His side: A San Bernardino Cajon High School senior LaRue Bell claims that on September 3rd his seventh period math teacher Bernadette Yuson began rearranging student seating in her class and he demanded to know why she was only moving the Black students. He said her reply was, “because I want to move all the ni**as.” He said he immediately reported the incident to campus administrators and they told him to ignore it and return to class. Once his mother took the matter to the school district, the teacher was placed on paid administrative leave and will remain there until an investigation is complete.
Her side: A mathematics teacher at the high school for almost 13 years, Bernadette Yuson released a statement late last week outlining her version of events. She said that before the bell rang that day, a male student dragged her chair away from her table and sat on it. She said she requested that he return the chair and he argued before returning it. She said as she took roll he stood up and shouted the word ni**a to a classmate. She said she questioned him saying “Wow! Ni**a? Is that a good word?”
“The student questioned me if I referred it to him,” she wrote in the statement, “I said No. I did not refer it to you or anybody else, but I am asking you if the word you shouted to your classmate was a good word…”
The District has launched an investigation to try to get to the truth.
While the investigation into exactly what happened is ongoing, the student’s mother is calling for the teacher to be fired, community leaders held a press conference calling for her permanent removal from the classroom, and school administrators at least agree that she violated a school board policy that states that employees shall not use abusive language in the presence of students, including derogatory racial remarks.
The District is moving forward with a plan to convene a group of stakeholders tomorrow to have an open discussion and to conduct an After Action Review. According to District spokeswoman Linda Bardere, the After Action Review process will ask three key questions:
What did we learn?
What are our next steps?
At the press conference last week, I asked community leaders if this teacher has a history of similar behavior. To me, that seemed to be an important question to be answered, especially after hearing the first version of the incident. I learned that due to rules regarding confidentiality in relation to personnel matters and the due process rights of employees, the district cannot comment on the employee’s disciplinary record.
While I believe there is never a need to use derogatory language, I also believe that classrooms should be spaces of exploration, engagement, and obviously education. If a student uses the word, as the teacher alleges, then she should address it. Question it. Challenge it.
According to an article in the Chicago Reader, controversies over use of the word in classrooms aren’t rare.
Last year a veteran Chicago Public School 6th grade teacher received a 5-day suspension after using the word ni**er in class as part of an impromptu lesson for his students when they circulated a note with the word included in a poem.
Last April, Jeff Miller, a veteran high school history teacher in Portland, was put on paid administrative leave after saying “ni**er” in class. A student in the class told the Oregonian that Miller used the word while impersonating a racist white southerner during a lesson on race relations. The student said Miller was an “inspiring” teacher and “a breath of fresh air,” and other students later rallied in Miller’s support.
In April 2011, a teaching assistant at the University of Connecticut used the word in an anthropology class on racism while discussing how a slur stereotypes and demeans. A student filed a complaint against him, but an administrator sided with the TA.
Also in 2011, an Alabama publisher, NewSouth Books, replaced “ni**er” with “slave” in a new edition of Huckleberry Finn. The book, published in 1885, has “ni**er” in it 219 times, and has been banned by some school districts. NewSouth argued that substituting for the word would allow more school districts to teach the classic, but the publisher was besieged by critical e-mails when it announced its plan.
In 2008, Neil Lester, dean of humanities at Arizona State University, began teaching a class-described as the first of its kind-devoted to exploring the word “ni**er.” Lester’s aim is “to have some critical and historical discussions about it and not pretend that it doesn’t exist,” he told the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance magazine in the fall of 2011. Lester, who’s African-American, also talked in the article about how an elementary school teacher might teach the word.
“Ni**er is and has long been the most socially consequential racial insult,” Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, who is African-American, wrote in his 2002 book, Ni**er. “There is nothing necessarily wrong with a white person saying ‘ni**er,’ just as there is nothing necessarily wrong with a black person saying it,” Kennedy wrote in his book. “What should matter is the context in which the word is spoken-the speaker’s aims, effects, alternatives. To condemn whites who use the N-word without regard to context is simply to make a fetish of ni**er.”
If the teacher arbitrarily used the word, as the student alleges, she should be disciplined. She should also be educated. But in my opinion she should not be removed from the classroom if that is her only offense after successfully teaching for almost 13 years. There is an opportunity here to make this a teaching moment, not only for the students and the teacher, but also for the community at large. But first we must get closer to the truth. Hopefully the investigation will move us in that direction.