School District Grapples With a Derogatory Word

A proposed revision to policy could change instruction and materials used by teachers in the Burbank Unified School District.

While no decision was made, board member engaged in a lengthy discussion on the revision. Sharon Cuseo, assistant superintendent of instructional services, presented to the Board of Education a first reading of a draft policy that would prohibit the N-word from being said or read aloud in any class. Any instructional material, such as novels or textbooks, that use the derogatory word would be accepted only if it fit specific criteria.

The proposed policy initially recommended that text that includes the term must be authored by a Black person and show affirming aspects of the Black culture and experience.

The district’s efforts to revise its policy on instructional materials that may be offensive to students of color come after Superintendent Matt Hill’s decision in November to remove from required reading five classic American novels — Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Theodore Taylor’s “The Cay” and Mildred D. Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.”  The use and reading of the N-word in all classes, regardless of the context, also was banned then. 

“The primary question for us was: How do we protect [students] from the effects of the word without removing works from celebrated Black authors from our schools and our collection of novels, and also the important interviews of enslaved people that are known as slave narratives and are housed by the Library of Congress and have been important to the curriculum?” Cuseo said during a virtual board meeting on Thursday. “That’s what we’re wrestling with and that’s why the recommendation for the limited use of the N-word is in the draft policy.”

Board member Armond Aghakhanian answered the questions staff has been grappling with since January with a straightforward response.

“For me, it’s very simple. Even if one child is put in [an uncomfortable] position because we’re using the N-word, then we should not support books that have the N-word,” said Aghakhanian, who helped form the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee nearly two years ago. “I am certain there are many, many books that can talk about all these topics that don’t use the N-word. I think it is time for us as a district to do the right thing, do better by providing alternatives, and I think it’s also beneficial for our students.”

Board members agreed with their colleague and suggested that district staff remove the section regarding the use of the word and not allow any instructional materials that include it.

“Who are we here for? What’s the deal? I think we just say no. I think we’re making it too complex when it’s really a simple fact,” said board Vice President Charlene Tabet. “It’s a word that should be eliminated from our vocabulary.”

Staff was also advised to remove the “opt-out process” from the proposed policy that would allow parents to excuse their child from lessons or materials containing the word. Hill informed the board that it is a standard process that has always been in district policy and regulations but will work on the recommendation.

“Giving students the opportunity to opt out is in a way creating a separate but equal environment for our students,” said board member Emily Weisberg. “So it’s great that you can opt out, but how many students are going to feel comfortable doing that and not fear retribution from their teachers? How many students are going to miss out on a rich academic experience because they’re choosing not to read the book with their classmates?”

Weisberg added that the culture must shift in order to provide students a safe learning environment and that it cannot happen without professional development. She, along with the rest of the board and Hill, later lauded the teachers who have successfully and respectfully approached the issue of race in their classrooms.

“It feels like we have not given our teachers up to this point the resources and tools and support they need to be teaching books that contain the N-word,” Weisberg said. “ … I can’t in good faith feel like this content is going to be taught responsibly without providing extra support.”

The board acknowledged that any discussion and decision surrounding race is problematic, considering the panel primarily consists of white individuals, but President Steve Frintner said something needs to be done because “what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working.”

“It’s almost impossible to try and write a board policy and regulation like this and try to get it right and get it to where everyone can accept it and feel satisfied with what we’ve done because there are widely different opinions on this,” Frintner said. “ … This has been certainly an ongoing issue for years, and it still is an issue.”

Aghakhanian reiterated that the removal of books containing the objectionable word is not a ban and that the books can still be accessed by students at their school library.

“I come from a country where you would have been thrown in prison, probably would never come back, because you read a book that was banned,” he said. “This is very personal to me when people use the word ‘banned’ so loosely and comfortably, not knowing what it means.”

No decision was made on the proposed policy. District staff will revise the draft based on the guidance from the board and present a second reading at a future meeting.