By now, most readers probably know Kankakee High School teacher John Donovan has been fired for his use of a racial slur in class last week. I’m glad this horrible incident was resolved quickly — but it didn’t have to happen.
I taught English at Kankakee High School for six years, where I helped my students share the pride they felt for their city in our Letterman gazebo project. Their work showcased Kankakee at its best. But even as we shared the good we saw in Kankakee, we knew we were working against racist perceptions of our city, our school and our students.
Unfortunately, not all of those perceptions came from outside the school. While the vast majority of those I worked with at KHS loved their students and went above and beyond to lift them up, I also knew some teachers who thought it was fine to share casually racist comments.
I remember one teacher in a nearby classroom — no longer employed by the district — who came up to me during passing periods to point at students of color in the hallway, calling them “animals” and “thugs.” As others have pointed out, last week’s incident was probably not the first time Mr. Donovan used a slur. It’s just the first time it was caught on camera.
This isn’t just a Kankakee problem. A 2021 federal report estimated that 1.6 million students were targeted by racial slurs in a single year, and we’ve seen this problem across our state as well. In southern Illinois, a Marion track coach used a racial slur against a student, whose reports to school administrators went unaddressed until supporters held protests outside the school.
Students at several Chicago high schools set up Instagram accounts to anonymously report hundreds of racist incidents. In suburban Will County, a junior high student was forced to transfer to another school to complete eighth grade after his reports of escalating racial harassment went unaddressed and his harassers eventually chased him with baseball bats.
The common thread in all these incidents is that racial harassment too often goes unaddressed because students don’t feel safe reporting it, or because school officials fail to recognize it or respond. Superintendent [Genevra] Walters confirmed that the same teacher threw a book at this student weeks ago, but that the earlier incident wasn’t reported to her or to the school board. A whole classroom of students must have seen him throw that book. How might this story have ended differently if one of them had trusted the process enough to report what happened?
Students shouldn’t have to resort to secret video recordings, public protests, anonymous cries for help or school transfers to avoid racial harassment. Our schools need clear and accessible policies, procedures and training on the complex topic of racial harassment, just like all employers have already for sexual harassment.
That’s why I’ve worked with dozens of award-winning teachers over the past three school years to develop the Racism-Free Schools Act, which will soon be introduced in Springfield. The bill would require all schools to adopt policies on racial harassment, ensure students and staff know what harassment looks like and give students more options to report harassment safely while extending greater protections to victims. You can learn more and take action at racismfreeschools.org.
Clear definitions and training will help prevent racist incidents by ensuring everyone knows what behavior is unacceptable and make it easier for victims and witnesses to report racist acts that do occur. While this one teacher was so clearly in the wrong, most teachers are asking for better tools to address acts of racism in schools. A Teach Plus flash poll conducted in the spring found that of those responding, 93% of teachers supported mandating training on racial harassment.
Although Donovan is no longer teaching, the damage he’s done will linger. The student he targeted and classmates who witnessed it will never forget how casually they were dismissed as human beings. Parents will have a hard time trusting that their children can attend school without facing racial slurs and harassment.
Teachers of color looking for jobs will see news reports and think twice about applying for positions in Kankakee. Repairing that damage will take time, and it will take more than just healing words. It must begin by enacting policies that protect our students from harm.
Bill Curtin is a National Board Certified Teacher who taught English at Kankakee High School from 2009 to 2015 and was the recipient of the 2015 Daily Journal Progress Award for Innovation in Education. He now serves as policy manager for Teach Plus Illinois, where he leads a fellowship that empowers teachers to take leadership over key policy issues that advance equity, opportunity and student success.
Sorry, there are no recent results for popular commented articles.