Fired Teacher Says Meaning ‘Lost in Translation’ After Calling Student ‘Negro’

Julia Marsh and Yoav Gonen, NY Post, May 23, 2013

A Bronx teacher says her language lesson was lost in translation when she was fired for calling a student “Negro”—though she claims she was simply using the Spanish word for the color “black” at the time, according to a new lawsuit.

The non-tenured junior high instructor, Petrona Smith, 65, was booted from the bilingual PS 211 in March 2012 after a seventh-grader reported the alleged insult.

Smith, who is black and a native of the West Indies, has been unemployed since her ouster.

“They haven’t even accounted for how absurd it is for someone who’s black to be using a racial slur to a student,” said Shaun Reid, Smith’s attorney. “Talk about context! There’s a lot of things wrong here.”

The instructor took a hiatus from teaching special education in 2005 to learn Spanish in South America, because she was passionate about learning the language in a cultural context, Reid said.


She denied calling the student a “Negro,” and explained to investigators that she was teaching a lesson about how to say different colors in Spanish and said the word “negro,” which is Spanish for the color black. She told her students that it was not a derogatory term and that the Spanish word for a black person was “moreno.”


A 2011 investigation substantiated the student’s undated claims based on accounts from four seventh-grade witnesses, even though the student’s own parents said he’d lied about the event.


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