KTTH OPINION

Rantz: ‘Racist’ Spokane elementary school’s ‘slaves and hobos’ ignites controversy

Mar 26, 2024, 6:26 PM | Updated: Mar 27, 2024, 9:46 am

Image: Children bike past Wilson Elementary in Spokane....

Children bike past Wilson Elementary in Spokane. A teacher's job is on the line after she encouraging students to attend a jazz event dressed as "slaves and hobos." (Image courtesy of Spokane Public Schools Facebook page)

(Image courtesy of Spokane Public Schools Facebook page)

A music teacher’s job is on the line at Wilson Elementary after encouraging students to attend a jazz event dressed as “slaves and hobos.” The response has been disproportionate to the incident.

Tamera Knapp has been a music teacher in the Spokane School District since 1994. But now she’s on administrative leave as parents and activists call for her termination for the way she promoted “We Haz Jazz!” in a March 1 school newsletter.

The night of music was meant for students to “take a trip from today, way back to the times of slavery in America.” Students, regardless of race, were allowed to “dress as slaves, hobos, or ready for a night out to the jazz clubs.” The event was scheduled for Tuesday but has since been canceled due to the uproar. It prompted an apology from the school as Knapp was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.

But parents and community activists are asking for the teacher to be terminated.

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Spokane school’s ‘racist’ newsletter sparked ‘slaves and hobos’ controversy

The controversy has been amplified by the Spokane NAACP and like-minded activists. They’re using it to demand institutional changes within the Spokane School District. That can include more Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training around cultural sensitives.

The Spokane NAACP said the school’s apology, sent out early this month, “does not repair the potentially harmful impacts this type of request could have on our students and their families.” They did not indicate anyone was specifically harmed by the newsletter, but said it amounted to black face.

The group then organized a community town hall, “Addressing Racial Incidents in Our Schools,” at the Spokane Library this week. While it was open to the public, activists appeared to make up the bulk of the audience. And it was hardly ideologically diverse.

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Spokane town hall was one-sided, heated

While the “slaves and hobos” newsletter was the impetus for the meeting, it was barely mentioned throughout the town hall, which lasted longer than 90 minutes.

A panel claimed systemic racism exists in the school district with teachers openly using the n-word. It turns out they were referring to teaching, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which some in attendance implied should be banned.

 

One white teacher said, “training doesn’t work in this district … because every training ultimately defaults to white comfort. And until we actually change making white staff comfortable, then nothing will change for Black students, Indigenous students, brown students. If we don’t change that at the systemic level, then 20 years from now we’re having the same damn discussion.”

Virla Spencer, an activist who runs The Way To Justice, which was “created to dismantle systems that oppressed,” tried to fire up the crowd. She said that because the district is “oppressing … it’s time to tear it down.”

Only one person spoke in support of the music teacher. It didn’t go so well for him.

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A white dad, Mike Dix, defended the teacher, whom teaches one of his kids. He said she was wrong to write the “slaves and hobos” newsletter, but termination goes too far.

Dix agreed that the language was “inappropriate,” but said that it was “never intended to cause anyone harm.” That said, he argued the school leadership “should have recognized the mistake, corrected it, disciplined it, learned from it. And then move on in a positive way.” He concluded the best message for kids is that “mistakes can be made,” and that one can learn from them.

As he spoke, one woman scowled, rolled her eyes, and then moved to a different area to get away from him. Another shook her head disapprovingly. But as he ended his comments, attendees started yelling at him off-mic.

When he told one of the women yelling at him about the newsletter that “maybe it was misinterpreted,” the moderator of the event, Spokane NAACP president Lisa Gardner, scolded him.

“I want to give you the space to speak but I will not allow you to speak something that is going to land inappropriately. Intent and impact are two different things. Your intention is one thing, but the way it’s coming out is not landing,” Gardner told him.

Parent was told he wasn’t ‘clearly educated’

What came next was a condescending lecture targeting the parent for not agreeing with the room on the consequences for the “slaves and hobos” newsletter.

First, a student in the district spoke at him.

“I understand that you aren’t clearly educated on these things. That’s OK and I understand,” she started. “But this is a space where you’re not understanding how to project what you want to say, nor are you educated to say those certain things.”

After saying she thought the teacher should be removed, the student again spoke condescendingly to the parent. She did not appear to understand the irony of her words and tone.

“I understand why you don’t have that position,” she told him. “But I feel like there should be a space where we are looking to educate and not belittle people for having those things. Because, realistically, you don’t have that education and that’s alright.”

Then, the white mom who moved away from Dix took the mic to assure the audience that not everyone at the school holds the dad’s position.

Can the ‘slaves and hobos’ teacher survive this?

Barring union-guaranteed protection, how does the music teacher survive this? It’s hard to imagine the district lets this teacher back into the classroom anytime soon, if at all. Is that fair?

The “slaves and hobos” newsletter was insensitive and offensive. It shows a remarkable lack of judgment from the music teacher. That neither she nor the administration saw anything wrong with this is alarming. But while the activists were rightly critical, the reason for their criticism is the problem. The newsletter wasn’t racist.

Despite what community activists believe, intent does actually matter. It’s how we judge everyday interactions. Did that person ignore me, or did that person just not see me? Did my spouse snap at me because of something I did or because my spouse had a bad day? People’s passions or sensitives toward an issue, even when they’re right to be passionate and sensitive, shouldn’t mean we completely dismiss extending common courtesy to others who didn’t intend to cause offense.

Is this a progressive double standard?

Would this teacher be treated the same way if the supposed lesson plan better fit the expectations of the progressive movement? Not all outrageous teacher behaviors elicit outrage.

A Seattle teacher scolded a student for identifying as heterosexual. He promoted the antisemitic Boycott Divest Sanction movement. In Shoreline, a school held a vigil for Fidel Castro. He was treated as a hero. Both the Seattle teacher and Shoreline school were defended because they’re taking a far-left position. The media, outside of KTTH, did not offer any coverage. If the Spokane music teacher was acting in good faith, activists should extend the same support as is offered to the radical educator.

Either the teacher wasn’t thinking about the optics of the “slaves and hobos” newsletter, or she was hoping to teach kids about the time period they were studying. There were clearly better ways to teach about the time period, if that was the intent.

Discipline is, in fact, warranted. But the parent defending the music teacher is right: unless this is a repeat offense, this should be used as a learning experience, disciplined, and move forward in a positive way.

Listen to The Jason Rantz Show on weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow Jason on X, formerly known as TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

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Rantz: ‘Racist’ Spokane elementary school’s ‘slaves and hobos’ ignites controversy