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How should DeKalb Schools respond to a lockdown, a video and a lapse of diligence?


A French teacher at the DeKalb School of the Arts took a student's suggestion during an August school lockdown and played a YouTube clip from the animated classic, “The Triplets of Belleville.

A robbery at a nearby store had triggered the delay in releasing students from the elite DeKalb high school, and teacher James Dickson had already turned down other French music video recommendations from his level-three French students because he was unfamiliar with the content.

But he had seen "The Triplets of Belleville," a French movie nominated for two Oscars in 2003 and celebrated as groundbreaking animation. So, he thought a three-minute YouTube clip of a musical number from the film would be safe; a decision Dickson later described in a parent email as a "lapse in diligence."

DeKalb Schools told me today Dickson is on paid administrative leave. I reached out to him via email and will share any response.

What happened next is a cautionary tale about overreactions or under reactions, depending on your point of view. First, here is the video itself:

After her daughter told her about the video that Friday afternoon, parent Nwandi Lawson complained, escalating her protests from the teacher, to the principal, district, media and the NAACP.  A few parents are frustrated at the absence of the teacher from the classroom  as a result of those complaints -- there is a substitute teacher in the class -- and the demonization of what they consider a great film. Some are upset at Lawson for her dogged attempts to shine a light on the incident.

A communications consultant and a TV producer and host, Lawson has been sharing her concerns and related emails with reporters.

I spoke to her today about the yet unknown fate of the teacher, which she said was a district matter outside of her control or knowledge. "I  am not familiar with his personnel file," Lawson said. "We are searching out a villain; we are forming sides, we are going to punish someone. There are number of parents lashing out at me."

Students should be the focus, she said, whether or not they complained about what they saw. Lawson said the adults in this setting have a responsibility to recognize the clip was harmful and an obligation to address what she considers the mocking of people of color and women.

That has yet to happen, said Lawson. She is not suggesting an all-day event; she said a well-designed 30-minute session could be enough.

The clip from the movie -- without context or preparation --  is out-of-place in a classroom. However, I would argue no teacher should lose a job over this. I agree with Lawson the clip provides a jumping off point for many deep discussion strands, but the question I asked her: What should the school do if some parents don't believe any more time should be given over to what they view as a minor misstep?

Lawson called that response "immature," saying people can't shrug off or make light of racism or sexism under the rationale "I wasn't impacted."

In addition to speaking to me, Lawson shared her views in writing:

Over two weeks have passed since students in a French class at DeKalb School of the Arts (DSA) were shown a clip from the 2003 film “The Triplets of Belleville.”

No way around it, this was an error.  The video does not further the object of studying French language, and it is replete with racist, sexist, and violent images.  No context or explanation was provided before or after the teacher showed this video.  As probably occurs daily on some level in an outstanding school like DSA, a mistake was made.  But perhaps because this error touches on matters of race that the U.S. has been very slow and awkward in addressing, the students and teacher have been given no opportunity to advance their understanding.

Parents, who addressed this matter first with the teacher and school administration and later with the school system, asked that three steps be taken to promote a culture of learning:

  • All parents with students in this class be informed of the circumstances so that they may with due speed begin to process this situation with their own children
  • Parents continue to collaborate with the teacher and administrators in a process of restoration and education for the class
  • DSA faculty and staff receive certified professional development training in the area of diversity and inclusion

Eleven days after the incident, the district was able to collaborate with the principal to send a letter to parents. Nothing more, and silence can be deafening.

