COLORADO SPRINGS — A Colorado Springs charter school is apologizing after an assignment over a racial slur prompted backlash from parents, students, and community members.
Earlier this week, an 11th grader English Teacher at James Irwin High School gave students the assignment in preparation for an upcoming lesson. The assignment directed students to go over two forms of the "N-Word" and watch videos where they're used. Students were then asked to answer a series of questions, but some parents and students found the entire exercise racist and offensive.
"I've read the assignment, I've read the questions, and I was fine with most of it somewhat. I saw where she was coming from, but when you haven't been in our shoes or haven't had to deal with being called that word, it's hard to articulate how you want to put it. Maybe getting some insight from other people would have helped," said Desiree Mukes, parent, and former student.
When Newton saw the assignment circulating on social media, her initial response was hurt and confusion.
"I felt hurt and I felt like it almost couldn't be real because I know Mr. Daughtery who was the dean when I was here. From what I knew about him and other deans, I knew this couldn't have been anything that the school would have approved because it was shocking," said Mukes.
She immediately went to the school to speak with the administration about the assignment.
"I'm the only person that came to the school, came to the principal, came to the dean and sat down for two to three hours, and said what do we do to make this better for the kids. How do we make them feel more comfortable coming to us? How do we get these teachers to understand that there are certain things that we aren't going to have here," said Mukes.
Former student Monique Gonzalez says she was also shocked when she read the assignment. She also disagrees with the slur being used in the classroom.
"Even though the thing said we are going to have it (discussion) academic and profession, it was not academic and respectful whatsoever. When I read it, I felt like she was trying to pinpoint what students she would like and wouldn't like. Why else would she ask students when it's not even related to the book like that," said Gonzalez. "As a teacher, I don't think it was OK whatsoever. I was taught that if a student came and asked about race, we were told to bring it to the parents first and see if its OK to talk about."
Gonzalez says she has friends in the classroom where the assignment was given.
"Some of them didn't want to do the assignment, they told her they didn't want to do it. She actually got mad at the students who didn't want to do it and claimed they were just whining that they didn't want to do it and they didn't want to learn it. But the biggest issue was how she phrased it, that's the biggest issue," said Gonzalez.
Rob Daugherty, Chief Executive Officer at James Irwin Charter Schools, says the assignment was created without the school’s permission and immediately taken down.
"I didn't see the entire assignment in the beginning. What I saw was some video links and the video links used the word very freely so my thought was I understand what the intent was, but it's not appropriate for a high school class. Then when I actually viewed the questions and journaling part of it, it just confirmed that it was something that we should not have," said Daugherty. "It's not whether or not people view the word as offensive, the word is offensive. In exactly the same way we wouldn't use other words in a professional or learning environment, we're never going to use that word."
Generally, when there is a lesson over classic novels, Daugherty says they will make a statement warning students of the inappropriate words. He says they usually skip over them and move forward.
"The teacher's intent was to really deep a little deeper and impress upon them how inappropriate the word was. In an effort to do that, it created a whole other level of issues," said Daugherty.
In the future, he says there will be a better process for going over assignments.
"It's going to go back to how we've always overlooked teacher assignments. My belief is that through COVID, we kinda got out of the habit of getting in and looking at lesson plans every day, having those grade-level meetings, simply because of the social distancing aspect. We are seeing some migration in terms of teachers picking up different topics or going down different paths. We are going to go back to doing these how they are intended and that is lead teachers, roll out assignments and administration lead to teachers to what they're doing," said Daugherty.
"I came in here a very strong-minded black woman with a very big opinion on this. I was going to come in here guns blazing and they were like we aren't fighting you on this, what do we do. That's the question I got, what do we do, what the plan of action," said Mukes.
Daugherty says next Thursday the school will be hosting an event in the high school gym to address concerns related to the assignment along with racial tensions.