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‘Free’ the Seattle teacher being punished for talking about race

Center School parents and students defend a teacher who is being disciplined and transferred to another school after teaching a class on race they say was a "real world" discussion about prejudice and privilege in America. (Linda Thomas photo)

“Teachers like Jon Greenberg deserve your praise, not your intimidation, condemnation and punishment,” says Greg Ruby, parent of a senior graduating from Center School in Seattle.

Greenberg is a public high school teacher who offered a curriculum on race, privilege, and social justice.

His six-week unit at Center School, an alternative arts and college prep high school in Seattle, was part of a broader class on citizenship. Through class discussions, he encouraged students to talk openly about their personal experiences with discrimination and their own feelings about racism.

In December of 2012, one student complained that the way the class was taught fostered an “intimidating environment.”

In response, the district’s human resources department investigated and concluded the class indeed created an “intimidating educational environment for a student.”

The district suspended the class. While Superintendent Jose Banda eventually reinstated the curriculum, he banned the use of one part of the instruction – a set of discussions and activities called “Courageous Conversations.”

Banda says that part of the curriculum was intended for adults and not appropriate for a high school classroom. The course at Center School is an AP (advanced placement) level class.

Now, administrators have decided to transfer the teacher to Hamilton International Middle School for the next school year, but they insist the discipline has nothing to do with the initial concern about Greenberg’s class.

The family involved with the first complaint filed a second complaint against him when students were allowed to circulate a petition in the classroom in support of the educator.

That petition went around while the student who filed the complaint was present,and was viewed as “harassment.”

Dozens of Center School parents and students defended Greenberg at Wednesday night’s Seattle School Board meeting.

At the start of the meeting, the board announced they would not allow testimony regarding individual teachers and personnel matters. With dozens of upset parents and students facing them, they let everyone speak.

Many students testified that Mr. Greenberg’s class was the closest many of them came to a “real world” discussion about prejudice and privilege in America.

“For the first time in a long time I was learning about something that applied to my everyday life,” says student Mira Krast. “Allowing one white family’s complaint to transfer a teacher from a job he’s done for 10 years does in fact empower the vicious cycle of white privilege these very students are learning about.”

“The majority of the school felt the lessons taught in the class were too important to give up for a single complaint,” says Lindsay Vanderpool, the incoming senior class co-president.

“Being a predominantly white school, discussions about race not only give white students a chance to explore new perspectives and concepts about their privilege and role in the world,” she says. “They also give students of color and opportunity to speak up about race-based issues and share their stories and insight.”

Former student Alyssa Piraino said of teacher Greenberg, “I didn’t like him. I didn’t like his class. I didn’t like the way he taught it. I would be the last person to defend him, and yet here I am.”

“Talking about race in a frank and open manner does not make an environment hostile. Try being a student of color in Seattle Public Schools,” she says. “They can tell you about hostile.”

The school district has created a distraction from learning, others said as a few shouted “Free Jon Greenberg.”

Student Zachary Meyer says the district’s “intimidation” will have a chilling affect on other Seattle school teachers.

“What teacher would want to talk about race issues after one of their fellow teachers was shut down and disciplined?” he asks.

Earlier this year the Seattle Human Services Coalition and Mayor Mike McGinn gave Center School an award for “encouraging dialogue around race, gender and class,” specifically praising Greenberg’s now-forbidden curriculum.


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