A Wisconsin school district is reviewing its zero-tolerance policy on racial slurs after hundreds of students, teachers, and community members protested the firing of a black security guard who told a student not to call him the n-word.
Marlon Anderson was fired from his position at Madison West High School last week after the security guard said the n-word during an incident with an unruly student. The 48-year-old, who has worked for the district for 11 years, was escorting a disruptive teenager out of the high school building on Oct.9.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the student, who is also black, had pushed the school's assistant principal and was shouting expletives at Anderson. In response to being called the n-word, the guard told the teen not to call him that and repeated the slur.
Madison Metropolitan School District officials then fired Anderson on Wednesday, citing their zero-tolerance policy for using racial slurs. Their action prompted protests in the community as well as from educators around the country, who said the policy is harmful, lazy, and disproportionately impacts black students and staff.
A Change.org petition for Anderson to get his job back has amassed nearly 11,800 signatures. On Saturday, community leaders wrote an open letter to the district outlining recommendations for how to handle future issues involving the racial slur policy, such as putting the "accused employee on 'paid leave' until all the facts are on the table."
On Friday, as hundreds of Madison students and teachers marched in support of Anderson, former US secretary of education Arne Duncan tweeted that the school district "needs to grow a brain, and a heart, really quickly!"
"I’ve seen some crazy things over the years, but this is one of the worst," Duncan wrote. "Just more evidence our country still can’t handle issues of race, and racism."
Gathered outside school district headquarters, student leaders included Anderson's 17-year-old son Noah, who said that his father's firing underscored how minorities are often mistreated and maligned, NBC 15 reported.
"There has been tension in the MMSD for a while, and my dad just had to be a sacrifice for it," he said.
The high schooler, who is also president of the school's Black Student Union, said that the students and faculty are demanding deeper, institutional change.
“Anything that has to do with us, our voices will be heard from now on,” Noah Anderson said at Friday's protest. “We started with just being straight up with them, what we wanted as students, and that we want our voices to be heard any time you make any type of decision. And that they need to go into the communities any time they make a decision that affects a certain group of people.”
After their walkout, student leaders met with administrators for nearly two hours, and both sides told local reporters that the conversation was constructive. In a statement after the discussion, the district's interim superintendent, Jane Belmore, thanked students for challenging officials to do better and added district leaders would be discussing its process for responding to racial slurs.
"All of us here know that education is a dynamic social process. Sometimes it gets messy when we have to grapple together around deeply held values like what it means to be anti-racist," she said. "It is often difficult to find the best way forward to determine what are the right actions to take while always holding what is best for you students at the center. But grapple we must."
Gloria Reyes, the school board president, told WKOW that she will meet with administrators about Anderson's firing on Monday. In a statement, Reyes also said the board will review how it punishes staff for using racial slurs.
This isn't the first time the district has come under fire for terminating a teacher for using a racial slur during an exchange with a student. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that last year, at least seven faculty members were fired or had resigned due to the zero-tolerance policy.
Madison Teachers Inc., which represents teachers and other district employees, confirmed that the union is appealing Anderson's firing.
Anderson has been vocal and emotional about his termination and his community's supportive response, sharing photos, videos, articles, and prayers to his Facebook.
"I have cried so much watching you guys on social media my head lost weight," the former security guard said on Friday. "Today America witnessed the best of us, many different races, faiths, cultures, all together..."
He has also been open about how losing his job will hurt his wife and three sons and impact his health. In a post thanking the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County for giving him a job in the interim, Anderson wrote that he relies on insulin and urgently needs health insurance.
"The reality is I did not just loose wages but also benefits. Most importantly we will soon be without health insurance... which makes the loss that much more impactful to myself and my family," he said.
His colleagues have set up a GoFundMe to help support the family as they go through the appeal process, calling Anderson "the bedrock and heart of the Mad West community."
"Not only does he speak truth to our students, staff, and families, but he backs up that truth with his actions. In a school of over 2,300 students and 200 staff, Marlon has the desire and uncanny ability to remember every single person’s name," the page said. "He can read what each person needs with a simple look, and generously fills that need with love: a kind word, a silly song, a loving-but-firm warning. Whatever is needed, Marlon provides it or finds someone who can. He is an exemplar of Black Excellence and is a role model for students and staff alike."
In an interview with the Journal Sentinel, Anderson said that he hopes the district understands how using blanket policies on matters of race can hinder progress and meaningful changes.
"We have been labeled this word, that was given to us in oppression, to pretty much keep us in those chains mentally that we used to be in physically," he told the newspaper. "The problem is [kids] identify their skin as that word … I try to make it a teaching moment."