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

While a film rating group says this 2003 Academy Award nominated movie is acceptable for children 12 and over, a DeKalb teacher was reprimanded for showing a clip to his high school class.

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.

 While Common Sense Media, which rates movies for family viewing, deems “The Triplets of Belleville” as appropriate for children 12 and older, the clip showed some of the film’s wildest scenes, including parodies of American-born French performer Josephine Baker’s banana skirt skit and hoofer Fred Astaire being eaten by his tap shoes.

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.”

Your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

68 comments
Kate Maloney
Kate Maloney

AJC Get Schooled do you have an update? I have not been able to forget about this educator?

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

Reassigned to an elementary school.

Dianne Gray Rutland
Dianne Gray Rutland

When will this BS end with parents lashing oujt at teachers. I didn't see any white parents of white overweight daughters claiming any damages and what about those weakling white men. The entire video is really disgusting and not any single episode. People of all backgrounds need to learn to deal with life which, at this point, they are being sheltered and taught to bully ith lawsuits wwhich is exactly what this parent did to the school system and the teacher.

Jamie Lynn Wills
Jamie Lynn Wills

After the teacher responded to the parent email with an apology, the parent should have dropped it. Teachers are human. We make mistakes. Instead, she has robbed students of a great educator. Shame on her. I would like to see her do this job day in and day out for 30 years without a misstep.

Janice Lewis
Janice Lewis

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.”

Warren Winter
Warren Winter

Holy cow, these must be the same people protesting 'Gone with the Wind'. These things exist, they have merit. What kind of sheltered life are you protecting?

McGarnagle
McGarnagle

I am late to the conversation but let me say this is much ado about nothing. The school or teacher should apologize and move on. Seems one of the parents was not happy with just an apology. Not sure what her past experience, but felt marginalized. Unfortunately alot of this stems from past experiences and so this one incident doesn't tell the entire story.


And I would add Triplets of Belleville is a beautiful film. I saw it when it first came out and its one of the best films I have seen. Certainly not everyones cup of tea as it can be a dark film but it has heart and creativity. Loved it.

kudcom
kudcom

While this was an unfortunate incident, fortunately the school is a magnet school that is part of DeKalb's school choice program. Any unsatisfied parent is free to move their student to the high school that is in their home attendance zone

RetiredEducator
RetiredEducator

This incident is unfortunate on so many levels. Had the school not been on lockdown, the teacher would not have been scrambling to fill the time with something educational. Had the teacher not been removed from the classroom, he would most likely have made an apology to the class and put the clip in historical perspective. Had Mrs. Lawson not presumed that this lapse in judgment (showing video without previewing it) was actually a glimps into the culturally unaware and prejudiced minds and hearts of every DCSS employee, the district would not now be in a situation so complicated by the involvement of organizations and lawyers that it cannot respond in a manner that addresses the reality of what happened. Had the teacher not been removed from the classroom, the students would not have missed two weeks of instruction.

I believe many teachers have made the mistake of using a film or some other resource without vetting it first. I did in my early years of teaching in the early 1980s. Fortunately for me, the film on the cattle industry in Australia only showed the rear end of a running bull. Nonetheless, I have tremendous empathy for this teacher, and I was relieved to read that he is reported to be an effective teacher and good guy.

A teacher who demonstrates a lapse of judgement deserves at the least counseling from an administrator. A classroom of students who has been exposed to an offensive clip of video deserves a sincere apology and an opportunity to process and understand what they viewed. Every parent of students in the class deserves the same. Anything more should require more evidence of bad intent than the blog has indicated.

Theresa Pinilla
Theresa Pinilla

I think the teacher was trying to make the best of a difficult situation. He tripped over some truly awful imagery, which I had also forgotten about. The apology was direct and sincere. It's a shame Mrs. Lawson was more interested in punishment rather than students' opportunity to learn from this. As a result, what they are learning is that teachers can be removed from the classroom for all manner of reasons, with no regard for needs of students. We do our best. I wonder, if the kids had seen this movie at a friend's house would it be equally Upsetting?

becky63
becky63

Wonder how much rap music that degrades women and blacks this girl listens to

insideview
insideview

@becky63 This is not a nice comment. Leave the student out of  this , she is not responsible for her mother's actions.

redweather
redweather

@insideview @becky63 Except that according to the mother the daughter was "disgusted by the experience." Disgust, much like outrage, sure ain't what it used to be.

Babycat
Babycat

Well, at least the weather is getting cooler so the snowflakes won't melt as fast!  My guess is the Mom thought she had done won the lottery!

