When a disruptive student called him the n-word multiple times, Wisconsin high school security assistant Marlon Anderson repeated the epithet while condemning its use. For that, Anderson said, he lost his job.

Days after the exchange between the security guard and the student, both of whom are black, the Madison School District told Anderson he was being dismissed. Officials pointed to a zero-tolerance policy on employee use of racial slurs, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The firing sparked outrage inside West High School and far outside it. As students staged a walkout to protest the decision, former U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan blasted it as “more evidence our country still can’t handle issues of race and racism.” Amid the backlash came a conversation about the effectiveness of a district policy that forbids the use of offensive language, no matter the context.

Anderson, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, said many students have used the n-word against him in his 11 years with the district, and he has always explained its history and meaning. He’s determined to get his job back.

“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 told the Journal Sentinel. “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.”

Even Cher weighed in, offering on Twitter to cover Anderson’s legal fees should he decide to sue the district.

The incident that led to Anderson’s firing happened on Oct. 9. Anderson told the Journal Sentinel he was escorting an unruly student out of West High School when the student began lobbing the n-word at him.

“Every type of n-word you can think of, that’s what he was calling me,” he said. “I said, do not call me that name. I’m not your n-word. Do not call me that.”

The principal, Karen Boran, later told Anderson he had “an uphill battle” to keep his job, the Journal Sentinel reported. On Wednesday, she said in a letter to parents that a staff member would not be coming back to school following an investigation of the matter. “Regardless of context or circumstance,” she wrote, “racial slurs are not acceptable in our schools.”

But Anderson said the policy is wrongheaded.

“You can’t eliminate racism by ignoring it — by trying to hide the word or by trying to legislate the word,” he said, according to the Journal Sentinel. “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.”

Outrage over Anderson’s firing built quickly. A petition calling for his reinstatement went up Thursday on Change.org, drawing thousands of signatures. Supporters wrote that Anderson “made connections with students that will never be forgotten” and that his termination is “absurd.”

Madison Teachers Incorporated, the local teachers union, said it had filed a grievance on his behalf, seeking his reinstatement with back pay. In the meantime, Anderson’s co-workers at West High School set up a fundraiser for his family on GoFundMe.

“In a school of over 2,300 students and 200 staff, Marlon has the desire and uncanny ability to remember every single person’s name,” they wrote in the fundraiser’s description. “He can read what each person needs with a simple look, and generously fills that need with love: a kind word, a silly song, a loving-but-firm warning.”

Michelle Bayouth, the teacher who started the GoFundMe, called Anderson’s firing an “injustice.” While the zero-tolerance policy was well-intended, she said, its use in the security guard’s case was hurting students. At school, she had seen one student crying over the sudden departure.

“He’s an angel for so many of our students,” Bayouth said. “He’s not just a security guard. He’s the one that’s getting our kids into their classrooms. We can’t teach them if they don’t get into school.”

On Friday, students got involved. Hundreds left their classrooms and marched two miles to the district’s offices in a protests organized by the black student union. They held signs with messages like “Black staff matter!” and “Context matters!”

The president of the school board, Gloria Reyes, said in a statement that she wants the board to review the zero-tolerance policy. She also wants Anderson’s grievance handled quickly.

“This is an incredibly difficult situation, and we acknowledge the emotion, harm and complexity involved,” Reyes said. “Many people in our community and our district are grappling with that complexity, and we will continue to do so as we go forward.”

Anderson, who is insulin dependent and worried about the loss of his health insurance, watched the protest unfold on social media. On his Facebook page, he wrote that he had cried so much “my head lost weight.”

“I am overwhelmed by the love,” he continued. “When I get back I will personally walk everybody to class ON TIME!”

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