N.Y. Teacher Suspended After Alleging Racism
ED GORDON, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.
With over a million students, New York City has the largest public school system in the country. It's also one of the most diverse. But some are questioning if the system can handle that diversity. Advocates maintain issues of segregation and racism are rampant. More on that in a moment.
But first, an African American teacher in New York is suspended from her job after protesting alleged acts of racism, physical, and sexual abuse against students.
Aja Kweliona is a 24 year old graduate of Howard University in Washington DC. Eager to work with children, she joined the Teach For America program right out of college.
Ms. AJA KWELIONA (Teacher): You know, I was the young, vibrant girl who was ready to save the world; and, you know, go out into the community, and serve the children, and make sure that everybody has equal access to education.
GORDON: Aja has taught middle school students for two years at PS 18, a public school in Manhattan. She says a number of students there have been mistreated.
In February, she became fed up, after a gym teacher allegedly locked a special education student in an equipment cage and called him an animal. She took a stand, but suffered some repercussions. Here's Aja Kweliona in her own words.
Ms. KWELIONA: I walked into the gymnasium of my school, to pick up my students from gym, and to escort them to lunch. And when I walked in, I noticed that one of my students was missing. So, I asked the gym teacher, you know, where is he? What happened to him?'
And she said, is it feeding time at the zoo?
And I asked her, you know, what are you talking about? I was very confused.
And she said, well, the wild animal had to be tamed, and pointed to the equipment cage in the corner of the gym - where they keep all the balls, and tables and chairs, and things of that nature - and he was locked inside.
All of my kids were there, watching. They heard the comment that the gym teacher made. And it was a very emotional experience. I didn't know what to do at the time. I didn't know how to react.
And I went over to him. I got him out. He was angry. He was extremely angry. I talked to him in the hallway, you know, told him that I didn't support what she did to him. That that was abnormal behavior, that nobody should ever do that to him or any child, for that matter.
The principal and the assistant principal, kind of tried to paint this picture of this boy being so wild, and so unruly, and so out of control, that they didn't really know what to do with him. And really just made him to be a bad apple, almost.
And that's not the case at all. I've been with this student everyday, from 8:30 until 3:30, since September - and the worst punishment that he's ever received in my classroom, was getting his name put on the board for talking during class, which is something every child that I've worked with does.
It was appalling to me, that they would take the onus off of the gym teacher and try and put it on this child. And I know, just in my conversations with the child, he never wanted to go back to that classroom, never wanted to see that gym teacher again.
I decided to wear a t-shirt that said, I protest, on the front. And on the back, it said, Stop the unfair treatment of staff and children at PS 18.
I wore the t-shirt to get some attention around the things that were happening at the school. I was removed from class that day. I was told that I could either take the shirt off, cover it up, or risk being fired.
And you know, I told them that I wasn't going to remove the shirt, and that I was going to go back to my classroom, and teach for the rest of the day. And that's exactly what I did.
My students and I had a discussion about what protest meant, what it looked like. And I was explaining to them, you know, why I was doing what I was doing. And you know, the possible consequences that would come with that. We had a very good discussion.
My efforts to change the climate were not received at all. And I was basically told that I would be suspended until further notice, and that I would have to take a mental health evaluation.
I feel the denial of my right to free speech. It just completely appalls me. And to this day, you know, it just seems so unbelievable and so preposterous -and I can't even wrap my mind around the fact that an entire institution can support this kind of injustice.
So from this point on, I am working on creating discussion. I would like to see national discussion about what is happening to our kids, nationwide, and how it ties into institutionalized racism. How it ties into the prison industrial complex, and the criminalization of our kids. And with that discussion, I hope to see change. I hope to see people take a stand for our kids. And not only that, I hope to see students take a stand for themselves and demand that something else be done, that change be made.
This is not what I experienced as a child, and this is not something that I will tolerate for any other child in this country. So, my being very much appalled, it serves as fuel to make sure that something changes.
GORDON: Aja is still without a teaching job. She is working with a number of advocacy groups to inform the public about injustices within the public school system.
NEWS AND NOTES put out several calls to PS 18 and to the New York City Department of Education for comment. None of those calls were returned.