The killing of George Floyd sparked so many important conversations over the summer about racism and police brutality. We cannot begin to fathom how a high school teacher in Arlington, Virginia, thought Floyd’s cruel, traumatizing death was also good material for a pun in their science test this week. It’s a sign of how much more work we all need to do to understand the harm our words and actions can cause others.
Trigger warning: This is a horrifying sentence we’re about to repeat.
“George Floyd couldn’t breathe because a police officer put his _____ George’s neck,” said one of the punny test questions about elements for a 10th grade class at H-B Woodlawn High School on Tuesday. The answer is “neon.”
Students, who are currently attending school remotely, and their parents raised the alarm after the test was given. According to ARLnow.com, a student wrote on social media that the teacher “tried to pass it off as something ‘everyone would know/easy to get.'”
“There is no diversity in my school and apparently there was a bunch of white silence when this happened this morning,” the student wrote. “White students were making excuses or seemed ‘too tired to talk about it.’ Shame on those people that’s disgusting.”
But once the story began to spread, the school promised swift action.
“The H-B Woodlawn community does not tolerate any form of cultural or racial insensitivity,” read a letter from the school’s principal, Casey Robinson, on Wednesday, that was shared to a H-B Woodlawn Yearbooks Facebook page. “Yesterday an incident occurred that conflicts with our core values of respect, trust, social justice, and diversity. During a class presentation a teacher shared an example that showed significant racial insensitivity. It was unacceptable. We will be meeting directly with the students in the class, and will work with all of our H-B Woodlawn students to process the incident. We will use all of the HBW and APS resources at our disposal to do so. Students should reach out to a trusted adult at HBW if they want to discuss this matter further. Our Student Services Team will be available for individual counseling (emails below) and students can reach out directly to me as well.”
By Thursday, Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Francisco Durán had sent a letter to parents informing them that the teacher had been removed from their classroom duties while an investigation into the incident takes place.
“The content referenced the killing of George Floyd in an unacceptable and senseless way, which hurt and alarmed our students, staff, families, and the community,” Durán wrote. “The reference showed extremely poor judgment and a blatant disregard for African American lives.”
The Arlington chapter of the NAACP also weighed in on the matter, noting that this was not an isolated event. “This act of racial violence is the latest and most egregious in a progressive pattern of racist incidents occurring within our schools,” reads a press release from the organization.
Some alumni of the school on the H-B Woodlawn Yearbook page made excuses for the teacher, noting that they didn’t intend any harm by it. If that’s the case, they have a lot to learn about racial sensitivity. We can easily picture a student of color reading that question and being so upset that they’d have difficulty concentrating on the rest of the test.
Discussion of George Floyd’s death does have a place in our children’s education, but only in a way that treats him as a human being who once lived and breathed before a white police officer suffocated him. He is not some fun pop-culture reference.
Make some space on your kids’ bookshelves for these books starring boys of color.