In a rare moment of common sense in an educational setting, a hearing officer has recommended lifting the suspension of a Wisconsin elementary school social worker who used the N-word — in context — at a faculty meeting.
Nuestro Mundo Elementary’s Sandra Rivera, who identifies as “black Puerto Rican,” had claimed she was merely attempting to illustrate to staff that they should be prepared for students’ use of “racial slurs and insults.”
According to the Wisconsin State Journal, when a fellow staff member expressed surprise about students using such language, Rivera quoted a student who had said the N-word — “out loud and in its entirety.”
The Madison School District suspended Rivera based on a zero tolerance policy against racial slurs. (The report notes that despite suspension being “the most severe form of discipline before termination,” Rivera lost no pay nor missed any time from her duties.)
Now-Former Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham notified district staff last year that “[n]o matter the context or circumstance, the use of racial slurs or hate language aimed at a person’s protected class status is unacceptable in MMSD.” Notably, the school board never formally adopted this policy.
Hearing officer Dennis McGilligan ruled on December 17 that Rivera was clearly communicating against use of the epithet.
“(Rivera’s) expression of the word was in the context of pushing for the District’s black excellence and anti-racism efforts and specifically to initiate a discussion among educators about what professional development could be offered to move that work forward in their school,” he wrote.
“She asked what could be done as staff ‘to better prepare ourselves to respond to situations when a student uses the word to insult another student.'” McGilligan [continued]. “She quoted an example of hate speech used by a student (stating the N word in its entirety) to demonstrate the need to address hate speech at Nuestro Mundo; a need that was not being addressed sufficiently.”
In a statement Tuesday, Doug Keillor, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., the union representing Rivera in her grievance against the district, said “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.”
A spokesman for the district did not respond to a request for comment. According to McGilligan, the district argued it was common sense not to use the word in a school setting, and the district had communicated that position to staff.
McGilligan’s decision noted that staff at Nuestro Mundo had pleaded with Cheatham and the district head of human resources to consider the context of Rivera’s remarks. They highlighted her “commitment to social justice and advocating for ‘restorative’ action instead of discipline.”