Column

When the firing of a principal raises bigger questions than one person’s bigotry

Dismantling racist policies is harder than destroying tangible symbols of racism

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

New Orleans police officers set up barricades at the Jefferson Davis monument on May 4, 2017 in New Orleans.

In New Orleans, we took four Confederate monuments down last month. But living tributes to white supremacy are still among us: racist teachers and schools with discriminatory policies are hurting black children every day. Statues can be taken down; but we must topple the structures that create unconscious and conscious biases against black students.

On May 25, the Nevada-based management group of a New Orleans charter school, Crescent Leadership Academy, announced the firing of its principal, Nicholas Dean. He had been spotted in a photograph standing next to a man holding a Confederate flag in Lee Circle, where the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee was scheduled to be taken down later that day.

Dean originally claimed he was just there to witness a historical event. But it didn’t take long for his leanings to become apparent. Three days later, a video surfaced of him being interviewed on an alt-right podcast. Dean, who is white, wore two rings that appeared to be associated with Nazism and white nationalism; one was emblazoned with what experts described as the Nazi SS Skull and the other with the German Iron Cross. Rite of Passage, the chain that manages Crescent Leadership Academy, then determined he wasn’t a good fit for the job.

Dean led Crescent Leadership Academy, a last-chance school for students who have been expelled, for three years. Eighty-four percent of its population is black. The termination of someone who, ridiculously, describes himself as a “might supremacist” (as opposed to a white one) shouldn’t distract us from bigger questions. We should demand to know how Dean was hired in the first place, and, moreover, why he lasted so long in the position. But there are bigger issues at hand, namely, the dubious merits of second-chance schools.

Join the conversation later on Andre Perry’s radio show, “Free College,” hosted Tuesdays on WBOK1230 in New Orleans at 3pm Central/4pm Eastern 504.260.9265.

Since his firing, Dean has offered multiple arguments via social media on the so-called hypocrisy of race and liberalism that burdens white people. Liberals, according to him, think all white people are racist.

In a video he posted to YouTube in June, Dean disavowed white supremacy. In another video, published two weeks ago, which Dean called a personal address to his former students, staff and community partners, he attempted to explain his Nazi jewelry and proximity to the Confederate monument defenders. (He said the skull ring is a Mexican “Day of the Dead” ring and the iron cross ring he wore didn’t have a swastika, therefore it couldn’t possibly be Nazi garb. Dean also claims to have gone to the rallies to defend the right of supporters to protest the monuments’ removal.)

But the scandal of a racist principal leading a majority-black school, terrible though it is, should not obscure the bigger picture: We need to examine the porous systems that allow Confederate sympathizers to work in public schools.

Related: In high-crime areas, education reform needs to expand outside the classroom

Almost one hundred years of Jim Crow segregation, on top of approximately four centuries of slavery, have left their mark in New Orleans. Racist systems, attitudes and practices have outlasted the Confederate monuments here. Black children aren’t born inferior; the educational disparities between the races reflect our societal structures and investments. A closet Confederate in charge of educating our kids isn’t a rarity. According to a 2014 report by the Perceptions Institute, a think tank that explores unconscious bias, “Few teachers are likely to admit to others (or even to know themselves) that they hold students to different standards or have varying expectations based on race or ethnicity.”

There are other teachers who moonlight as Confederate sympathizers. Also in May, one of the teachers at New Orleans’ Ben Franklin High School was fired for his use of the N-word in class. Unlike the use of such obviously inflammatory language, cultural ignorance and unconscious bias can be inconspicuous, but they are no less injurious than outright discrimination.

Firing a racist teacher isn’t enough — you must also address the trauma that person invariably caused. A 2016 Northwestern University study found negative psychological and biological responses to perceived discrimination in school, which led to impaired cognitive functioning and academic performance. For students who have already felt the brunt of biased expulsion policies, the leadership of the Crescent Leadership Academy must make amends immediately.

In writing this column, I was distracted with questions that reflected my inability to see the forest for the trees. For instance: What due diligence did Rite of Passage do before hiring Dean, and who else did they hire? What checks are in place to ensure those mistakes aren’t repeated? I do have a greater concern for students: How are Crescent’s students dealing with these revelations, and are their social and emotional needs being met?

But all along I should have been asking why do we need a Crescent Leadership Academy, for as long as there are last-chance academies, students won’t get a fair shake in regular schools. Camelot, Rite of Passage’s predecessor, also failed miserably at serving its students, racking up numerous citations of abuse and neglect in 10 years of leadership of schools in three states. Last-chance schools whose funding depends on the number of children enrolled there are bound to be wardens (read: principals) for them.

Related: Good news: There is an answer to the shortage of black and brown teachers

In addition, schools should re-evaluate principals annually around issues of equity. When will we base school quality on indicators of reduced discrimination? We should expect regular schools to do better and bring students up to their standards, rather than washing their hands of their charges and sending them to last-chance academies such as Crescent. We should focus on inclusive hiring practices and insist on community and parental engagement. Those indicators of success should be as important as conventional academic measures.

Though his firing was necessary, the ex-principal can’t simply be the patsy; we must reassess the system that birthed Crescent.

The rest of us must remove the vestiges of discrimination that drag down the chances of students of color. Taking down symbols such as Confederate monuments, racist school mascots and racially segregated school events is a vital but limited step. We must go further, by banning no-tolerance discipline policies, corporal punishment, expulsion and suspension, and removing the need for last-chance academies to exist at all.

Racist policies are the concealed monuments to inequality we skirt, just as if they were a Robert E. Lee statue in the middle of town.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is the former founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Previously, Perry worked in… See Archive

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