When McKenzie Johnson walked into her Advanced Placement English class on Halloween, her teacher, Mary Eastin, was already in costume as the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.”
While in character, Eastin allegedly told her students she would be quizzing them aloud that day: Answer a question correctly, and they would be “rewarded” with marshmallows. An incorrect answer, however, would earn them dog food. (“Organic” dog food, she reportedly reassured the class.)
Johnson, who is Native American and a junior at Cibola High School in Albuquerque, would later recount before the school district’s board members what happened to her:
Eastin approached her and, perhaps spying the fake blood Johnson had applied to her cheek for Halloween, asked what her costume was.
"When she called on me, she asked, ‘Now what are you supposed to be? A bloody Indian?’ " Johnson told the school board at a recent meeting.
Several students gasped, but Eastin reportedly continued.
" ‘What? She is bloody, and she is an …’ Ms. Eastin stopped short of finishing her sentence and allowed her racist comments to linger,” according to a summary of the incident by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.
The class had already taken a distressing turn minutes earlier, according to accounts some Cibola High School students gave to the ACLU of New Mexico:
At one point during the class, Ms. Eastin approached another female Native American student (“Student 2”) with a box cutter. The young woman had long hair combed into braids. Ms. Eastin asked Student 2 if she liked her braids. The student responded in the affirmative. Ms. Eastin then suggested that she was going to cut Student 2’s hair with the box cutter.
No one thought she was serious. The teacher proceeded to put the box cutter down and exchanged it for a pair of scissors, which she used to cut approximately 3 inches of Student 2’s hair from her head and then sprinkled it on the desk in front of her.
The Halloween incident has shaken students and parents in Albuquerque Public Schools, the largest school district in New Mexico. Of the nearly 84,000 students in the district, about 5.5 percent identify as American Indian.
In a letter sent to the superintendent of Albuquerque Public Schools last week, Leon Howard, the legal director of the ACLU of New Mexico, called the act of cutting a Native student’s hair “unconscionable.”
“Anyone with even an iota of cultural awareness knows that in Native American cultures hair is sacred — particularly for women,” Howard wrote. “Beyond that, the cruel implications of Ms. Eastin’s actions hark back to the era of Native American boarding schools, when the cutting of Native students’ hair was a form of punishment inflicted by school masters in a racist attempt to strip children of their heritage and culture.”
Howard said the two students involved, both Native American, initially wanted to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation. Immediately after the incident, Johnson’s family contacted district officials to report what had happened and demand a safety plan, Howard said.
He said the district “stonewalled” them, saying simply the teacher had been placed paid leave while the matter was under investigation.
Meanwhile, Howard said the students who reported the incident faced backlash from other students who had a more favorable relationship with the teacher.
“Something we still remain concerned about is the safety of the students involved,” Howard told The Washington Post. “The students have been kind of targeted by other students saying, ‘We don’t think this is a big deal. She just made a mistake. Why are you making this into something bigger than it is?’ "
In early November, students began protesting outside Cibola High School, holding signs that read “BRAIDS ARE BEAUTY” AND “YOU CAN’T CUT MY CULTURE,” according to the Albuquerque Journal.
The incident also drew sharp words from the president of the Navajo Nation, who said he stood with the students and called for “top to bottom” cultural sensitivity training in the district.
“Our Native youths should not have to endure this kind of behavior, especially in the classroom,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said in a statement. “We will hold the teacher, the school and the district accountable for these actions, and we demand recourse.”
Johnson eventually came forward to address the school board last week, about a month after the incident had taken place. She was joined by dozens of others who spoke out against what had happened, according to KRQE News.
“I didn’t expect to hear this type of thing from my teacher. I just came to school to learn,” Johnson told the board, her voice breaking. “We’ve all been harassed by our peers and by our teachers. We shouldn’t have to learn in this type of environment.”
In a statement Monday, Albuquerque Public Schools said the teacher had been terminated as of Nov. 30 and that parents had been notified she would not be returning to Cibola High School.
“Accordingly, she will no longer perform any work for APS,” district spokeswoman Monica Armenta said. “No additional information will be shared, because personnel matters are confidential.”
Eastin could not be reached Tuesday.
Armenta added the district would be seeking “local, state and national experts” to help with cultural competency training.
“APS values diversity and has a rich history of inclusion,” Armenta said. “We strive to create a learning environment where all students feel welcome, accepted and safe.”
It is unclear whether the teacher had been fired or had resigned. School district representatives did not immediately respond to additional questions sent by email Tuesday morning.
Shannon Johnson, McKenzie’s mother, told the Albuquerque Journal the teacher’s departure was “a short-term win” but that she ultimately would like to see more districtwide changes, including a ban on “culturally appropriated dress.”
“It brought a sense of relief for my family knowing she is no longer part of APS to hurt another child,” Johnson told the newspaper.