“Put your butt out,” the principal told the 6-year-old. She hit the student repeatedly with a paddle, as the little girl, who was disciplined for damaging a computer screen, screamed “no!” over and over. Nearby, the child’s mother stood, surreptitiously recording the scene with her cellphone camera.
Without that video, the mother’s concern over her child’s extreme punishment at Central Elementary School in Florida’s Hendry County school district could have been swept up in dueling accounts, bureaucratic back-and-forth, or unreported altogether. Instead, CNN carried the footage on its website. The New York Times and the Washington Post wrote stories, as did local newspapers and news television shows.
The mother did not anticipate that kind of attention. But once the punishment began, she felt powerless to stop it, in part because of her status as an undocumented immigrant. She saw the recording as the only way to prove that her daughter had been subjected to unduly harsh discipline, Brent Probinsky, the mother’s lawyer, said.
A criminal investigation cleared the principal of any legal wrongdoing, but the district was conducting its own investigation, according to CNN.
For decades, the bad behavior of educators was rarely captured in video and therefore often went unaddressed. But these days, nearly every adult and many kids in middle and high school have cellphones with the capability to record video of teachers behaving inappropriately, expressing racist views, even committing outright child abuse. During the pandemic, families have gotten an even clearer picture of how some educators talk to their kids, as millions of students learned from home on virtual platforms like Zoom.
These incidents of people capturing videos of the inappropriate behavior of educators follows in the larger footsteps of how cellphones have been used to document police brutality. That trend has been a game-changer for the law enforcement profession, sparking the national Black Lives Matter movement, which is, in part, pushing police agencies to root out racist policies, practices, and individual officers and hold leaders accountable for practices that have killed or injured people of color.
Black and brown families are feeling a level of absolution. We’ve been saying this and now here it is. So that is not unlike what has happened in the profession of law enforcement. Everyone has a video camera at their disposal, so you’re learning a lot about what goes on in the underbelly of these professions.
It’s unlikely that similar, widespread action and demands for change will happen on the K-12 level, experts say. But some educators and parents believe the recordings lend credibility to long-standing concerns about racism, overly harsh discipline, and other problems.
Most teachers don’t exhibit these kinds of behaviors , said Paula White, the executive director of the New York branch of Educators for Excellence, which works to give teachers a seat at the table in policymaking.
But when they do, “we need to be shedding daylight on all these instances,” said White, a former teacher. “We don’t like that they happen but if they are happening then we need to hear them on audio. We need to see them on video. And we need to challenge school districts to deal with these persons appropriately.”
Evidence for accusations that might not have been believed otherwise
Cellphone or Zoom footage, she said, has helped some parents bolster accusations that might not have been believed otherwise.
“Black and brown families are feeling a level of absolution,” said White, who is Black and the mother of three children. Parents and students have noticed racist behavior for years, but it was hard to document, she said. “We’ve been saying this and now here it is. So that is not unlike what has happened in the profession of law enforcement. Everyone has a video camera at their disposal, so you’re learning a lot about what goes on in the underbelly of these professions.”
But even teachers who want to make sure their colleagues are held accountable for reprehensible behavior say that encouraging students or parents to whip out their cellphones whenever they want is deeply problematic.
Vivett Dukes, a New York City public school teacher, has long been concerned about her colleagues’ racist speech. At a past school, for example, one teacher shouted, “get that animal out of here!” after a child threw a chair in class. Part of her wishes a camera could have captured that moment, she said. But she’s also wary of encouraging widespread use of phones to hold teachers accountable.
If students—or parents—are recording video, they “could take a soundbite of something” and twist it to fit their purposes, suggested Dukes, who is also a member of the board of directors for the National Parent Union, a nonprofit that helps elevate the voice of parents of color. “I may sound horrible if you didn’t catch what I said before or after.”
To prevent those kinds of problems, teachers may request that students be recorded, too, she said, bringing up a host of complex privacy concerns. “Are we opening up a Pandora’s box?” Dukes asked.
Legal issues complicate recording people without their consent
There are also legal issues to consider. Some states don’t allow individuals to be recorded without their consent. And plenty of schools discourage kids from bringing a phone into class, or even into the building at all in some cases.
Mussab Ali, the president of the school board in Jersey City, N.J., has seen the complexity of this issue firsthand. Earlier this spring, a student in his district recorded her high school science teacher’s racist tirade during a virtual class. The teacher, Howard Zlotkin, called George Floyd, who was murdered in police custody last year, a “criminal.”
