Racial Slur Spurs Student to Seek Change in Curriculum

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006

Afreshman at Quince Orchard High School on Tuesday politely requested that the school board remove a racial epithet against African Americans from the high school English curriculum. Her request put school administrators on the spot to explain why the word was there in the first place.

Maya Jean-Baptiste told board members that she and several classmates had become visibly uncomfortable during a discussion in her ninth-grade English class last week that broached the racial slur as a precursor to the Harper Lee classic "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Lee's book is set in the Old South, and racism is among its themes. By way of preparation, Maya's teacher presented the class with two reading selections, an essay and a poem, dealing with the power and traumatizing effect of the epithet.

Maya, addressing the school board during the public comment period at a regularly scheduled meeting, said she was shocked that her teacher repeatedly uttered the word and asked students to underline the word every time it came up in the readings. She said the teacher imitated a racial stereotype of how African Americans talk, "moving her neck and pointing her finger as she said it."

She was accompanied at the meeting by Crystal DeVance-Wilson, an officer on the Parents' Council of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP. Wilson asked that the school system "immediately abstain from teaching this content." The use of the racial epithet in schools, she said, "can be lethal in the wrong hands."

Betsy Brown, director of curriculum and instruction in the Montgomery school system, said she stands by the lesson, which was introduced as a way to "provide context for the word that the students will encounter in the novel." She said the school system introduced discussion of the epithet following feedback from students and parents who felt it was needed.

Though the student's complaint appears to be isolated, Brown said that "we absolutely need to look at the curriculum again and look at the lesson again." She also said school officials would look into how the Quince Orchard teacher had handled the material that so offended Maya.

Valerie Ervin, the lone black school board member, said she felt any discussion of the racial epithet would be appropriate only in the broader context of other slurs and forms of hate. She said the student's account made her remember "the first time I was called the n-word, in the third grade." She said there must be a way to teach racially themed literature "without focusing on the n-word."

Ex-Gay, Sex-Ed Debate

The battle over sex education in Montgomery has returned to a familiar theme, presented Tuesday in testimony to the school board: If new lessons on sexual orientation are to be fair and balanced, they should include discussion of ex-gays.

A citizens committee is reviewing proposed eighth- and 10th-grade lessons that address sexual orientation for the first time in the county schools. The speakers said the committee has taken pains to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities in the lessons but has avoided the topic of ex-gays.

Last year, a community group called Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum led a campaign to overturn the county's sex education curriculum, which a federal judge found might discriminate against some faiths that are intolerant of homosexuality.

The advisory committee has not yet completed its task, which is to advise Superintendent Jerry D. Weast on new lessons on sexual orientation and condom use. But draft curriculum documents provided to Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum prompted a fresh outpouring of concerns.

Members of the group said the proposed lessons celebrate gay, lesbian and transgender communities and mostly ignore concepts of abstinence and sexually transmitted disease. Proponents of the lessons said that they introduce and define the topics objectively. Critics said the committee has proved hostile to the community of ex-gays.

"Why is the ex-gay community being censored in the lesson plan when every other sexual orientation is discussed and supported?" asked Grace Harley, a grandmother who told the board she had lived for 10 years as a man.

At issue is a more fundamental question: Does one choose to be gay? The gay-lesbian community is virtually unanimous that homosexuality is immutable. The notion that one can choose to be gay has been embraced by some spiritual conservatives, who contend that homosexuality is a sinful lifestyle that can be abandoned. Harley belongs to a group called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays.

Brown, the curriculum director, said the lessons are still in draft form.

If approved by the Board of Education in January, the lessons would be taught in a small number of schools in spring. The revisions include a new version of the condom-instruction video that became the center of dispute last year.

The conflict arose over 2004 updates to the countywide health curriculum that, at pilot schools, introduced the concept of homosexuality in the eighth and 10th grades.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company