CHICAGO – A 48-year-old Chicago public school teacher used the “n-word” as part of a lesson on the perils and pitfalls of racism, and it landed him a five-day suspension from his job. Now the teacher is fighting back, filing a federal lawsuit against the district and claiming that his civil rights have been violated.
Lincoln Brown, a 21-year veteran teacher and native of Chicago’s Hyde Park, used the word in his sixth grade classroom at Murray Language Academy on Oct. 4, 2011 after discovering a note that a female student was passing, which had the slur written on it citing some rap lyrics. Brown, who is white, used the note as an opportunity to teach a lesson about racism in the context of Huckleberry Finn.
In almost impeccable timing, as soon as Brown said the “n-word,” the school’s principal, George Mason, walked into the room, and the trouble started.
“This cannot be a part of who I am,” Brown said, during a press conference with his attorney, “My character has been assassinated.”
Mason gave a different account of the incident, and charged Brown with “using verbally abusive language to or in front of students” and “cruel, immoral, negligent or criminal conduct or communication to a student, that causes psychological or physical harm” which is in violation of the Chicago Public Schools policy. Mason disputed the context in which Brown used the n-word.
“We’ve talked about racial stereotyping and how words really shape people’s ideas of who you are,” Brown said, “I cannot tell you how much it hurts me to say that word.”
Following a disciplinary hearing, Brown was suspended for five days without pay. CPS denied Brown’s appeal of the suspension on grounds that he “engaged in inappropriate discussions with sixth-grade students during instructional time.”
“If we can’t discuss these issues, we’ll never be able to resolve them,” Brown said to the Chicago Sun-Times.
In the suit, he names Mason, CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, and the Chicago Board of Education, saying his first and fifth amendment rights were violated.
Brown told the Sun-Times that he had previously used materials from the Southern Poverty Law Center that advised teachers on how to approach the subject of the “n-word” with students. He also insists that he thought Mason was supporting him when he stayed to watch the discussion with “engaged, excited” students.
“It’s ridiculous to believe that sixth-graders aren’t exposed to this language, not only in music but in their everyday lives,” Brown said. He also claims that the stress has caused him to have high blood pressure and sleepless nights. Brown has gotten support from parents of current and former students, but that has not convinced the school district to reconsider on its decision.
“The principal determined that the way the teacher used the word was improper and imposed a short suspension,” CPS Director of Communications Robyn Ziegler said in a prepared statement. “The teacher has received sufficient due process. In our opinion, his federal lawsuit is without merit.”
This is just the example of a teacher employing questionable tactics to inject race into lesson plans in school. Last month, a teacher in suburban Detroit came under fire for a lesson she asked students to participate in slavery role-playing.
In December, a teacher in Atlanta resigned after attempting to correlate a math lesson with slavery. That lesson included questions such as: If Frederick (Douglass) got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?
There was no word on when Brown’s suit would be heard in federal court. Brown, who is expected to serve his suspension this week, hopes that this will lead to a more open discussion over the usage of the “n-word” in schools.
“It goes to the heart of the first amendment,” William Spielberger, Brown’s attorney, said. “We want the board of education to change their policy to allow this type of discussion to occur.”
Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith