MARIANNA -- As a room full of outraged black parents watched in disgust, a middle school teacher who used a racial epithet to describe Barack Obama was able to keep his job Thursday night when a divided school board in this rural North Florida town voted to just suspend and transfer him.
The incident involving teacher Greg Howard, a 22-year teacher and football coach, has divided the town, and served as a stark reminder to many that racial tensions can easily bubble to the surface as the nation and Florida appear ready to pick the first black president.
"I'm just sick,'' said Sacrine L. Douglas, a Miami native who just moved to Marianna from Miami only to have her 12-year-old son, Jesse, experience "the worst kind of racism.''
There, in Jesse's first period geography class, Howard transformed Obama's slogan of "Change'' into an acronym by writing this on a dry-erase board: "Come Help A 'N' Get Elected?" Officials say he didn't write the slur, but verbalized it as "nigga."But Jesse's mother said that Howard actually wrote the word out.
Howard's brother, James Howard, told The Miami Herald that his brother had written the acronym after a student shared it with him. He said his brother isn't a racist and was trying to teach students how bad racial slurs were.He also wrote a letter of apology.
"This is blown out of proportion,'' Howard said.
But numerous parents said their kids told them that the teacher wasn't joking, had used racist language before and was trying to indoctrinate students into telling their parents to vote for Republican John McCain by passing out a spreadsheet that listed the Republican and Democrat policy positions in a side-by-side format.All the speakers and most of the crowd was black. The school board is all white. Another parent, Chephus Granberry said his seven-grade daughter, 12-year-old Brianna, was one of Howard's students in third period. When Howard was listing the policy proposals side-by-side, Brianna was one of three students who raised their hands during a vote on whether to support Obama's health plan. "We have three idiots in the classroom," Granberry said his daughter told him.
The angry parents demanded Howard's ouster, but outgoing Superintendent Daniel G. Sims recommended a two-week suspension without pay and a transfer out of Marianna Middle School to a Jackson County adult education school. Howard will also lose his job as a football coach and attend a diversity/sensitivity training class.Townsfolk grumbled that Howard and Sims attend the same church and might be related. Neither could be reached so we'll try to find out tomorrow.
School board attorney Frank Bondurant said the school board couldn't simply fire Howard because it first had to vote up or down on Superintendent Sims' recommendation.He said he investigated all the allegations against Howard for using alleged slurs, and found no evidence.
If the board rejected Sims' proposal, the attorney said, Howard could stay suspended with pay and go "on a paid vacation." School Board member Kenneth Griffin was noticeably bothered by that prospect,
suggesting that Sims recommend a harsher penalty by asking: "Is that all you got?''
"Yes sir,'' Sims said without looking at him. The room grumbled. One parent suggested that a "riot'' could erupt.
The final vote: 3-2 to punish Howard as recommended.
"This isn't over,'' said Tallahassee attorney Benjamin Crump, representing Douglas and her son. He said he would petition the governor and state education department to cancel Howard's teaching certificate.