The Poplar Bluff, Missouri, high school history teacher who let a ninth grader dress up as a member of the Ku Klux Klan for a class presentation last week definitely blew it, and the school district was right to suspend him.
A parent who called to express concern was initially told that “nothing was meant by it.” It never is, right? But did the teacher and his students learn anything from that all-wrong first response?
Bishop Ron Webb, the pastor of Mt. Calvary Powerhouse Church, who is working with Poplar Bluff Superintendent Scott Dill “on the side of healing and restoration” after the incident, said the school board planned to decide whether to terminate the teacher after hearing from members of the public Thursday night.
If the teacher is as sorry as he by all accounts seems to be, he should not be fired. Isn’t it better to let him grow as a result of his mistake than to send the message that one wrong step in our still mostly nonexistent conversation on race can be a career-ender? That territory is fraught enough.
Intention does matter, and that his mistake was a lapse in judgment rather than a provocation or act of indifference does, too.
“I don’t believe they were trying to be offensive,” said Webb. “It was a poor choice.”
Students wore costumes for their group presentations on various amendments to the U.S. Constitution. And yes, it was insensitive of the teacher to let a kid reenacting the passage of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed voting rights to African Americans, wear the white robe and hood of the white supremacist KKK.
“When you deal with the Klan” in class or otherwise, said Webb, “it’s not just a historical event; it’s still active and alive.”
Webb said that the one or two African-American students in the class didn’t say a lot when he and Dill visited the classroom to explain why the teacher had been suspended, “but there were looks of concern on their faces.” Did others in the class understand what the problem was? “Some did and some didn’t,” he said. “One kid asked why the teacher was suspended if we were talking about history.”
There are less shocking, more instructive ways to discuss the fact that beginning after the Civil War, KKK members terrorized, spread hateful ideas about and sometimes lynched African Americans, Catholics and Jews. Some 60 African Americans were lynched in Missouri — the second-highest number anywhere outside the Deep South. And unfortunately, racism and anti-Semitism are having a resurgence, as are the crimes that white supremacist ideas inspire.
Hate crimes are up for the third year in a row. That was the case even before the deadly recent attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue, in a year in which anti-Semitic incidents were up 57 percent, the largest single-year increase in such crimes on record. In Wisconsin, a bunch of kids posing for a prom picture last spring thought it was funny to give a Nazi salute. So obviously, some education on these hurtful symbols and their history is very much in order. Poplar Bluff teachers are going to get diversity training now, Webb said.
A letter from the teacher that Webb read to the class said, “I want to sincerely apologize for the pain and negative attention that I have brought to our classroom, school and community. I made a mistake on Friday during our skit assignment. I let a student wear an inappropriate costume that was unacceptable and hurt many people’s feelings. As the professional in the room, I should have known better. I am so sorry for making this mistake, and I hope that you can all forgive me and we can work through this together.”
Webb said it’s to Dill’s credit that he “dealt with the issue, owned it and didn’t try to act like it didn’t happen.”
“You learn wisdom two ways,” he said. “Mentors and mistakes.” What matters most is that that’s what happens now, in Poplar Bluff and elsewhere.