SANFORD, Maine — Superintendent of Schools Matthew Nelson apologized to the public Wednesday, following an incident in which an administrator at the Willard School used a racial slur while attempting to instruct a student on the use of inappropriate language.
“Even though I am prohibited by law from publicly disclosing the details of this incident, I feel it is important to reach out to the community and apologize on behalf of the Sanford School Department,” Nelson wrote in an open letter to the community.
Heated discussions broke out on social media this week after the parents of a fourth-grader contacted the media and reported an administrator at the elementary school used the n-word when speaking to their biracial son on the subject of not making fun of others.
The mother, Jessica Gouin, said her son Javon Jarret had been sent to the principal’s office for making fun of a classmate. According to Gouin, her son told the administrator he had only been “playing around” with the classmate, prompting the administrator to reply, “So if I called you a [n-word] and told you I was joking around, how would you feel?”
Gouin said the incident, which took place on Sept. 27, rattled her son and that he has found it difficult to return to school ever since. She described her son as “withdrawn.”
“He’s been having anxiety,” she said.
Gouin said that the administrator should have taken a different approach if her intent was to teach her son a lesson on how to treat others.
“That’s the first word that came to [the administrator’s] mind,” Gouin said. “That’s disgusting. It’s not right.”
Neil Jarrett, the child’s father, said he met with the school’s principal and administrator during the week following the incident. According to Jarrett, the administrator acknowledged using the slur, saying the actual word in his and the principal’s presence. Jarrett said that the administrator admitted not thinking when using the word and did not mean to hurt his son.
According to Jarrett, his son then was brought into the administrator’s office. Jarrett said that the administrator apologized to him and said the word should not have been used. Jarrett added that both administrators said they would do anything to help make the rest of the school year easier for his son. According to Jarrett, his son began to cry and had to leave the office. He said the meeting ended shortly after.
Jarrett said after the meeting he got the impression neither the principal nor the administrator cared much, and the administrator seemed more concerned about keeping their job.
On Tuesday, Nelson said the administrator did not have “malicious intent” when using the word, rather it had been an attempt at a “learning piece,” but that doing so had been “inappropriate.”
“It has no place in our schools,” he said. “It’s not condoned.”
Nelson said the school department is taking the matter seriously and “taking the necessary steps to make sure it’s not repeated.” He stated that the steps will involve education, training, disciplinary action, and a restorative component with the student.
In his letter to the community, Nelson elaborated.
“Building a school community whose climate and culture fosters an environment where everyone is expected to engage in positive interactions, attitudes and behaviors is one of our pillars for student success,” he wrote. “Having a school community that is free of discrimination and bias is one of our top priorities.”
Nelson said the school department has taken three steps in the past year in its efforts to respond to and to address bias. He said Brandon Baldwin, of the Maine attorney general’s office, provided training in understanding bias to students at Sanford High School and also offered more specified training to the school’s Civil Rights Team. He added that Baldwin also trained the staff at the high school and at Sanford Regional Technical Center. As well, Nelson said high school coaches and athletes also received interactive training from John Jenkins, of WORDS Matter.
Nelson said the incident at the Willard School shows more action is needed.
“This recent incident has highlighted the need to review the steps we have taken and broaden our audience to include anti-discrimination and anti-bias training in our elementary and middle schools,” he said. “Among the things under consideration are additional education and training for our staff, students and administrators.”
Nelson concluded his letter by saying he and the Sanford School Committee are hoping to receive feedback from the community.
“We hope people feel free to reach out and share their thoughts,” he said.
On Wednesday, Gouin said she had spoken with the superintendent and was familiar with the steps the school department intends to take. She said she feels such steps are not enough: she wants the administrator to step down from her position at the Willard School, even if it means she is able to take a position elsewhere in the district.
“My son still doesn’t feel comfortable going to school,” she said. “We don’t want her having any contact with my son at all. I want my son to feel comfortable going to school, knowing he doesn’t have to face her every day. My son feels like he’s in trouble every single day he goes there.”
Gouin said she has contacted the NAACP for assistance.