequivocally protect students from harm.”

On Monday, School Board President Gloria Reyes said an “equity team” will design lessons for students around the historical use of the N-word. The lessons will be piloted in the spring.

Reyes did not respond to a request for comment Thursday on the timeline for reviewing the policies but has previously said she wants it done as soon as possible. Nichols was unavailable for comment Thursday, and district spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson did not respond to follow-up questions about the memo.

In answering why the district is focused on the N-word, Nichols’ message quotes from the Merriam-Webster dictionary entry, which says, “The word now ranks as almost certainly the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English.”

‘Teachable moment’

One section of the message poses a hypothetical statement: “I’m hearing that employees in schools are afraid to say or do anything wrong — they don’t want to get fired for making a mistake.”

“Our intent is not to cause fear for our employees,” the message says in response. “It is important for all employees to do their own learning about the impact that racial slurs cause for those who are on the receiving end of them.”

It goes on to say the use of a slur as a “teachable moment,” “an example,” or “to illustrate a point that a student said or another staff person said” are not reasons to use a slur.

Anderson previously described his interaction with the disruptive student on Oct. 9 as a “teachable moment” after the student, who is also black, called Anderson the N-word. He was fired a week later but rehired on Oct. 21 after a public backlash.

Appeal pending

Another district employee said last week she was disciplined for saying the N-word during a staff meeting in March as she was asking for advice on what to do when students use the slur, repeating a verbatim example of a student who had used the slur after another staffer in the meeting expressed surprise such language is used by students.

The bilingual social worker at dual-language elementary school Nuestro Mundo, Sandra Rivera, is appealing the disciplinary action taken against her.

Staff members included on the message were also encouraged to review the district’s nondiscrimination policy and its protections for students based on such things as sex, race, color, religion, sexual orientation or disability.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. An earlier version misstated the circumstances in which Ruby Clay's daughter was exposed to the N-word by a teacher at Hamilton Middle School last year.]

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