BAW
BAW

 I think this clip is most offensive to fat women and scrawny husbands.  A quick look at historical clips and photos on youtube reveals that the parody of Josephine Baker was a depiction of one of her actual stage acts.  Who would have thought that a woman (of any race) would be gyrating topless with a skirt made out of bananas on stage in the 1920's?  You can't even see that at the Cheetah in 2017.
I propose that the French class do an in depth study of the life and times of Josephine Baker, she looks like a fascinating person/subject.

khd713
khd713

Social Justice Warriors like Ms. Lawson, with their misplaced hysteria and reactionary righteousness, are cleaving a jagged schism in our country. Fortunately, her side is much in the minority and does not have a bright future, but that fact cannot prevent the damage she and her ilk can do in the meantime. After all, she has on her side the vast resources of the DeKalb School District. By putting the teacher on leave and calling in the ADL, they've already made it clear where they stand. This poor guy doesn't stand a chance. Oh, fear not; Ms. Lawson and her minions will extract their pound of flesh. They will make this man pay dearly for the horrible sin he has committed, and the modern-day witch-hunters will claim another trophy.


In what can be described only as palpable irony, Ms. Lawson says that those who disagree with her hold "immature" views. This from one who clearly cannot tell the difference between art and reality, between a teachable moment and a crime. Here we go again. While she values her viewpoint as the more mature one, it nevertheless is not sophisticated enough to see a bigger picture. Her rashness will be her undoing. It's how we ended up with our current President, and how we will end up with many more like him until this insanity finally, once and for all, ceases. 

Starik
Starik

This is the sort of stupid stuff from the left that gave us Donald Trump. This is a high school. This mother should have been ignored, or at the very least lectured on the big bad world as it really exists. Total nonsense.

Babycat
Babycat

By the way, French culture is definitely different and if the students go to France at any time for educational purposes, shouldn't they know more about the culture?

knight490
knight490

@Babycat Sure, it sounds like that's exactly the kind of thing the parent requested and the school denied.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

I am writing a follow to this now, but in the meantime, here is a followup from DeKalb Schools today:


We do have an update. After conferring with the Region II Regional Superintendent’s Office, here are the additional steps we are taking at DSA:

We are in discussions with the Anti-Defamation League to determine services they can provide to the school.

We have taken steps to examine our approach to cultural sensitivity. The Professional Learning Division and Legal Affairs divisions are assisting with a response to address this concern of Ms. Lawson as well.

Additionally, the school’s Counselor held a session with the students in the class the week after the event happened and allowed students to discuss the matter and other issues around the images from the movie.

kaelyn
kaelyn

Wow. The Anti Defamation League? My opinion (and I'm an African American) is this is overkill. The man made a mistake and then sincerely apologized. If he's an otherwise decent teacher, he needs to be IN his classroom. Is there more to this story than what I've read because I just can't see shaming someone for what looks to be an honest mistake. DeKalb has much bigger fish to fry than this.

I get that the mom is upset, but this has to be put into perspective. It was a cartoon and her child is in high school (a very diverse one, at that). An apology was issued and the counselor spoke with the kids. I'm certainly no right winger, but I must say this is PC gone off the rails.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@kaelyn I am now hearing from other parents and this teacher is apparently known as being a rule follower, an enforcer of dress codes and a good guy. He lives in a diverse community and is well respected on the school council as a teacher member. More importantly, he is considered a strong French teacher, which seems a critical factor to me. These kids are without a teacher for two weeks already.

The district was handling this but the media attention and the NAACP involvement has now raised the stakes, according to parents. 

I was also told that most kids reported no ill consequences from the brief viewing of the clip, so I question how many of them will value any more intervention or counseling.

redweather
redweather

@kaelyn My daughter attended that very diverse high school. Everything they did was very mature. I still can't forget their Sweeney Todd of a few years ago.

redweather
redweather

@MaureenDowney @kaelyn  During the 1950s, Baker frequently returned to the United States to lend her support to the Civil Rights Movement, participating in demonstrations and boycotting segregated clubs and concert venues. In 1963, Baker participated, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., in the March on Washington, and was among the many notable speakers that day. In honor of her efforts, the NAACP eventually named May 20th “Josephine Baker Day.”

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@kaelyn I am being told the external pressures on the district are influencing the direction and intensity of this review. (And there are attorneys in the mix.) DeKalb has made a commitment to diversity and to students feeling comfortable in schools. So, it takes these issues seriously. Whether this one is being taken too seriously is generating a lot of debate within the school. 

Starik
Starik

@MaureenDowney @kaelyn DeKalb has not made a commitment to diversity. They are committed to racial segregation, so blacks can feel "comfortable," nothing else. They betray the Civil Rights Movement.

kaelyn
kaelyn

Maureen, so now the reasonable adults in charge need to put an end to this. The parent's concerns were heard. The teacher has been reprimanded. Students are now losing out on instructional time. That mom can call me and I'd be glad to give her a dozen REAL problems with DCSS she can spend time complaining about.

dsw2contributor
dsw2contributor

@MaureenDowney @kaelyn 

Two weeks out of the classroom?  That's nuts!

Back in 2015, a Dekalb teacher was caught ON VIDEO choking Ravon Handley, an 11-year old black boy.  The principal of that Dekalb school recommended the choker be fired, but she had sorority sisters in high places:  the Palace decided to only suspend her without pay for three days.

