On June 18, one day after a white supremacist murdered 9 members of a Bible study group in Charleston, students in a BHS chemistry class were subjected to expletives and a racial slur within a PowerPoint presentation shown by four classmates. The incident further agonized students and their parents, who were still reeling from the events in Charleston.

The teacher leading the class immediately stopped the presentation in response to the clearly visible phrase “Mo’fucker ain’t done shit, n***” at the end of a short paragraph containing science data.  According to Headmaster Deborah Holman, “The teacher stopped the presentation and had the slide taken down. She addressed the class and reported the incident to the administration. Our administration immediately moved into an investigation and response.”  BHS declined to identify the chemistry teacher.

The Impact and the Response

The following day, June 19, Headmaster Holman addressed the chemistry class.  She explained, “As Brookline High students, the class very much knew how unacceptable this language was.  They were remarkably somber. The BHS incident happened the day after the shooting of nine African American church members in Charleston, SC, so this added to the serious and somber tone.”

Holman described the impact felt and the school’s response the next day, “On that same afternoon, in reaction to Charleston, an ad hoc gathering of students of color took place in the Metco room to discuss, “How can we best support each other when disturbing, tragic events happen?”, the chemistry class incident came up in this larger conversation.  The numerous race-related events nationally this year have caused us to address in various BHS venues just how these impact our school community. That afternoon, all within a 60-minute time frame, I joined the ad hoc meeting in the Metco room, returned to my office to announce a moment of silence for the Charleston residents, joined a second-round student interview about the chemistry class incident, then addressed the whole chemistry class”.

No student confessed to inserting the inflammatory words into the PowerPoint presentation. Despite numerous hours spent interviewing students and parents, it was not possible to identify the guilty party or parties. Holman explained, “The dean staff are experienced and expert at this type of school-based investigation, yet occasionally we don’t get adolescents to fully own their actions. Our investigation included interviewing the teacher, interviewing the four student presenters, interviewing other students in the class, looking carefully at the documents and evidence, notifying parents of involved students about the situation and consequences”.  The school punished all four students responsible for the chemistry presentation, but declined to describe the exact nature of the discipline, citing student privacy issues.

Addressing Racism

Brookline High School dedicated a significant portion of this past school year to tackling issues surrounding racism, bias and privilege. These efforts were spread across several initiatives including:

  • The Calculus Project
  • The Literacy Project
  • African American and Latino Scholars Program
  • Race Reel
  • Sojourn
  • An English Department Teach-In addressing the Ferguson, NYC and Cleveland shootings
  • A full faculty meeting examining how public high schools address important and disturbing national events
  • The 1st Annual BHS ‘Asking for Courage Day’

According to Headmaster Holman, “These conversations seeded ideas and initiatives such as diversifying the English curriculum, improving efforts to recruit teachers of color, studying heterogeneous classes, reaching out to parents and students who might otherwise feel marginalized, and teacher book groups focusing on racism, bias, privilege”.

When asked to respond to local pressure to expel the students involved, the Headmaster responded. “When a student has transgressed the community in the manner these students did, the potential for them to restore themselves with peers and the school community, to make amends, and to learn from their actions is great. Doing so with BHS staff who care, who hold kids accountable, and who are experts in adolescent learning and counseling is, in my opinion, the best approach. Students received and fulfilled punishments given. Having said that, BHS administration and I can always get better at responding to serious incidents like this.  Students aren’t the only ones transforming and always learning.  While we do our best to work through complex student behavior issues, we regularly look back and review what went right and what we could have done better. Working in a high school is a daily exercise in working with kids who make all kinds of decisions that have consequences they don’t think through.  As educators, we impose consequences when rules are broken, our expectations are not met, and when community standards are deeply offended. Our daily work is in those situations to hold kids accountable and to help them learn and grow.”

~ Harvey Bravman, Publisher