Fairbanks

Fairbanks teacher on leave after ‘racially insensitive’ comments on George Floyd in class

This story originally appeared on KUAC and Alaska Public Media and is republished with permission.

FAIRBANKS — A Fairbanks teacher has been put on administrative leave after comments she made during a discussion about George Floyd in her class at Lathrop High School, according to school officials.

A parent notified the school of the comments last Wednesday. In a letter to parents on Friday, Lathrop High School Principal Carly Sween described the comments as “racially insensitive.”

The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District has not publicly named the teacher, but a 15-minute video of the class posted online shows a teacher identified as Ms. Gardner. Connie Gardner is a special education teacher at Lathrop High.

Gardner did not respond to an email requesting comment.

The video posted to YouTube shows her leading a conversation about police killing Black people, including the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Gardner did not defend Chauvin, but said Floyd would be alive if he had complied with police orders.

“I’m an old white lady and if the cops came up to me and said, ‘Ma’am, put your hands behind your back, you’re going to jail,’” she said, “I’m putting my hands behind my back.”

Referring to her students, Gardner also commented on how to dress to avoid trouble with police.

“Look at how you guys are dressed. You’re dressed nicely. You don’t look like thugs. You don’t have your pants down around your knees,” she said.

Later in the conversation, one of the students’ parents watching the online class interjected and challenged Gardner.

“I just disagree with the conversation in whole. I feel like this is something that, you know, like, Ms. Gardner, I don’t feel like you’re really able to address with you being a white woman. You know I am a woman of color,” the parent said.

Gardner responded: “That’s where you’re wrong.”

“I am a woman of color,” the parent said.

Principal Sween and Assistant Principal Clarice Mingo met with students in the class to discuss what happened, according to the letter to parents.

“Through ongoing inclusivity training for staff, we continually improve our ability to identify concerns and respond quickly to situations that do not uphold our commitment to a safe, equitable environment,” she wrote.

Yumi McCulloch, a district spokesperson, said Sween notified the district about the comments last week.

“Following that, an investigation was opened and the teacher was placed on paid administrative leave,” McCulloch said.

McCulloch said the high school will continue to communicate with the students while the human resources department conducts an investigation.

“Lathrop administration continues to meet with students and parents regarding these types of issues and to provide support for parents and students alike,” McCulloch said.

Under their contract with the district, teachers are protected while an investigation is ongoing, said Sandra Ryan, president of Fairbanks Education Association teachers union.

“We’ll follow the investigative procedure, so there is an advocate assigned by FEA, and that advocate will meet with the member, and making sure that their rights in the contract are followed at all times,” Ryan said.

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