By Molly Beck, Milwaukee Jounral Sentinel
Wisconsin’s capital city school district is facing national pressure to reinstate a Black high school security guard who was fired this week for saying the N-word while telling an unruly student not to use the racial slur.
The Madison School District is under fire for terminating Marlon Anderson’s employment after Anderson referenced the racial slur to explain to a Madison West High School student why he shouldn’t use it — a decision district officials say was made under a policy of zero tolerance.
“The Madison, WI school district needs to grow a brain, and a heart, really quickly!” Arne Duncan, former U.S. secretary of education, said in a tweet Friday. “I’ve seen some crazy things over the years, but this is one of the worst.”
And superstar Cher said if the fired security guard filed a lawsuit against the district, she would pay for it.
“Holy smokes. I am overwhelmed,” Anderson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after learning of Cher’s offer — one that he might take up. Anderson said he will sue if the district doesn’t reinstate his job.
The national criticism of Anderson’s firing came just as hundreds of Madison students walked out of their classrooms to protest Anderson’s firing, marching two miles to the school district’s offices.
“The outcry from the students that I’ve worked with has just been amazing and it’s been so uplifting — it just shows that I was doing something right,” he said.
Members of the school’s Black Student Union, which includes Anderson’s son, met with the district’s superintendent and school board president Friday about the episode.
“Anything that involves us, our voices will be heard,” Noah Anderson said to a crowd of about 1,000 after meeting with the district officials.
Anderson, 48, said Friday in an interview with the Journal Sentinel that he was “doing a lot better” than days earlier.
On Oct. 9, Anderson was escorting a disruptive male student out of the West High School building when the student started calling Anderson the N-word after pushing the school’s assistant principal and threatening to beat her up.
In responding to the abusive language, Anderson says he said the word himself in making a point to the student not to use it.
“Every type of N-word you can think of, that’s what he was calling me,” Anderson said. “I said, do not call me that name. I’m not your N-word. Do not call me that.”
West High School Principal Karen Boran later that week pulled Anderson aside, he said, and told him he had “an uphill battle” to keep his job. And in a letter Wednesday, Boran told parents a staff member — Anderson — would not be returning to the school after an investigation of the incident.
“As you know, our expectation when it comes to racial slurs has been very clear,” Boran wrote. “Regardless of context or circumstance, racial slurs are not acceptable in our schools.”
Anderson called the policy “lazy.”
“You can’t eliminate racism by ignoring it — by trying to hide the word or by trying to legislate the word,” he said. “What if a white student calls a Black student an N-word, but doesn’t say the word? It’s the intent behind what you’re saying.”
Madison School District Superintendent Jane Belmore in a statement Friday said the district wants to take a strong stand against the use of racial slurs but also suggested officials will review the policy that prompted Anderson’s firing.
“All of us here know that education is a dynamic social process. Sometimes it gets messy when we have to grapple together around deeply held values like what it means to be anti-racist,” Belmore said in a statement to students who marched to her office Friday.
“Let me be clear,” she continued, “there is no doubt that language matters and racial slurs are harmful. However, at this point, we have an opportunity to look more deeply into the response to the use of racial slurs in our schools.”
School board President Gloria Reyes also said in a statement the board plans to review the district’s policies governing when staff are disciplined for such language.
Boran and a spokeswoman for the school district did not immediately respond to questions or a request for an interview.
The district’s decision to terminate Anderson came after officials there grappled with a string of incidents involving race — including other teachers or staff members who use racial epithets in front of students.
Since last year, the district has fired or forced to resign six employees who used slurs at or in front of students. In that time, a middle school employee was accused of assaulting an 11-year-old black female student the staff member was attempting to calm down.
The episodes drew months of protesting from Madison residents who accused the district of allowing racist actions and thinking to persist in district schools.
Former Madison School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham told the Journal Sentinel in March she did not believe racism is increasing in the long-progressive school district, but that it is being “revealed,” in part because of efforts put in place to address racial inequities in the district and lift up the lives and experiences of Black students and families.
“And as hard and painful as that is, there’s an opportunity for us to step up again to demonstrate that we … won’t tolerate racism in any form,” she said.
In response, the district implemented stricter policies — new rules that Anderson says miss the point by ignoring context and prevent him from defending himself against abusive students.
“At the end of the day, I feel I was being called a derogatory term and I don’t want to be called that because my mother, my father, my grandparents — they were called this word and could not say, ‘Don’t call me that,'” Anderson said. “I’m the first generation in my family who can literally look you in the eye and say don’t call me that word. I don’t think it’s fair to try to take that from me.”
Anderson said as a Black man, he is in a unique position among the predominantly white staff to teach Black children about the problem with using the word as a term of endearment.
“We have been labeled this word, that was given to us in oppression, to pretty much keep us in those chains mentally that we used to be in physically,” he said. “The problem is (kids) identify their skin as that word … I try to make it a teaching moment.”
Outrage over Anderson’s firing also came from other school administrators. Kaleem Caire, who runs a Madison charter school aimed at serving Black students living in low-income Madison households, said this week the district was leaning on a policy that was “lazy, harmful and hole-punched.”
He said the policy allows the district to “avoid doing the real work that any HR department should do by looking at the context in which such a word (or any other) is used.“
Chris Ott, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union-Wisconsin, said the organization encourages the district to adopt a more “flexible” policy.
”There is no outright First Amendment right to free speech in the workplace, and schools should recognize the harm that racial slurs cause and take action against them, as part of creating a safe environment. However, this particular case seems to present a vastly different context than the policy was designed for, which should be considered,” Ott said, calling the policy “draconian.”
Anderson is appealing the district’s decision to fire him — a process that Belmore and Reyes said Friday will move along “as quickly as possible.”
This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA Today.