Protesters gathered outside the Fayette County schools offices Monday over questions on a Lafayette High School class assignment associated with the book “To Kill A Mockingbird” that asked students multiple questions about use of the word “nigger.”
Lafayette Principal Bryne A. Jacobs said Tuesday that the assignment should not have been used and that he is reaching out to students and the community to apologize.
“Part of teaching our kids to be critical thinkers requires that our teachers tackle difficult subjects. The use of derogatory language can be found in many of the novels that our teachers use to engage our students. Those conversations can be uncomfortable,” Jacobs said Tuesday. “In this instance, both the teacher and I agree that the assignment missed the mark and should not have been used. I have personally reached out to parents and community members as well as students in the classroom, to apologize and to discuss ways we can use this incident to draw our Lafayette family closer together.”
Jacobs said that as principal, “my goal is to make sure every one of our students feel comfortable, safe and welcomed at our school and in every classroom.”
Fayette County Superintendent Manny Caulk also acknowledged that there were problems with the assignment.
“The intent was to engage students in a conversation about the N-word, prior to reading the book ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ which includes the use of the N-word,” Caulk said in a statement. “As it pertains to this assignment, as I reviewed the assignment, it appears some of the questions went beyond a direct connection to the text. The principal is dealing with the matter at the school level where it is most appropriate.”
The novel, published in 1960, is set in the south in the 1930s. It is taught in schools with lessons advocating tolerance and opposing prejudice. According to the American Library Association’s website, there have been challenges in other school districts to ban “To Kill A Mockingbird” because of racial slurs.
Jesus Gonzalez was among the protesters outside Central Office on Monday. Gonzalez, the parent of an elementary student and a member of a group called Central Kentucky Showing Up For Racial Justice, provided the Herald-Leader with a copy of the assignment at issue, dated Oct. 3, and with a student’s name and answers removed.
He said the group “believes that teachers should assign books with difficult topics such as ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ but that crafting thoughtful, well-planned lessons is an essential part of this process. The assignment handed out to students last week was neither thoughtful nor well planned, and as a result, the teachers who handed out this assignment created an unsafe learning environment for their students.”
With the heading “To Kill A Mockingbird,” the assignment said: “Read the following statements and respond in writing as to whether you agree or disagree. Explain why you agree or disagree. Remember that these statements do not reflect my opinions; they are simply meant to illicit responses for our class discussion.”
Six statements then followed on the class assignment. They were: 1. “Nigger” is a derogatory word. 2. It is acceptable for a black person to say “Nigger.” 3. It is acceptable for a white/non-black person to say “Nigger.” 4. “Nigger” in general is a socially acceptable word to use in 2015. 5. The connotation attached to the word “Nigger” is poor and inferior. 6. I feel great when I hear this word in the hallways at LHS or in modern media (tv shows, music, movies, comedy routines.)
On Monday, outside the district’s Central Office, protesters held signs that said “Black Students Matter,” “You can’t justify the assignment” and “I ain’t black but I got your back.”
On Tuesday, Gonzalez released a statement on behalf of the group Central Kentucky Showing Up For Racial Justice.
“Central Kentucky Showing Up For Racial Justice would like to strongly condemn the English/Language Arts assignment given out by teachers at Lafayette High School, since at least 2006, featuring multiple uses of a racial slur,” the statement said.
“We would like to reiterate that we are not targeting a single teacher or school with this protest,” the statement continued. “This environment was created due to inadequate or unenforced policies on the part of Fayette County Public Schools, and we believe that FCPS must address these issues and many other issues contributing to the education gap between students of color and their fellow white students, with the input and assistance of students and their parents.”
District spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said this is the first time that the principal or district administration was aware of the assignment. She said they have learned that the assignment was used last year, but that it had not been used since 2006. Deffendall said only one teacher and one class were involved in the assignment.
The racial justice group met Tuesday night at Wild Fig Books & Coffee to discuss the issue. Among those in attendance were Kiarah Raglin, a Lafayette ninth-grader who received the assignment, and her mother, Andrea Raglin.
The teacher didn’t give the class any warning that the assignment contained the n-word, Kiarah said, “so it was a shock for everyone in the class.”
She went home and told her mother, who “wasn’t very happy about it,” Kiarah said.
“I sat on it for awhile, thought about it,” Andrea Raglin said. She asked the opinion of friends.
“Everybody told me it was not OK,” Andrea Raglin said. “I understood what the teacher wanted to do, but how she went about it, it was not OK. As a mother, I knew we had to do something to stop this assignment from going out again.”
Andrea Raglin said Jacobs, the principal, “was very responsive.”
“He did not know about the assignment. He was just as shocked as we were,” she said. “He promised there would be some actions to take place to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”