An Ohio teacher who told a black eighth-grader that his friends would “lynch” him if he didn’t finish his work has been put on leave, the school district said, calling the student a “hero” for standing up to her.
The 13-year-old student, Nathan Bell, was chatting with his friends at Mason Middle School in Mason, Ohio, about 25 miles north of Cincinnati, on Dec. 4 when his social studies teacher became frustrated, his mother, Tanisha Agee-Bell, said in a phone interview Sunday.
The teacher told Nathan, who was the only black student in the class, that “if he didn’t get back on task, then his friends were going to form an angry mob and lynch him,” Agee-Bell said. Nathan responded that her comment was racist, and the teacher, Renee Thole, “kept asking him why,” Agee-Bell said.
“Her job is to teach American history to eighth-graders,” Agee-Bell said. “How can you teach American history and you don’t understand the impact of your words to your students, given our nation’s history?”
Nathan waited a week to tell his mother what happened because he was afraid he might get in trouble for having questioned an authority figure, Agee-Bell said.
Thole could not be reached for comment.
A petition on Change.org called for Thole to be fired.
The superintendent of Mason City Schools, Gail Kist-Kline, said Saturday in a statement posted on Facebook that “we understand and respect the passion of these viewpoints,” but that Thole had not been fired.
She was “formally reprimanded,” received a disciplinary report in her personnel file and was placed on administrative leave, the statement said. She will be “required to take further training” while the district investigates.
This was the first time Thole has been disciplined in more than 22 years with the district, Kist-Kline said in the statement.
She added: “It is not lost on me that this comes as we prepare to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and his legacy of fighting for justice. Dr. King reminded us that, ‘the time is always right to do what is right.’ In this case involving our teacher, the right thing to do is apologize, make amends, and take steps to be better.”
Agee-Bell responded on Facebook that the actions taken against the teacher were “a great first step.”
“I never wanted her fired,” she wrote. “I want her trained properly.”
“But just as important, I want the district to institute practices that give student and families confidence in being heard, valued and respected when they have been wronged,” she added.
The superintendent applauded Nathan because he “bravely stood up and called his teacher to account.”
“The student could have reacted poorly and could have rightfully berated the teacher for her thoughtlessness,” the statement said. “Yet, he extended grace to the teacher. The student is the hero in this story.”
In a statement Thursday, the school district, which has about 10,700 students, 4 percent of whom are black, noted that it had observed “an uptick in the number of racially and culturally insensitive comments” in its schools.
“As a district, we want to be very clear, racial slurs or any behavior that discriminates against others are NOT acceptable,” the statement said.
A spokeswoman for the district could not immediately be reached for comment.
Nathan’s experience was indicative of the “hostile racial environment” in Mason’s schools, and is only one example among many, said Agee-Bell, 43, who has served on the district’s diversity council for 12 years and is the former president of the middle school’s parent-teacher organization.
Black students have reported feeling unsafe or disrespected across the country.
In November, a physics teacher in Conyers, Georgia, was placed on paid administrative leave after telling a black student not to smile at him, because “that’s how people like you get shot.”
“I got a bet,” he added. “I bet by the time you’re 21, someone’s going to put a bullet right through your head, OK? And it might be me, the one that does it.”
In August, five black former students sued the Woodland Hills School District in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, for verbal and physical abuse, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. A few months earlier the district had commissioned an independent review of its school culture and disciplinary practices.
Recent studies have shown a pattern of discriminatory behavior in U.S. classrooms. Not only do some educators have lower academic expectations for black students, there are also glaring disparities in how black students in kindergarten through 12th grade are disciplined: They receive out-of-school suspensions at a rate nearly four times that of white students, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.
Agee-Bell said that Mason had more work ahead to address the issues experienced by black youths, but that it was also important to focus on healing.
“The community has stepped out and stepped up and said, ‘We will not tolerate this,’ and that makes me hopeful,” she said. “People are willing now to speak out.”