Missoula County Public Schools is investigating a substitute teacher who on Tuesday allegedly called two students the n-word.
According to an MCPS news release, the sub "allegedly made an offensive and inappropriate comment in a sophomore English class at Big Sky High School" on Tuesday.
The sub "said two students were the 'n-word,' and started berating them for apparently no reason," said EmpowerMT program director Kim Spurzem. "We have a young person who's also an active trainer through our organization who was in the classroom.
"He challenged the substitute teacher in the room and others helped. The sub apparently stormed out and left."
Two students then brought the incident to administrators’ attention, said Big Sky principal Natalie Jaeger.
In the news release, MCPS said that once the administration learned of the incident, the sub was immediately removed and Human Resources launched an investigation. The parents of the students who were subjected to the racial epithet were also contacted.
While these problems are cropping up elsewhere – including racist fliers citing the American Nazi Party distributed around Missoula – they can be particularly tricky to tackle in schools, Spurzem said.
“Hate speech hasn’t been separated from politics,” she said. “It’s been tied to the electoral process, so I saw a lot of educators stepping back.
“There can be politics tied to these things, but the schools have to send a message that we don’t tolerate this hateful language.”
Following the Big Sky incident, MCPS did send a message.
"MCPS does not condone the use of language which denigrates or marginalizes others," according to the news release. "MCPS apologizes for the acts of this substitute and any impact it may have had on the students in the classroom, the students to whom the comment was directed, and everyone in the Big Sky family."
Spurzem said the one good thing to come from this incident is how quickly both Big Sky and MCPS administration acted.
"It was great to see (the student) stand up and seek immediate action," she said.
"Until the investigation is complete, the substitute teacher will not be eligible for employment as a substitute within the district," according to the MCPS news release.
Substitute teachers are not under contract, said Missoula Education Association president Melanie Charlson, who does not represent subs. Subs are temporary until they’ve been deemed a “long-term sub” (in a sub role more than 35 days). At that point, they would become contracted.
“In essence, they’re a temporary day-by-day employee of the district,” Charlson said. “They are not contracted employees of the district by any means.”
Jaeger said administrators heard almost immediately about what was happening in the classroom. Students were texting and calling their parents, parents were calling Big Sky administration and two students went to the assistant principal (Jaeger was out of the office at the time, but immediately returned to the school once she heard).
“We immediately removed the sub from the classroom and called HR,” she said.
Jaeger alerted the classroom’s teacher that she will be talking to the class the next time they meet, “frankly, to thank them for speaking up when there was something they knew wasn’t right.”
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“I am grateful our students stood up for themselves and each other,” she said. “They did the right thing.”
This isn’t the first time Jaeger has had to deal with inappropriate words or actions by staff in her career, she said.
“There’s always times when staff or students say and do things they shouldn’t,” she said. “In a community our size, that is inevitable. If it’s intentional or unintentional, we have to take action and help people understand how their words and actions affect other people.
“But this instance … was not a misunderstanding. It’s offensive language that has to be taken care of right away.”
The incident comes on the heels of a slew of racist and anti-Semitic problems in Missoula and statewide leading up to and following the Nov. 8 election.
“We’re prepared to get really busy,” said EmpowerMT development and communications specialist Jesse Jaeger.
This fall, a Missoula Nissan Hyundai lube technician lost his job for posting a picture on Facebook of his middle finger raised in front of a car with Hillary Clinton bumper stickers. The man had said on social media that he refused to work on the car because it showed support for the Democratic presidential candidate. Regional operations director Nick Griffin apologized for the employee’s comments, pointing out they “do not reflect us as a team.”
EmpowerMT staff say they’ve seen troubling incidents all year.
High schools often have themed dress-up days during their Homecoming weeks. At one in Missoula, dubbed “America Day,” some students sported Confederate flags, hung Confederate flags in the cafeteria and flew Confederate flags in their truck beds.
Spurzem said another school had “Holiday Day,” during which some students wore doilies on their head to mock yarmulkes and said things such as “I own the media.” Others wore “loud prints,” she said, claiming to be celebrating Kwanzaa.
“We’ve been seeing this ramp up all year,” Jesse Jaeger said.
EmpowerMT has gotten calls from five or six schools or organizations post-election, looking for training on how to deal with these kinds of issues. They attribute it to inflammatory and discriminatory comments made by GOP President-elect Donald Trump.
“We talk about being non-violent and not bullying, standing up for what’s right,” said EmpowerMT youth programs coordinator Jamar Galbreath. “But there’s a lot of confusion with these kids because they don’t understand how someone who perpetuates bullying and violence … who stands for those things could get elected to the highest office.”
EmpowerMT youth programs specialist Claire Michelson said she’s seen tensions rising in the middle schools this year.
“But after the election there was this breaking point where the loud voices of the people who support Trump are starting to dominate,” she said. “It sounds like there’s a lot of pressure to say you support Trump or you’re happy with the election results, or to not say you’re against it.
“A lot of students are really worried in general about their friends, their family and themselves, if they’re of marginalized identities.”
Galbreath pointed out that it’s important for everyone to realize that these issues did not begin with rhetoric used throughout the presidential campaign.
“One of the worst things you can do is pretend this is brand-new,” he said.