A Newport News teacher said she was placed on paid administrative leave after teaching a lesson about Native Americans that included a racial slur to compare the Washington Redskins' name with a hypothetical sports team.
Lynne Pierce, a social studies teacher at Heritage High School, said that during an AP US History lesson on Friday, Sept. 18, she used a racially charged term to make a point about stereotypes and prejudice — requirements of the course.
"A student asked a question — 'What's the big deal about calling the team the Washington Redskins?' — I guess because we were talking about Indians at the time," said Pierce, who is white. "I was trying to explain that there are many terms, stereotypes, racial terms that are used for people that should not be used. They need to be conscious of that fact and be as careful about using terms about other people as they would want people to be toward them.
"The kids kept saying, 'It's no big deal, it's a football team.' I said, 'How would you feel if people had a team named after another group?'" Pierce said, paraphrasing when she said she used a derogatory term that usually refers to blacks. She said she only used the term once and made it clear that it was not to be further used in the classroom.
An online petition created on Sept. 23 at GoPetition.com says that a student complained to the school after the lesson. Juslena Williams put together the petition after hearing about the incident from a friend whose sister was in the class at the time. Williams is a 2011 Heritage graduate who did not take classes from Pierce but said she wanted to stand up for her.
Pierce said she was not aware who complained nor was she given the opportunity to discuss it with anyone who was concerned about it.
After the school day ended, Pierce said, Heritage Principal Shameka Gerald and an assistant principal told Pierce that she was on leave. Pierce said she does not know what further action might be taken.
"While I cannot specifically address personnel matters, I can share with you that Newport News Public Schools is dedicated to ensuring that our students are educated in a professional, safe and nurturing environment," Newport News Public Schools spokeswoman Michelle Price said in a statement. "When a school administrator receives a complaint or concern from a student or family member about possible inappropriate employee behavior, an investigation is launched as all such concerns are taken very seriously."
Price said the outcome of the investigation then determines whether employees under investigation could be subject to disciplinary action or return to work.
Pierce is on leave through at least Sept. 25 due to the ongoing investigation.
Hammond can be reached by phone at 757-247-4951.