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Virginia chemistry teacher asked students to insert ‘neon . . . neck’ to describe how George Floyd died

Demonstrators march to protest police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 4, 2020, in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Va.
Demonstrators march to protest police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 4, 2020, in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Va. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)
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A high school teacher in Arlington gave students a question that asked them to insert the name of a chemical element to fill out a sentence describing how George Floyd died beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May.

“George Floyd couldn’t breathe because a police officer put his ____ George’s neck,” the question read. The answer was the chemical element “neon.”

The teacher posed the question Tuesday as part of “a chemistry assignment related to the periodic table of elements,” according to Arlington Public Schools spokesman Frank Bellavia. The teacher has since been “relieved of teaching duties pending an investigation,” Bellavia said.

On Thursday, Superintendent Francisco Durán sent a message to families and staff apologizing for the incident.

“As part of a class exercise, an H-B Woodlawn [Secondary Program] teacher shared an example with students that showed significant racial insensitivity,” Durán wrote. “The content referenced the killing of George Floyd in an unacceptable and senseless way, which hurt and alarmed our students, staff, families and the community.”

Durán wrote in his message that officials became aware of the quiz question after students complained.

“The reference showed extremely poor judgement and a blatant disregard for African American lives,” he added.

The principal of H-B Woodlawn is arranging to meet with all staff and students at the school to respond to the incident, Durán wrote in his message. H-B Woodlawn is 4.4 percent Black and nearly 58 percent White, according to school data posted online.

Floyd was killed May 25 when a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. His death sparked protests nationwide over systemic racism and its lingering effects in American society, in places ranging from courtrooms to classrooms.

The content of the question was first reported by

Sofia Miller, 15, was one of the students asked to answer the question during her first-period chemistry class Tuesday. Miller, who is half-Black and half-White and said she is one of the only students of color in the class, could not believe what she was seeing.

She messaged a friend to ask whether any of her classmates had complained. The friend said no. Sofia thought about Floyd’s untimely death and the Black Lives Matter movement, and the time police pulled a gun on her grandmother while she was driving.

Although normally reluctant to speak in class because it makes her anxious, she decided she had to say something.

“It hurt that I was there to learn, and I had to see that, and I had to call out a grown man who thought that would be okay,” Sofia said in an interview. “I just wanted to learn about chemistry. I’m there to learn, I’m there to feel safe, and I just didn’t.”

When she confronted him about the question, Sofia said, the teacher at first replied by arguing that the Floyd reference was something that everybody would understand.

When Sofia persisted in arguing that the question was wrong, the teacher thanked her for good constructive criticism and agreed to change the wording, she said. But Sofia, feeling uncomfortable, left the Zoom session before she saw his edits.

Later, he changed the question to read, “Athletes protesting for Black Lives Matter & Racial Justice put a ____ the ground at the beginning of a game,” according to a screenshot obtained by The Washington Post.

Sofia and a friend — 15-year-old Riana Aquino-Richards, who is half-Filipino and half-White — sent emails about the incident to Woodlawn’s principal and vice principal.

“I found this the most offensive as POC, in a school where the POC population is an iota,” Sofia wrote in her message. “The oppression my family has had to endure should not be a punchline.”

Arlington administrators responded swiftly, Sofia and Riana said, and promised they would take steps to ensure something like this never happened again. But the teenagers felt they had to do more — so they posted about it on social media, which eventually spurred countywide debate, news coverage and backlash from some peers.

The girls’ classmates — many of them White boys, they said — are arguing that the Floyd pun was not offensive, that Sofia and Riana are being dramatic and that the teacher’s suspension is an overreaction. Some have started a social media campaign urging Arlington residents to band together and save the teacher’s job.

Riana said she is ignoring the White boys’ posts. She would rather focus on the sixth- and seventh-grade Black girls who, after news of the Floyd pun broke, posted on social media detailing how upset they felt.

“I want to fix this so the middle-schoolers who are more diverse who are coming up don’t have to experience this in chemistry class,” she said. “Nobody should have to worry about racist attacks at school.”