Principal used N-word in discussions about inappropriate words

POULSBO — A class of Poulsbo Elementary School fifth-graders had concerns about using the word “Negro” in a play being presented in observance of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

Principal Claudia Alves attempted to explain to an 11-year-old fifth-grader how the word “Negro” was not the same as using the N-word. But she used the actual word, not the term “N-word.”

The child, whose father is African American, was upset and told his mother about it. Alves admits that, in discussing what happened, she used the N-word as an example two or three more times in conversation with the child’s mother.

The mother, Shawna Smith, said she doesn’t believe Alves is racist. But, Smith said, she doubts Alves would have used an obscenity in a conversation about offensive words, and is concerned that the N-word wasn’t held to the same standard. And that’s why she’s asked the school district to provide diversity training to teachers and administrators.

It all started Jan. 15 — the actual date of King’s birth. While practicing the play, two students declined to participate because of the use of the word “Negro.” “A lot of students didn’t want to use the word,” Smith said.

Alves said the teacher “asked me to explain the word ‘Negro’ to the students, and so I explained that I think the word ‘Negro’ comes from ‘Negroid,’ and that Negroid is a race, like Caucasian or Asian,” Alves said.

Within a few minutes, the teacher sent Smith’s son, Jassiah, to Alves’ office. “I said I understood that he would never use the N-word, but this is very different,” Alves said. “What the play is about is the Jim Crow laws, and they used the word ‘Negro.’” She explained that it wasn’t the same as using the more offensive word. “I didn’t use that word to upset him,” Alves said.

She added, “I did use that word, and that word is upsetting. I thought in the context of what we were talking about, it was all right.” She said she explained that what has been considered appropriate has changed over the years, but that the N-word was never appropriate, “no matter the period of time.”

The next day, Smith called Alves. The principal said she told her, “I understood why she wouldn’t want [the offensive word] used. I wouldn’t want ‘honky’ to be used. I would never want those words to be used.” She said she told the mom the N-word is used often in the media and in rap music, and “it’s confusing for kids when they get mixed messages, but it doesn’t make it right.”

Alves has 34 years of experience in education and in the 2012-13 school year was paid an annual salary of $99,625, according to the school employees salary database hosted by the Tacoma News-Tribune.

Brenda Ward, the North Kitsap School District’s director of elementary education, said Alves' use of the N-word “wasn’t necessary” in order to describe how it was different from another word.

Ward talked separately on Jan. 17 with Smith and Alves, and had a followup conversation with Jassiah to clear up "some confusion about the message he heard from the principal,” Ward said.

Smith and Alves will meet next week to discuss “how to bring more of an understanding into our education system,” Ward said. “It’s a good opportunity to review what we have in place to raise cultural awareness.”

Ward added, “We want to make sure we’re addressing the issue appropriately.”

Whether the principal's use of the N-word violates the state code of professional conduct for educators will be up to Superintendent Patty Page to decide, Ward said. If Page determines it does violate the code, she will be required to report it to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for an investigation, according to OSPI spokeswoman Kristen Jaudon.

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