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A white child called three black classmates a racial slur. Months later, the school is struggling to move forward.

A house in the Palisades neighborhood of Northwest Washington.
A house in the Palisades neighborhood of Northwest Washington. (Evy Mages/For The Washington Post)

A racist slur hurled at three black children on a D.C. schoolyard has forced a public elementary school with a mostly white and affluent student body to address its discipline policies and examine whether the school is inclusive to families from all backgrounds.

The incident at Key Elementary in the Palisades neighborhood of Northwest Washington happened in October, but interviews and electronic communications between administrators and families shared with The Washington Post suggest the campus is still reeling from the aftermath.

On Oct. 16, a white fifth-grader at Key Elementary used a racial slur against three classmates when he became upset during a football game at recess, according to the school system’s investigation of the incident, which was obtained by The Post. School officials confirmed the authenticity of the report.

The student stated “and I don’t care if I’m racist” after invoking the slur.

The incident was reported to administrators, and the parents of the child who used the epithet were notified, but the student was not immediately disciplined, according to the investigation. And the parents of the three black students were not immediately notified of the episode — a fact that parents say has exacerbated tensions at the school and is at the heart of the ensuing conversations.

Families from Key Elementary are grappling with how to move forward. Some families who were interviewed said they believe public and often tense conversations about race and privilege are necessary, with a few calling for administrators to lose their jobs over their handling of the incident. Others say the reaction has been overblown and protracted, and that the hateful words of an elementary school student should not have punctured the community the way they did.

“It is very hard, it is very draining, but it’s ultimately for the best. It’s bringing issues to the surface,” said Heather Schwager, who is a white parent of two children at the school. “Many white parents didn’t even realize how few black teachers are in the school because they didn’t see the world through that lens. It’s been a lesson in white privilege for all of us.”

The mother of one of the three black children was notified about the incident weeks after it occurred during a parent-teacher conference, the investigation found.

And in late November, the investigation states, the white student’s family decided to withdraw him from the school.

“We don’t tolerate any forms of discrimination or any form of hate,” said Shayne Wells, a D.C. school system spokesman. “We will continue to provide the school the support it needs to adequately address these issues and work harder to ensure that all of our schools, including Key, are a safe and welcoming environment to student and staff.”

The parents of the children involved in the episode declined to comment or could not be directly reached.

The school system’s investigation determined that Key’s administration did not follow the city’s “District-Wide Bullying Prevention Policy” when handling the incident.

The response “was neither timely nor sufficient to adequately address the incident,” the investigation reads.

The incident prompted a slew of impassioned and vigorous conversations in the Palisades.

The school’s parent-teacher organization hired an outside firm to facilitate conversations with families and to train staff on racial sensitivity and how to discuss these thorny issues with children.

Key’s principal referred requests for comment to the school system’s central office.

“We wanted to provide as much support as we could to help talk about what happened,” said Tricia Duncan, co-president of the school’s parent-teacher organization. “The vast majority of parents just want to do better so this doesn’t happen again.”

Key has far fewer students who are regarded as vulnerable than the school system overall: Just 2 percent of the Key student body is considered at risk, defined as children who are homeless, in foster care, recipients of welfare or food stamps, or languishing in high school. Citywide, nearly 50 percent of D.C. public school students are considered at risk.

The school has experienced increasing enrollment in recent years, with 428 students this academic year.

D.C. Public Schools has hosted three public meetings on the incident, with more than 100 people attending the final meeting in March, according to parents who attended. School administrators also participated. At one point, each parent had the opportunity to offer perspectives on the episode and how the school can move forward.

Peggy Asante-Spitzer, who is black and has a biracial son at the school, said she and her husband, Glenn Spitzer, have long talked to their young child about the racism he may encounter. She said even in the most inclusive environments, she expects children may utter hurtful and hateful words.

So the couple says they were upset not so much by the episode but by administrators’ failure to communicate sooner.

“We need to know if it’s happening, and a lack of transparency denied us the right to talk to our son and see if maybe it happened to him and he never told us,” Glenn Spitzer said.

Omo Oratokhai, the black mother of a fifth-grader at Key, said she has lived in the Palisades for 12 years and is an involved parent at the school. The incident does not reflect her experience there, she said, and she thinks assigning too much value to what a child said may do the community more harm than good.

She wonders if the tension and conversations that have engulfed Key Elementary could affect her son: Will teachers still be willing to discipline her child if necessary, or will they fear they could be perceived as racist if they do?

“It’s been too much for me. I think some people are taking it too far,” Oratokhai said. “I really don’t get what we gain by bringing this up all the time.”

Key administrators said the school has implemented new reporting protocols for hate speech and aggressive behavior. The principal met with students in kindergarten through fifth grade to “talk about the importance of reporting any acts of hate speech or anything that makes them uncomfortable,” a letter to parents read.

Eric Westendorf, a Key parent and former D.C. charter school principal, said he wishes the school had communicated with families immediately after the incident.

“As a former school leader, I feel strongly about teachable moments because children make mistakes, and sometimes they are painful mistakes,” Westendorf said. “But these are opportunities for us to more deeply understand our values. These are moments our values go from being words we say to actions we take.”

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