The Madison, Wis., school district had “no just cause” to discipline a school social worker who used the ‘n-word’ in a conversation with other teachers, says an independent hearing officer who ruled on a grievance claim filed by the staff member.
Sandra Rivera, who is black and Puerto Rican, said that during a March staff meeting, she repeated a student’s words during a conversation about how to respond to student use of use racial slurs and other insults. No children or other black staff members were present, she said.
Afterwards, Rivera was issued a disciplinary suspension. Though she didn’t lose any pay or time off from work, that is the most severe form of discipline in the district short of suspension. Staff members are not allowed to use the racial slur in any context, she was told.
Rivera’s situation might have gone unnoticed, if not for a similar event in October that drew nationwide attention. Marlon Anderson, a high school security officer who is black, was fired for telling a disruptive student, also black, not to call Anderson the ‘n-word.’ Anderson repeated the word in its entirety—and in doing so, ran afoul of the district’s zero-tolerance policy for racial slurs.
Anderson was reinstated to his position five days later after a massive backlash to the district’s handling of the situation, including a student-led walkout at the high school where Anderson works.
In the wake of Anderson’s case, Rivera came forward to describe her own situation.
“I felt like my silence has kind of contributed to this way of responding to situations like this,” Rivera said during a press conference. “It has contributed to the damage that it continues to do, this zero-tolerance policy.”
Dennis P. McGilligan, the independent hearing officer who heard Rivera’s case, said in his report that “contrary to District assertions, there is no evidence or persuasive argument [Rivera’s] use of the word normalized the word. There is also no evidence or persuasive argument her use of the ‘N-word’ harmed anyone.”
While the district said that Rivera should have known the district had a blanket policy, she and other staff members believed that the district was taking a stance that the racial slur should never be used by staff members toward a student.
In addition, when told that she should have shortened the word in her conversation, Rivera apologized, and “a suggestion of concerted action by staff to refuse to do work around black excellence in light of her severe discipline.”
McGilligan recommended Rivera’s record be cleared.
Doug Keillor, the executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., the union representing Rivera in her grievance against the district, said in a statement to the Wisconsin State Journal that “it is our hope and expectation that the district will honor this most recent decision and continue to move away from its zero-tolerance practice to one that involves a more restorative approach.”
The school district has not released a statement on the hearing officer’s report.
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.