Lincoln Brown, a 48-year-old Chicago Public Schools teacher, has filed a federal lawsuit against the district after being suspended without pay for five days for using the "n-word" as a part of a lesson highlighting the "perils of racism," the Chicago Sun-Times reports.
The incident occurred last October when Brown said he used the n-word after two of his students were passing notes with rap lyrics that included it, according to the Sun-Times. The lawsuit alleges Brown used the word during a "teachable moment" in the context of the book Huckleberry Finn in order to show how such language can hurt. But as the words left Brown's lips, the school's principal walked in to the Murray Language Academy classroom.
Murray Principal George Mason charged Brown with "using verbally abusive language to or in front of students" as well as "cruel, immoral, negligent, or criminal conduct or communication to a student, that causes psychological or physical harm."
Brown has just served the first of his five days of suspension, but told WLS-TV he's worried that this has ruined his reputation as a teacher.
"This cannot be a part of what people think I am," Brown told the station. "My character has been assassinated."
In response to the lawsuit, CPS Director of Communications Robyn Ziegler issued a statement. According to WLS-TV:
"The principal determined that the way the teacher used the word was improper and imposed a short suspension.... The teacher has received sufficient due process. In our opinion, his federal lawsuit is without merit."
Although CPS didn't explicitly accuse Brown of racist language, schools' political sensitivity to issues of race are prevalent across the country. And when they're not, their communities have shown to make the issue known.
Just last summer, 18-year-old Kymberly Wimberly of Arkansas filed suit against McGehee Secondary School after four years of nearly straight-As, honors and Advanced Placement classes had placed her at the top of her graduating class. The suit alleges that though she earned the marks, the school denied her valedictorian status because she is black.
A separate suit filed against a Minnesota school district last August claimed that a Red Wing High School homecoming event called "Wigger Day" caused a black student "severe emotional distress including depression, loss of sleep, stress, crying, humiliation, anxiety, and shame."
"Wigger is a pejorative slang term for a white person who emulates the mannerisms, language and fashions associated with African-American culture," the complaint explains. Students were encouraged to dress in oversized sports jerseys, low-slung pants, baseball hats cocked to the side and 'doo rags.
Most recently in Norcross, Ga., a Beaver Ridge Elementary School teacher resigned after outcry over a third grade math assignment that used slavery examples in word problems. Parents were outraged at both the assignment and the school district's response to the reports of those math problems, which included references to cotton, orange picking and beatings.
But on the other end of the spectrum, this sensitivity -- or sometimes, lack thereof -- creates a bit of an identity crisis among schoolchildren. Some black students say they feel ostracized for acting "too white." One Connecticut middle school student said he was stabbed in the back with a pencil by a peer who thought he wasn't acting "black enough."
Before entering the Chicago lawsuit, ABC News reports, Brown, the Murray Language Academy teacher, first appealed his suspension to the Chicago Board of Education, who denied his request.
"It's something I can't accept and can't have on my record and more importantly it's not who I am," Brown told ABC News. He has taught in predominantly black schools for more than 25 years.
Brown's attorney William Spielberger says his client's First and Fifth Amendment rights were violated, as well as his rights to free speech and due process.