The students were assembled in the auditorium of their high school on Chicago’s North Side, there to celebrate Hispanic heritage — but first, their teachers told them, they had to stand for the national anthem.
When one student — a Latina and U.S. citizen — refused a teacher’s pointed direction to stand, she said he replied with an infamously racist line: “Go back to your country.” The same teacher turned to a black student, who was also sitting down, and asked whether she was part of the public school system’s free and reduced lunch program, telling her she should stand for the people who have died for the country, the students said.
They were then told to leave the assembly.
First reported by Block Club Chicago, the confrontation at Senn High School — one of the city’s most diverse institutions — set off a furor among students who have called for the instructor’s termination. They staged a sit-in this week to protest what they said was a slow response from the administration.
The teacher’s alleged remark appears to be just the latest example of caustic rhetoric that began in the White House and seeped into schools, fueling attacks and bullying against students of color. Since 2016, President Trump’s words have been used to harass children and teens at least 300 times, according to a recent Washington Post analysis.
Among the phrases often deployed: “Go back to where you came from” or “Go back to Mexico” or “Go back behind the wall” — all derivatives of Trump’s July 2019 tweet telling four congresswomen of color that they should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
On Thursday evening, the principal announced that the teacher has been removed from the school while the district investigates, Chicago Public Schools spokesman Michael Pressman said. Officials directed him to stay at home with pay pending the inquiry’s outcome.
Naima Woods, a senior at the school, said she was sitting in the auditorium when she heard her classmates being reprimanded. When she heard the teacher say “go back,” she was so shocked that she forgot to take out her phone and record — something that otherwise would have been her first response.
After the assembly, she found the student who had been targeted, her friend, and they cried together.
“I felt what it was like to feel like you didn’t belong,” Woods told The Post. “Especially in a school where we are encouraged to be who we are no matter what and we will be accepted. It just hurt.”
In an email to the school community, Senn Principal Mary Beck addressed the students’ concerns.
“While I worked with the district to gather information regarding this allegation, it may have appeared that our students’ voices were not being heard,” Beck wrote. “I want to assure you that this was not the case.”
After the district’s investigation, she said “a final determination will be made regarding whether it is appropriate for this individual to return to Senn.”
The Chicago Teachers Union said all students, faculty and staff “must be respected and treated with dignity” and students should be able to “use their voices and their power to defend themselves or anyone close to them.”
“Tolerance and inclusivity are what we demand as a union and what we expect from anyone working in Chicago Public Schools,” spokesman Ronnie Reese said in a statement.
Woods, who is in a journalism class at the school, documented the Wednesday sit-in on Twitter, posting photos and videos of her classmates protesting the now-removed teacher. Students held signs, some written on lined paper torn from spiral notebooks, reading: “If you did your job we would be in class” and “Keep Senn racism free.”
She said it would be unwise for the administration to welcome the teacher back, saying he might continue to be verbally abusive.
“If it happened once, it can happen again,” she said.
In her message to students and parents, Beck agreed to take steps to “heal our community.” She said she would institute regular town halls in which students can air grievances and would make the reporting of discriminatory incidents easier and provide “cultural training for all staff.”
“I know this week has been difficult for our school, and I want you to know that the concerns our students have expressed have been heard,” Beck wrote.
Woods, who helped draft some of the commitments to which Beck agreed, said the school is taking steps in the right direction.
“I do love my school and how it shaped me as a person,” she said, adding that her teachers have inspired her to push for social change. “I just want this to never happen again. Nobody on this planet deserves to feel like they don’t belong here because of the color of their skin.”
If the teacher’s alleged comments set a toxic example, Woods is hoping she and her classmates sent the opposite message.
“I am glad we did the sit-in,” she said. “I wanted to teach the younger class that we all got a little fighter inside us. They give me hope that they will continue to call adults out and stand up for what they believe in. The students will always strike back.”