Teacher has suspension reversed after student discussion over gay, racial slurs

Stephen Henry, a gay sixth-grade teacher at Creswell Arts Magnet School, was victorious in seeking a dismissal of three-day suspension that he received from Metro School officials after he had a “discussion” with a student over the use of gay and racial slurs.

The 7 – 2 decision came after a four-hour Metro School Board meeting held on Tuesday, Oct. 9. Board members Marsha Warden (chair) and Steve Glover were the only two to vote to uphold the suspension. All five African American board members voted to rescind it. Board member Ed Kindall made the motion to withdraw the suspension.

The incident occurred on May 15 at Creswell Arts Magnet School when Henry overheard an African American female student describe something as "gay." He then asked her how she would feel if he called her by a racial slur (and used a six letter slur). The student responded by saying, "How would you feel if I called you a cracker?" 

When the incident first happened, Henry had told Principal Dorothy Gunn in an email that he wanted to use the incident as a way to educate students about offensive words.

"Because it has been my practice all year long to address teachable moments when they present themselves ... I felt compelled to pursue that lesson," Henry wrote. "I stated that regardless of what one means, when emotionally-charged words are used, the intent of the speaker is often never heard or understood by those who actually hear the offending words."

He was placed on administrative leave on May 23 (with about a week left in the school year) followed by the three-day suspension. Henry appealed that decision, which lead to the four hour meeting on Tuesday.

The long meeting was more like a trial – with two attorneys representing the Metro School System taking the lead in calling witnesses for the school system and from employee relations.

“The person they were describing simply does not exist,” Henry said of the picture that was trying to be painted by school board attorneys. “It was amazing the time and effort they put forth in trying to discredit me.”

Henry said he was positive that “reason would surface” over time, which is why he appealed the initial decision handed down by the school system.

“And it did at the board meeting,” he said.

There may be some positive results from incident – Henry told Out & About Newspaper that board members Gracie Porter and Marsha Warden expressed the need for more work done by the Metro Board of Education to have diversity training, especially in the area of GLBT issues.

Henry, chair of the National Education Association (NEA)’s GLBT caucus and vice president of the Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA), has been teaching for more than 21 years. He is active in the GLBT community, and vice president of the Tennessee Equality Project.

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