Story Leaves Out Teacher’s Side On Racial Accusations

St. Petersburg Times, July 14

If we wonder why our schools are losing qualified teachers, look no further than this article [printed below]. As if low pay is not enough, teachers also are subjected to one-sided reporting of unsubstantiated allegations. Who would want to be a teacher if your name and reputation can be sullied so easily in the court of public opinion?

Deborah St. John has been teaching for 20 years. She is a well-respected and passionate teacher. She goes well beyond the call of duty to ensure her students receive the best education possible. To have the unsubstantiated and untrue allegations against her be portrayed as fact is devastating.

Ms. St. John has not made racist comments to students. She respects all races and cultures and tries to instill this respect in her students. Yes, she did ask all her students, not just her African-American students, to read a book by a “black author.” It was during Black History Month and the assignment was given to broaden the students’ exposure to literature from African-Americans. Encouraging a student to read Maya Angelou during Black History Month does not demonstrate racial bias.

What is missing from the article is the background surrounding the allegations against Ms. St. John. The allegations were made by two students who were friends and were failing Ms. St. John’s class. She allegedly had caught the students cheating several times and, because of this, separated them. One of the students also wanted to read Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews for a book report. Ms. St. John did not feel the book was appropriate (the book includes an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister and is about a grandmother who locks her grandchildren in an attic) and would not allow the student to read it for the report.

Ms. St. John is a tough teacher, but only wants what is best for her students. She expects her students to perform to the best of their abilities. Some of the students resent the work they are required to do. They resort to attacks on the teacher, especially when they know that the school’s policy is to allow transfers only in extreme situations.

In another incident, Ms. St. John asked the students to write letters to three colleges. This was a lesson she had adopted from her mentor when she was a beginning teacher. Her mentor was an African-American woman. Ms. St. John has taught this lesson for 20 years without any complaints. She asked the African-American students to write one of the letters to a “black college” and she asked the female students to write one of the letters to a women’s college. Ms. St. John was showing the students all of their options and was in no way motivated by any racial bias.

One student was upset at Ms. St. John’s using the term “black” rather than “African-American.” Ms. St. John acknowledged that she may be out of date with her terminology and agreed to use “African-American” if the student preferred. Rather than showing racial bias, Ms. St. John’s reaction demonstrates her racial sensitivity.

It is impossible in the limited space of this letter to thoroughly dispute all of the allegations referred to in the article, but the allegations are not true. Ms. St. John is well aware of the demeaning nature of racial and cultural bias. While teaching at Hernando High School, Ms. St. John spent many hours helping Kurdish teachers who were having difficulties with biased and disrespectful students. Having witnessed the effects of prejudice, she would never participate in such behavior herself.

Many outside the teaching arena are unaware of the process teachers must endure to rebut allegations such as the ones in the article. Ms. St. John would have been out of work without pay for months in order to contest the allegations. She could not afford such an endeavor. To end the matter and return to the job she loves, she entered into the last chance agreement.

Had she known that the Times would write about these allegations, maybe her decision would have been otherwise.

–Jennifer S. Blohm, attorney for Deborah St. John, Tallahassee

Abhi Raghunathan, St. Petersburg Times, July 7

Deborah St. John had the credentials to go far in the Hernando County schools. She studied Latin and ancient Greek in college, and noted on her resume that she belonged to the high-IQ society Mensa International.

But instead of rising professionally, St. John recently signed a “last chance agreement,” in order to keep her job as a teacher at Springstead High School. Students accused her of making racist remarks and telling them that black students should read black authors and study at black colleges.

Students also said that St. John, 47, argued with a girl in an English class who told her the proper term was “African-American,” not “black.”

School district officials began investigating St. John after receiving a formal complaint in February from the parent of one girl in the class. The parent wrote that St. John, a language arts teacher who is white, had made racist remarks during a January class and treated her daughter unfairly in other ways.

{snip}

According to the written accounts, St. John encouraged black students to apply to historically black schools. When some students took offense, the argument escalated.

One student wrote that St. John told the class that she wanted black students to read books by black authors since “blacks tend to have a different language.” The student also wrote that St. John later apologized and said she used the word “blacks” since “that’s what (they were) called back in her day.” Other students provided similar accounts.

According to a report by school officials, two parents also complained that their child had been instructed to choose a book by a “black author” and that St. John had discussed “different shades of skin color” and “master having relations with slaves and how that came to be.”

{snip}

Besides being suspended with pay for three days and without pay for seven days, St. John agreed to enroll in an employee assistance program and various types of training, including sensitivity training.

{snip}

Read the rest of this story here.

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