Letter: Parent of Neary student shares her family’s story and calls for release of report

[Ed note: My Southborough accepts signed letters to the editor submitted by Southborough residents. Letters may be emailed to mysouthborough@gmail.com.

The following letter is from Devona Cartier, the parent of a child in the Neary classroom that has been in the news.]

To the Editor:

I learned of events that have now made national news on May 1st. My child’s classroom teacher asked for parents to schedule a 10min virtual meeting with her and the principal to “discuss conversations that occurred during instructional time”.

On May 1st my husband and I sat down with the principal and the teacher.

We were told that during a read aloud the teacher said a racial slur. The teacher said the word was written in the book and she read it out loud thoughtlessly. She then began a discussion with the students about the word, and it’s context. She also reported to us that during a lesson on American slavery and the southern states, a child asked asked what a slave auction was. The teacher on a whim then chose two random children to stand and used them as models to help the children understand what a slave auction was. The teacher said she thought better of this when students started bidding on their classmates, and she ended the discussion.

These are the events that were reported to us as true. Through tears the teacher said she was deeply sorry for any harm caused and that it would never happen again.

There was a short time for us to respond and ask questions. One of the things I asked of the principal was, ‘what policies or guidance is there for teachers from the school, district, or state regarding important but sensitive topics like these, for example what is the policy or guidance for an educator using the n-word in class; does the school, district, or state have any rules about this. The principal told me “no”, there are no policies or guidance. I told the principal that the lack of support for teachers through guidance or policy was shocking and that the school had failed this teacher.

I will tell you, my thoughts at this time were that the teacher engaged in incredibly poor judgment which will have caused harm to students. I believed that the teacher needed further education on how to teach these sensitive but important topics, and that the students needed support as these events likely caused harm. I believed that the district and school had failed this teacher by not providing her appropriate guidance, and she had harmed her students with her poor judgment. I also thought she showed genuine remorse. That is what I thought on May 1st.

I will point out here, in case it’s not obvious, this meeting was full of inaccuracies. The teacher and principal misrepresented, glossed over, and lied to us as parents. The details about these events are far worse than what we were told.

Some of these lies and misrepresentations were easily discovered. The slur does not occur in the book, so the teacher’s explanation that she read it from the book was a lie. We were not told the mock auction occurred in January. We were not told the students were picked from the 2nd and 3rd row of the class and asked to stand at the front of the room and show their physique, their strength, and their teeth. We were not told that it was the teacher who told the class to bid on these students. The teacher actually represented events in a way that the students carried some blame or responsibility for these events. A child asked about an auction. ‘Miss, what’s an auction’, could be explained by auctioning a set of pencils. The students did not get carried away and start bidding on their classmates, causing the teacher to rethink what she set in motion. She asked them to bid. We were not told the principal had been made aware of the slave auction in January and then did not follow the process of reporting this kind of complaint onward to district level staff. We were not told that the “buddy class” of 4th grade students was also in attendance when the slur was used by the teacher in a discussion about the book. I understand those 4th grade kids’ parents were only told this past Friday (June 7th) their kids were in the room that day.

I understand these kinds of details are in the report generated by the investigation. My child insists his classmates were not on the front row, and insists the teacher instructed the children to bid. I understand that those details are included in the report as are other important details, but I have not read the report myself. I would like to read the investigation’s report into these incidences. Not only is the transparency important broadly, I need to know accurately what my child and his class experienced, and since I was repeatedly misinformed- an explanation about what’s in the report is not good enough. The district has failed in gaining my trust here. I believe that public pressure can help put this report in my hands so I can read it myself.

As I understand it there are also two instances where the teacher scolded a student for reporting the events to their parents. One of these events my child witnessed, as did the principal and other staff. It’s important to me that I understand exactly what occurred so I can support my child accurately.

I have been told that this act of retaliation was what triggered an investigation; selling students, using slurs, and lying to parents were apparently not enough. This is one place where I believe the actions of the district’s superintendent and others in district administration need to be seriously looked at and addressed. Why was this not investigated in January? Why was there no investigation immediately after a racial slur was spoken by a teacher? Additionally, who’s idea was it for the teacher to spend a full day tearfully apologizing to parents in 10min increments? Why were parents lied to? Who allowed that to happen? I want answers to those questions.

The superintendent was presented with the information that a teacher used a racial slur in the classroom. Does he have a responsibility to assess the accuracy of the teacher’s explanation? I believe he does. He should have verified the teacher’s explanation before information was presented to parents, or what form penalty or penance would take. Checking even the most basic details of the teacher’s explanation should have been among the first things he did, and certainly before he let the teacher and principal present inaccuracies to parents.

The superintendent was also presented with information about the mock slave auction, that it occurred months ago, and that the principal did not report it when it happened. None of the information he received caused him to investigate before parents were told; before putting the teacher in front of the class where she had the opportunity to retaliate against a child who reported the events. It was not until that day, when the teacher engaged in retaliation in front of the class, and school and district staff, that an investigation was triggered. How can that be? How were the slave auction and the racial slur not enough on their own?

Personally I believe the teacher and principal should be fired. It’s important to me to say that, even though I understand those ‘due process’ decisions are not up to me. Secondly, I believe the school committee needs to look more carefully at the failures of district administration, as an apology and ‘future steps’ are not nearly enough. Thirdly, the investigation’s report needs to be released publicly. Not only do I need to read it to understand what happened to my child and his classroom, but the public now has inaccurate information and important missing details about what occurred.

In closing, parents and the public have an interest in whether or not students are safe in the classroom. The racially charged events, and their handling by the school and district, have made this an unsafe environment for these students. I’ll add that these students were also told misinformation, presented as true, about events they themselves were involved in. How are children supposed to trust themselves when adults in authority do that? How can children trust staff now? How do parents regain trust in the district?

Thank You,

Devona Cartier
14 John Street

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