(The Palace then lied to you and 11Alive, telling you guys that the three day suspension was what the Principal recommended.)

Since choking a child only warrants a three day suspension, it seems terribly unfair to me that a 3-minute video would warrant a two plus week suspension!

DSA Parent with a brain
DSA Parent with a brain

DSA is overwhelming African American. I guess they need to exclude talented African American students in order for you to consider the school diverse.

Make no mistake, the students are ALL talented. If you'd ever attended a performance of any of the disciplines, you wouldn't think they were at DSA simply to appease the community. They ALL must go through rigorous auditions in order to attend the school and, if you think DeKalb is prejudiced, then DSA would be primarily white (showing preference). Oh, wait. You're wrong.

Regrettably, the parents can be dumb as dirt. DSA isn't perfect, but this is one idiot parent.

Babycat
Babycat

Wow, disciplined for this?  In that case, the Principal and Assistant Principal at Lakeside should have been suspended for the lax in judgement by allowing that "Promposal" garbage.  What do they think the kids watch on MTV anyway?

Polymath42
Polymath42

The movie's rating presumes that those students age 12 and over are also at a mental level consistent with age.  Based on other stories about DeKalb, I'm not sure too many people there would qualify.

Michelle Watson
Michelle Watson

Definite lapse in judgement. I wouldn't want to see it myself, and so would not want my child watching it, either. I made a similar mistake once, though. I assured some parents of a group of girls from church that a film was okay to watch and that it had mild cussing. Boy was I wrong! We sat down to watch it and I was shocked at how much cussing was in it and how I didn't realize it during my previous viewings. I am glad no one hung all my faults out on a line for all to see over that one incident.

redweather
redweather

@BBtheKing It's probably a safe bet every Nicki Minaj video is "hyper-sexualized," but that's opening another can of worms.

1Fred
1Fred

It is hard for the teacher to have meaning discussions with the students about the issues raised in the clip since he has been suspended since it was brought to the attention of DCPS.  Having said this, I would very surprised if the students in a level three French class (probably tenth or eleventh grade) have not seen worse by this point in their lives.  If it is such a problem, then the parent should use it as a teaching moment and discuss the issues with their child.  If you go through life looking to be offended by everything/anything, then you will be offended.  I am dismayed that today's standards are constantly applied to historical times where they didn't or don't apply.  I would think that we could recognize that while acknowledging that something from the past doesn't match with today's standards could be tempered with dicussions of the why, when, where of era of its creation.  The teacher recognized there was an issue but then the parent made a mountain of a molehill.  I've taught my kids to be more tolerant of differing opinions and situations and to not get so worked up.

1Fred
1Fred

@knight490 @1Fred  I understand that.  It is however about the 1920s and is an attempt to portray those times.

redweather
redweather

@1Fred I made the same points in my letter to the DeKalb NAACP.

Ignorance-Is-Bliss
Ignorance-Is-Bliss

The NAACP?  Seriously? 

How about a lawsuit against the Common Sense Media?  

Definitely need to get some grief counselors in there for those traumatized students (who have probably seen worse, but not cartoons I'm sure)!  

History is about the good, the bad & the ugly.  I think it would be a good idea to ask Ms. Lawson to decide what parts of history are acceptable to acknowledge. (I'm guessing the holocaust should be on the banned list).  Another opportunity for her to grandstand for political office?

Not justifying but this all seems over the top.  Seriously?

alt-ajc.4
alt-ajc.4

More than anything else, Hillary Clinton owes her November defeat to such political correctness gone mad and her association with it. 

The rest of us should be grateful it exists.

Ficklefan
Ficklefan

@alt-ajc.4 Absolutely correct. TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome) apparently become a permanent type of mental illness on the Left. Political Correctness on Steroids is one of many of its disturbing symptoms. And I will confess that the TDS is becoming tedious and tiresome. Recent example. Melania Trump wore stilletoes from the White House to the helicopter when she went with her husband to visit Texas last week, and donned the politically correct sneakers once in Texas. But the TDS hysteria raged nonetheless. Just as it is raging here. 


Big problem every where now. The astonishing ignorance of American history and world history makes it impossible for the Snowflake generation to put any thing into proper perspective. 


For them, the study of history is the study of the past through the present day rose colored glasses of modern, arrogant, condescending, and self-righteous judgment. Yes. Josephine Baker was a very avant garde artiste in her time. But expecting a Snowflake to know or understand any thing about her or her place in art or history is just about five or six bridges too far. 

TinaYoung
TinaYoung

You don't remember the right going nuts because Michele Obama wore a sleeveless outfit? It's so easy to call the other side over the top but no "snowflake" I know gets off chanting "lock him up".

I do agree the response is over the top and folks should look at videos of Josephine Baker performing and into her life. She was an intelligent woman and the video does not demean her.

Starik
Starik

More DeKalb Schools absurdity.