A tough lesson about the N-word 

Should a Chicago Public Schools teacher have used "nigger" in a sixth-grade class?

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The sixth graders in the classroom that day were homeroom students of Rashida Foluke, who recently retired after 30 years of teaching, including 20 at Murray. Foluke saw her students after the class Brown taught that day. They "were not upset by the conversation that had taken place in [Brown's] classroom," she said, "so I'm assuming they felt he handled it OK. From what the kids said, he tried to explain to them that the word was inappropriate to use, and why.

"The only thing I think he could have done differently is not use the word," Foluke added. She's African-American, and thinks the word should be avoided by whites and blacks alike.

Controversies over use of the word in classrooms aren't rare. Last April, Jeff Miller, a veteran high school history teacher in Portland, was put on paid administrative leave after saying "nigger" 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. (He's since returned to teaching at the school.)

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 "nigger" with "slave" in a new edition of Huckleberry Finn. The book, published in 1885, has "nigger" 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 "nigger." 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. Brown, who reads Teaching Tolerance regularly because of his use of its curriculum materials, told me he read the Lester interview a few days before the episode in room 216.

Brown said he didn't get any complaints from parents after the class or hear anything negative about it from students. He said he didn't think Mason had had a problem with anything that happened in the classroom, since he never interrupted. Brown told me he assumed "that what I was doing was something he was very interested in, and for the right reason."

But when Mason called Brown to his office on October 17, 2011, he accused Brown of using "verbally abusive language" in front of students, and of "cruel, immoral, negligent, or criminal conduct or communication to a student, that causes psychological or physical harm."

The principal conducted a hearing in his office eight days later. Brown attended with a lawyer. In the hearing, Mason asked Brown how the discussion on the day in question was connected to the grammar lesson. Brown said it wasn't—that he sometimes changed his lessons and felt he'd had a "teachable moment" that day.

"How long would you say a teachable moment lasts?" Mason asked.

"As long as it takes," Brown said.

On November 10, Mason rendered his written decision. He noted at the outset that he'd use "the 'N-word', or 'N-----' in replace [sic] of 'nigger'" throughout the rest of the document "because of the derogatory connotation of, and controversial associated with of [sic] the word."

He said use of the word "at its worse [sic] can incite individuals to act violently toward the initiator, and at its best, cause individuals to engage in debate with no clear resolve."

The principal went on: "A topic like this, and especially to 11 year old students, require [sic] careful thought, connection to the structured standards-based curriculum, parent notification—perhaps, consent, and a monitor to bear witness to the discussion. Even with all this in place, are the benefits of the discussion worth the risk of offering [sic] one or more students, thus perpetuating the hurt already felt by many in this country?"

Mason added: "To be sure, this topic cannot be reduced to a 'teachable moment.' Mr. Brown was rather reckless in his choice of words." He suspended the teacher without pay for five days.

Brown appealed Mason's decision, and that December he had a hearing in a CPS office downtown. According to the hearing officer's summary, Mason said Brown had engaged in "inappropriate discussions" with his students that included the word "nigger," and that there hadn't been a "contextual relationship" between the discussions and what Brown should have been teaching.

Brown's lawyer, Terence Flynn, argued that the board had no written policy prohibiting use of the word "nigger." He also said Mason hadn't understood the context: Brown had led a discussion about bullying, a discussion prompted by a note from a student in which the word had been used.

To Brown's dismay, the hearing officer noted that Brown had been suspended the previous April.

In February 2012, Brown received the CPS decision: "The evidence proved that you engaged in inappropriate discussions with sixth grade students during instructional time." The five-day suspension was upheld.

After Brown filed his suit in federal court last February, there was a flurry of stories about the episode at Murray. Commentators were divided on the propriety of Brown's actions and Mason's response. On its editorial page, the Sun-Times said: "Every indication is that the teacher, Lincoln Brown, was unfairly suspended . . . for being the best kind of teacher—the kind who dares to teach the hardest stuff." But Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, who's African-American, thought Brown had "overstepped his boundaries. . . . Most black people are offended when white people say n----- and it really doesn't matter that Brown was trying to make a point."

Brown's lawsuit contends he was punished for "attempting to teach tolerance and civility to his students" which "apparently is not tolerated by Defendant School Board and its agents." It also asserts that Brown was deprived of due process because of the "vague" policies he allegedly broke. The suit seeks statutory, compensatory, punitive, and exemplary damages.

The board has asked Judge Edmond Chang to dismiss the case, claiming that Brown doesn't have a First Amendment right to use the word "nigger" in a sixth-grade classroom. The board's lawyers say there was no due-process violation—the prohibition against verbally abusive language is clear and understandable, and Brown was given a chance to make his case before he served his suspension. The board's lawyers also point to case law that holds that a due-process violation by a governmental body must "shock the conscience," which they say a five-day suspension doesn't do.

The motion to dismiss the suit is pending. The parties are due back in court on Monday.

The incident in classroom 216 could be viewed as a conflict between two people as much as it is a conflict about one word. But at its core, Brown asserted, it's about teachers being allowed to take on challenging subjects when they arise.

"When you're trying to teach something very important, and you feel you have command of your audience, and you feel comfortable in your own skin, those are some of the most important moments of being an educator," he said. "I think that teaching is the most difficult job, and it doesn't have to be. You're expected to do so much, but you're not treated with the respect you should be treated with.

"I would like a jury or judge to concur that how I was treated was unfair, unreasonable, was bullying, and unjust," he said. "And also, I would like to have the opinion of the legal community that there's merit to having these kinds of conversations in schools, because no one's having them anywhere else."

Jena Cutie helped research this story.

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