Teacher sues CPS after suspension for slur during ‘teachable moment’
BY KIM JANSSEN AND NATASHA KORECKI Staff Reporters February 17, 2012 12:10AM
Lincoln Brown, 48, A white teacher at Murray Language Academy in Hyde Park, says he used the n-word in a teachable moment, about the perils of racism while teaching his sixth-grade class. Brown has filled a federal lawsuit, alleging his black principal violated his civil rights by suspending him without pay for five days. February 16, 2012 I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times
Updated: March 18, 2012 8:16AM
A white teacher who says he was disciplined for using the n-word in a “teachable moment” about the perils of racism with his sixth-grade class has filed a federal lawsuit, alleging his black principal and Chicago Public Schools violated his civil rights by suspending him without pay for five days.
Lincoln Brown, 48, says he used the n-word in front of his majority African-American class at Murray Language Academy on Oct. 4 last year after one of his students passed a note to a girl with rap lyrics including the n-word.
Brown — who grew up in Hyde Park and has taught in black neighborhood schools for 21 years — “attempted to give his own denunciation of the use of such language” according to the lawsuit filed Thursday.
He discussed the use of the racial slur in Huckleberry Finn in an attempt to show “how upsetting such language can be,” but just as he used the n-word, the school’s principal, Gregory Mason walked into the classroom, the lawsuit alleges.
Two weeks later, Mason wrote to Brown, giving an account of the incident that disputes the precise words and context in which Brown used the n-word. Mason 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” in violation of the Chicago Public Schools policy.
Following a hearing in late October, the principal told the teacher that he would be suspended for five days without pay, the suit says. Brown appealed to CPS, but a CPS hearing officer ruled in December that he had “engaged in inappropriate discussions with sixth-grade students during instructional time,” ordering him to serve his suspension starting Friday.
“It’s so sad — if we can’t discuss these issues, we’ll never be able to resolve them,” Brown said Thursday as he prepared to begin his suspension from the Hyde Park school just a few blocks from President Barack Obama’s Kenwood home. He is suing Mason, CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard and the Board of Education, saying his first and fifth amendment rights were violated after he attempted “to teach his class ... an important lesson in vocabulary, civility and race relations.”
Brown said his father, the former dean of Rockefeller Chapel at University of Chicago and a supporter of the civil rights movement, even met with Martin Luther King Jr. His parents also named him after President Abraham Lincoln. He was in a minority of white students growing up at Kenwood High School, taught for many years in schools serving black children near the Robert Taylor Homes and would “never, ever use such a hurtful word” except to teach about the dangers of racism, he said.
He added that he had previously used materials from the Southern Poverty Law Center that advised how to tackle the n-word with students, and that he had thought Mason “was on my side” when the principal 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,” he said.
The stress of the allegations has caused him sleepless nights and high blood pressure, problems he said he also had when was suspended for a day last year in an unrelated incident that he said involved emptying a student’s bag in front of classmates. But he has been buoyed by 40-50 messages of support from parents of current and former students in the last week, he said. Many have children involved in his after-school Shakespeare program, he said.
CPS spokeswoman Robin Ziegler declined to comment Thursday, saying that CPS officials had yet to see the lawsuit.
Mason did not return calls seeking comment. But according to an account the principal wrote before he suspended Brown, “The very insistent (sic) I entered the room, I heard Mr. Brown discussing with the entire class of students on the word, ‘N*****’ ‘Even today, I still hear people use the word N*****,’ stated Mr. Brown.”
Mason wrote that Brown then asked, “can anyone explain to me why blacks can call each other a n*****, and not get mad, but when whites do it, blacks get angry.” Brown allowed three students to answer the question, Mason wrote.
When Mason returned to the class roughly 15 minutes later, he wrote, Brown was teaching grammar, but “totally off subjected (sic), Mr. Brown asked the students, ‘have you ever thought about why blacks are killed in movies first?’”
When the students yelled “Yeah!” in response, Mason wrote, “Mr. Brown then began to explain ‘how I’ve seen many movies where whites were killed first.’” According to Mason’s account, Brown “continued by stating that, ‘if you believe in this you are no better than the media’s portrayal of blacks.’” Brown denies the allegation, as well as an account, Mason wrote, that a student later gave of him bringing up “the word N***** out of the blue.”
“It was so hard for me even to say the word,” Brown said Thursday. “I told the students it hurts me when I said it.”