In a recording of a Snapchat video circulating on several social media platforms, one of three white girls leaned into the camera and pronounced a stylized version of the N-word while a second made jumbled hand signals and all three dissolved into laughing gibberish.
The three don’t come across as hateful. They appeared to think they were cute. They had said a naughty word. How shocking (giggle, giggle, giggle)!
Whatever their intent, the stunt was stupid, hurtful, and just plain wrong. It was also racist. So what should be done?
Some years ago a good friend of mine, the assistant principal in a San Antonio Independent School District middle school, faced a similar issue. This was before Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram or even cell phones with cameras so the incident drew little notice.
A boy was brought to my friend’s office. His offense: He had yelled the same racial epithet in his classroom. There was no clear reason, the teacher said. The assistant principal was authorized to paddle the boy, but her prompt punishment was sterner and certainly scarier.
A teacher’s assistant at the school – let’s call her Mrs. Jones – was a proud Black woman whose no-nonsense bearing led to her being assigned the duty of presiding over the daily after-school detention.
The boy’s punishment was that at the end of that school day he had to go to Mrs. Jones and ask her what it felt like to be called that racial slur. After the last bell the assistant principal went out into the hall to make sure the boy was obeying. He was, she said, white as a sheet.
The great thing about the assistant principal’s choice is not that it scared the boy, although making someone intensely uncomfortable as a result of such behavior is wonderful. The great thing is that it very likely was educational. That’s what schools are supposed to be about, yet when it comes to discipline I’ve seen many times when this appears to have been forgotten.
Longtime readers may remember the 6-year-old boy in North East ISD who brought a gun to school in his backpack and showed it to a classmate. His aunt thought she had safely hidden it on top of a wardrobe. He was, by all accounts, a happy boy and meant no harm. I asked a group of first-grade teachers at my daughters’ school what should be done with him and they said, almost in unison, that a good talking-to should suffice.
Instead the boy was “expelled,” which meant studying and eating in what amounted to solitary confinement for months. I received a call from a psychotherapist involved in the matter. He said the teacher dealing with the boy had told his parents they needed to get the boy a therapist because the school was messing him up. And, he said, she was right.
A spokesperson for the school district said federal law required that the boy be expelled. I read the law and it did say that. But it also said that the district superintendent, after careful consideration, could make an exception. After that was pointed out in print, the superintendent consulted with the boy’s teachers and principal, who said they’d love to have him back, had him assessed by a psychologist, and returned him to the classroom.
In Houston I covered an even worse case. A sixth-grade boy, on a dare, pulled the clear plastic cover off a fire alarm box. Lights flashed and sirens went off. The boy was called into the principal’s office. The suburban cop who was assigned to the school was also called in. The boy was taken to jail and charged with a felony for filing a false alarm from a public building.
After doing some research, his father, who worked for the district’s alternative school, found that by removing the cover the boy had set off a local alarm, but it had not been transmitted beyond the school. Nevertheless, the district continued to press charges. The boy was so traumatized that his parents got him psychological help.
The district attorney’s office pressed the parents to accept a plea bargain, but they refused. Only on the eve of a trial and after considerable publicity did the DA’s office drop the charges. The prosecutors clearly were afraid of how a jury would react to their and the district’s blatant child abuse.
No school district official ever apologized. They said the boy brought the criminal prosecution on himself by pulling off the alarm cover. But the police chief called the boy and his parents in to meet with himself and the officer who arrested him. The officer and the chief said they were appalled at what had happened. So appalled, in fact, that the officer said he had asked to be removed from the school and would never go back. They gave the family what the “educators” couldn’t bring themselves to give: a sincere apology.
Alamo Heights school officials have posted a statement that said, in part: “The choice to use such language and to post it to social media is unacceptable. Of course there will be consequences for students who make a choice to use such language, but the pressing issue is our responsibility as a district and a community to educate our students about empathy and dignity.”
I don’t know what the “consequences” will be, but I hope that as with the boy at my friend’s middle school, they involve both intense discomfort and effective education. It shouldn’t wreck their lives (although it may come to the attention of college admissions officers), but it should have a chance of altering them. School officials also need to confront the likelihood that these girls are not alone in needing education on racial issues.
The San Antonio Express-News recently published an article about numerous occasions in which arbitrators had reinstated officers fired by the police chief. One officer had been caught on a body camera repeatedly calling a handcuffed prisoner, presumably Black, the N-word. The officer’s punishment was reduced by the arbitrator to a 10-month suspension.
The officer is an adult. If he didn’t know, even before the current national confrontation over racism within police departments, that using a racial slur against a citizen is beyond the bounds, he does not belong on the police force.
Just as outrageous is the police union chief, Mike Helle, comparing the officer’s repeated use of the slur while making an arrest with Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s recent use of “goddamn” while talking to demonstrators protesting police brutality.
If Helle truly doesn’t see any difference between the mayor’s use of “goddamn” and an officer’s calling an arrested man a racial epithet, then I am glad he is retiring from the police force when he finishes his term as head of the police union. One of the terms is used, if somewhat clumsily, for emphasis. The other trumpets racist hatred. Granted “goddamn,” mildly vulgar to many, remains blasphemy to some of the devout. But in America we let God take care of blasphemy. Racism, however, is on us. And if blatant racism can’t be banned from a police force, how can less obvious but sometimes deadly systemic racism be addressed?
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