Because the teacher has been absent from the classroom, parents and students, in online and in-person interactions, have formed allegiances in an imaginary battle that pits those who support the teacher against those who do not support the teacher. This mirage would never have materialized had the school simply offered to the class an opportunity to contextualize the experience of seeing the inappropriate material.  What could have been achieved in a simple lesson about the Jazz Age in France, which the film excerpt parodies, and information about the reality of Josephine Baker’s life as an entertainer and member of the French Resistance?  Could students who are focused on studying music, visual arts, dance, and drama have benefitted from an exploration of all of these forms of expression in the 1920s and analysis of “The Triplets of Belleville”?  Perhaps we will never know.  Or perhaps the school will take advantage of the many opportunities that exist to invite collaboration and facilitated dialogue through organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, Savannah College of Art and Design, The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and the YWCA.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive. There are also many local scholars and artists who would be happy to contribute to this learning experience. DeKalb County Schools still has the opportunity to stand out as a national leader in incubating centers of learning and to demonstrate constructive responses to errors made, even those that touch the sensitive areas of racism and sexism.  Will the district seize this teachable moment at this critical time in history to prepare its schools to navigate the messiness of true learning or will the silence become even louder?

Here are some of the email exchanges to give you a better sense of the discussion.

Lawson first mailed the teacher on Aug. 21. Among the concerns she outlined to him:

I am not sure what prompted you to present this misogynistic, hyper-sexualized, and racially insensitive scene to your students…My daughter is understandably disgusted by the experience she had on Friday when she was subjected, as a young woman of color, to the humiliation of viewing women and people of African descent portrayed as objects of derision and sexual folly. I don't believe she is the only student who was negatively impacted by this experience.  These students are deserving of an explanation and an apology.  I hope that you will seize this teachable moment to restore dignity to this DeKalb School of the Arts educational setting.

The teacher replied:

 Ms. Lawson,

I understand your concern. I just wanted to let you know that this was certainly not part of the lesson plan. We were still holding students in class and I allowed them to request French music, which I displayed on the Promethean Board. I had seen the movie years ago and know it is considered a "classic," but I had forgotten about this aspect of it. I did stop the video before it was finished and will definitely not show it again. It is a reminder to me to screen everything first and keep the Promethean remote handy to hit the blank/stop button in case of anything unexpected and unsavory. I apologize for this lapse in diligence.

Still alarmed, Lawson and another mother met with the principal, again seeking a discussion in the classroom and training for teachers. She also took her concerns to the NAACP, which sent this letter to DeKalb Superintendent Steve Green.

Dear Dr. Green:

It was brought to the attention of the DeKalb County Branch of the NAACP by a DSA Parent, Mrs. Lawson that a video was shown to her daughter’s French Class which they both found to be sexist/racist quite disturbing.  We also viewed the video and agree with the inappropriateness of the video and question the lack of good judgement in selecting this as an educational resource. Based on the email chain that was shared with us, it is evident that Mrs. Lawson is a very involved DSA parent and wants only the best for the school and the students enrolled there. She has gone through the proper chain of authority to get answers and has provided constructive feedback to the school and the district for correcting the damage possibly done to the students who viewed the video. She has become frustrated with the lack of responsiveness by the school and the district.

We join with Mrs. Lawson and other parents who have students in that class in requesting that the district implement the following actions to remediate the damage that may have been done to the students that viewed this inappropriate video:

•Notify all parents of students in that class that a distasteful video was shown to their children and the DeKalb School System regrets any emotional distress the video may have caused. This incident will be further addressed by the DeKalb School Administration.

•Provide DSA faculty and staff with certified professional development training in the area of cultural awareness and inclusion and diversity.

•Implement a district-wide cultural awareness and inclusion and diversity training program.

The DeKalb County Branch of the NAACP considers itself an ally and partner of DeKalb County School District and its mission to ensure student success, leading to higher education, work, and lifelong learning. Thank you for the courtesy of a response by September 8, 2017 regarding our request to address this unfortunate occurrence.

Teresa Hardy, President

NAACP DeKalb County Branch

In a statement, DeKalb Schools said:

The DeKalb County School District issued a statement regarding the video stating, “The DeKalb County School District regrets  students at the DeKalb School of the Arts were exposed to the nudity and racist caricatures contained in the video. Those images have absolutely no place in our classrooms, and the decision to show the video is totally outside of the district’s policies, expectations and standards. An investigation was conducted, and the personnel responsible for the showing have been addressed through personnel matters. Moving forward, DCSD will partner with community agencies to provide support and work to ensure that incidents like this do not happen in the future.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.