Classroom incident highlights deep divisions at Jackson-Reed

Benjamin Chait and Hadley Carr

A recent classroom dispute between a student and a teacher widens deep divisions within the Jackson-Reed community. Students and staff disagree over who is at fault, the consequences, and how the community should move forward, raising broader issues of hate speech and a fractured school culture at Jackson-Reed. 

A white Jackson-Reed teacher repeated a racial slur, the “n-word”, twice in a conversation with a student. Both were in response to the student’s use of the word, but neither were directed at the student, who is Black. Prior to and after the teacher’s use of the “n-word”, the student used various slurs in the exchange, including the “f-slur”. The student was then removed from the classroom. A student in the class filmed a video of the interaction. 

Jackson-Reed administrators declined to comment regarding any consequences the student may face. 

“Right now, there is no formal repercussion [for the teacher],” Assistant Principal and the teacher’s direct supervisor Camille Robinson said. 

The teacher was in the building the next day, but did not attend all of their classes. Discussions were held in all of the teacher’s classes the following day with a social worker present. The same day, there was a teach-in in the atrium where students expressed their complaints in regards to the teacher’s repercussions. 

“Students wanted him to face repercussions, so when they saw [them] there the next day we all were disappointed in the way the school handled the situation,” junior Sage Hudson said.

“[The students in my classes] clearly . . .had come to a conclusion that that [the teacher’s] employment was untenable,” social studies teacher Eduardo Canedo said. 

Picket lines and protests were scheduled on the following Monday and Tuesday before school to call for the termination of the teacher’s employment at Jackson-Reed. The events, organized via Remind by students, never occurred.  

The day after the incident, the social studies department had a meeting with the teacher present where the department decided to discuss the incident with all of their classes. In the following days, the teacher involved asked social workers to come and lead discussions with their students. 

“Community response has been varied,” social studies teacher Michele Bollinger said. “I think that there’s a lot of conflicting emotions and feelings,” social studies teacher Aaron Besser added. 

Some students believe the teacher should be suspended or fired. 

“Although some students believe [they] should be fired, the most realistic thing is for [them] to get suspended without pay, and some sort of training to ensure that something like this won’t happen again,” Hudson said. “[The teacher] was unprofessional in many ways and [they] should be ashamed of what [they’ve] done,” Hudson continued. 

Other students don’t feel as though there should be large repercussions. 

“I feel both the student and the teacher are both in the wrong, and I believe that both should be held accountable for their actions,” junior Brandon Batts said. “At the most [I think there should be] a suspension, because I don’t think people should be punished to the most extreme extent over words,” Batts continued. 

Robinson said the teacher’s speech wasn’t in direct violation of any current school or district policies regarding language. Jackson-Reed is a No Place For Hate school, pledging to stand with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in eradicating hateful speech within the school, the community, and the world. However, there is no current policy surrounding derogatory speech. 

There has been a large effort among the staff to construct curriculum and policy surrounding hate speech. 

“We need a more comprehensive assessment of our school culture and have more concrete changes,” Bollinger said. 

“Right now our school and our school culture do not make all students or staff feel safe. So it’s something that we as a community need to make a priority to address,” English teacher Allison Conroy said. 

In early January, the Black Student Union (BSU), the Arab Student Union (ASU), and the Jewish Student Union (JSU) proposed curriculum changes following anti-Semitic and racist vandalism, but the proposal was never executed by administration.

“The rise in the use of hate speech and symbols at [Jackson-Reed] has contributed to an increasingly unsafe environment at the school,” the unions said in the introduction to their proposal. “Lethargic response by previous and current administrations is indicative of the fact that large policy changes at the administrative, classroom, and community level must be made,” they continued. 

The unions suggested hiring a professional to “properly handle situations where inappropriate staff behavior has occurred.” They also proposed holding 45-minute Socratic seminars with the purpose of providing randomly-selected students with a history of the use of hate symbols and slogans. 

In response to the recent incident, Bargeman indicated an effort to facilitate small discussions among students about hate speech within our community. To the same effect, Bargeman aims to add topics of hate speech and its history into the curriculum of social studies classes to build understanding of its significance and curtail its use in the community. •