When students told Zlotkin that he had advantages as a white man that Floyd did not, he responded angrily, saying “If you think I’m privileged, fuck you.” He assigned four girls who pushed back on his arguments—all Black students—to write an essay about why Black lives matter. The next day, he berated the students for not completing the assignment, telling one she was “full of shit.”
Zlotkin did not respond to an email message on Facebook asking for comment. But he told the New York Times that the video represented a “very well edited soundbite.” The district initially suspended Zlotkin. He has since resigned, Ali said. New Jersey law does not require two-part consent for recording conversations.
“I’m glad we were able to see the video because there was actual evidence as opposed to a he said/she said,” Ali said.
But on the flip side, “there are privacy concerns, there are concerns about kids being recorded in the classroom. In this instance, it was valuable to have it, but we have heard of other instances where someone was spliced up or put together in a way that doesn’t accurately reflect” their behavior, Ali said.
Jersey City isn’t the only place where a teacher’s distressing commentary on George Floyd was caught on camera. In Alaska’s Fairbanks Northstar district, a high school teacher was filmed during a Zoom class telling students that Floyd would still be alive if he had “sidled into the car and slid in there and let [officers] put his legs in.” She also said that she believed her students wouldn’t have problems in a police encounter because they were “dressed nicely” and “don’t look like thugs” with their “pants around their knees,” according to the Associated Press.
The teacher was placed on administrative leave and an investigation is under way, said Yumi McColloch, a spokeswoman for the district. Fairbanks Northstar is participating in a districtwide diversity training program, she added.
She declined to elaborate on the incident because it is the district’s policy not to comment on personnel matters.
Teacher forgets to turn off Zoom session and is recorded making racist comments
Sometimes an educator’s inappropriate behavior that is captured on video doesn’t take place inside a school building, complicating efforts to address what could be systemic problems.
Kimberly Newman, a middle school science teacher in California’s Palmdale school district, thought she had disconnected a Zoom call during which she had helped a student, who’d had trouble with his internet connection, catch up on what he had missed in class. The child’s mother heard Newman tell another person in her house that she thought the family was making up its connection problems to get the student out of turning in assignments on time, because they are Black.
In the recording, Newman is heard saying:
“Your son has learned to lie to people and make excuses. Because you taught him to make excuses. That nothing is his fault. This is what Black people do. White people do it too, but Black people do it way more.” Later, she called the family “pieces of shit.”
Once she realized what she was hearing, the student’s mother, Katura Stokes, whipped out her cellphone and began taking video of the conversation. She even called the school’s principal afterward and allowed him to listen to the recording.
Stokes thought that, “If I don’t record this, no one will believe that someone would actually say these things,” her lawyer, Neil Gehlawat, said.
Newman has since resigned. The Stokes family is suing the district, in part to get compensatory damages so that the boy can afford to go to private school if he chooses. His mother feels she cannot trust the district if it employs teachers with such beliefs, Gehlawat said.
But the district contends it cannot be held financially accountable for teacher behavior that didn’t take place on school property, Gehlawart said. What’s more, it is illegal in California to record someone without their consent.
But Gehlawat points out that California law only requires permission for recording when the person has an expectation of privacy, not when they are on a Zoom call with public school students. And while Newman may have been at home at the time of the call, she was clearly working from there since school was virtual at the time, he added.
David Garcia, a district spokesman, declined to comment on the pending legal action. But he underscored that the district worked to remove Newman from the classroom as swiftly as possible.
“It is an abhorrent situation, there is below zero tolerance for this type of language and behavior,” he said. “You don’t have to be recorded for it to be deplorable.”
District officials would not provide contact information for Newman, because of a policy of not sharing employee’s personal information, and Education Week was unable to reach her.
A cautionary note on encouraging students and parents to capture video of educators
Gehlawat, who has handled a range of civil rights cases and supports body cameras for police officers, is glad his client captured the incident on video. But, he cautioned, there are a lot of potential problems with encouraging students to record their teachers’ behavior with cellphones.
“I worry about what impact that might have on teachers, feeling like someone is always watching,” he said. “I don’t know if cameras are the solutions for teachers.”
And, in general, he said school districts are more likely to hold employees accountable for bad behavior than police departments, which he said historically have tended to defend officers no matter what.
White, from Educators for Excellence, agreed that “the majority of educators are doing the right thing. They are not making these statements, they are not expressing these sentiments, and we certainly don’t think they have these sentiments.
“But for those that do, they need to hear loud and clear that it is not acceptable and that we value the health and welfare of our babies and we are going to protect that at all costs.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2021 edition of Education Week as Like Police Officers, Educators Have Been Caught on Camera Behaving Badly