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S.F. elementary school principal used a racial epithet in a discussion with students, angering parents | #students | #parents

A San Francisco elementary school principal’s use of a racial epithet, while speaking to students about the word being used during a fight, angered some parents and stirred a new controversy for the school district over race and language.

Carol Fong, the principal at Ulloa Elementary in the city’s Outer Sunset district, acknowledged in a letter sent to parents Tuesday that she used the “N-word” in a discussion with fifth graders to explain a lunch period fight they had witnessed between two students in January in which the slur was reportedly said.

A parent filed a complaint and the school district launched an investigation, Fong said in her letter. She did not disclose the result of the investigation, but said she is moving forward as principal to unite and heal the school community. A district spokesperson did not confirm the investigation or say whether discipline resulted.

“I am truly sorry that the use of the N-word has caused harm to this community. I understand that the word is toxic to our families and it triggers horrific experiences for some,” Fong said in the letter. “It is a harmful word used to demean a whole group of people by the color of their skin. I am aware that I have made a mistake and I would like to sincerely apologize for this action.”

Fong’s address to parents came the same day that the four-month-old incident resurfaced during a school board meeting. Three months ago, voters recalled board member Alison Collins, who had drawn criticism last year for a series of tweets in 2016 addressing “anti-black racism in the Asian community.” In a now-deleted tweet, Collins, who is Black, used the epithet in a reference to Asian Americans and the treatment of Asian Americans. She later said that she was trying to illustrate the pitfalls of white supremacy in pitting communities of color against each other.

Gabriela López, who served as school board president, and Faauuga Moliga, a board member, were also ousted. The recall stemmed largely from frustration among parents over the slow reopening of schools during the pandemic, as well as the board’s focus on controversial issues like renaming 44 school sites and ending the merit-based admission system at Lowell High School.

The incident puts SFUSD in a thorny position as parents consider whether it is ever appropriate to invoke the epithet and if there are standards for disciplining those who use it.

Fong, who is Asian American, said she was trying to use the discussion with students after the lunchtime fight in January as an effort to teach children about the wrongs of using the epithet.

During lunchtime on Jan. 27, a fight broke out between two students in the schoolyard in front of other fifth graders at Ulloa Elementary, according to Fong’s letter. Fong said that to ensure that fighting and the use of racial slurs were not deemed acceptable, she decided to address the incident with the class. In her recounting of the incident to the students, 40% of whom come from non-English-speaking families, she said the epithet in full.

Soon after, a parent filed an official complaint against Fong. During the district’s investigation, Fong said she used the word again when recounting what she said, and what the student said, to district officials looking into the matter.

“In repairing the harm, I have apologized to the specific parent and her child,” Fong said. “I have apologized to all the fifth graders. I have also apologized to the Ulloa African American Parent Advisory Council.”

Fong did not respond to The Chronicle’s request for an interview.

Hope Williams, a Black parent and SFUSD worker, said she was holding back emotions and feared for her child’s well-being.

“I’m sick and tired of coming down here to sit and battle for what it should mean to be (a) Black parent in this school,” she said at the Tuesday board meeting. “I don’t feel safe with my child being in SFUSD.”

Her 7-year-old daughter also spoke, saying, “I hear people talk about bad things at me. I feel like I don’t have power — but I do.”

Referring to the Collins case, another parent said: “When there is harm and there’s no accountability when others have been held accountable for it — (it) is a slap in the face.”

In a statement submitted to the district, the school’s African American Parent Advisory Council called Principal Fong’s use of the epithet a “misguided attempt at a teachable moment.” But the group criticized Fong for using the slur several more times when speaking to parents, staff and district staff during the investigation.

“Yet, the community of Black parents and students at Ulloa who expressed their outrage as well as fear for their children’s safety have somehow been drowned out. That is where you all are supposed to show up standing on truth and responsibility to the ‘each and every’ that is a notion commonly denied when the one harmed is Black,” the council said.

The group also noted that it received a letter in support of Fong that declared the process a “witch-hunt and smear,” and demanded “the reputation of our beloved principal and the school” be restored.

SFUSD said in a statement to The Chronicle on Wednesday that the district values diverse voices, cultures, backgrounds and experiences of students, families and staff members: “We do not tolerate any instance of hate, bigotry or racism in our schools. Anti-racist practices are a priority for us and we actively work to support all of our staff with implementing anti-racist approaches both in and out of the classroom.”

A spokesperson for the school said there are times when harm is caused in a school community and relationships must be repaired by implementing “restorative practice” which include restorative circles between affected parties, family meetings, classroom discussions and more.

Shwanika Narayan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @shwanika

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