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Looking beyond ‘might supremacist’ school principal to the deeper issues

In New Orleans, we took down four Confederate monuments last month. But living tributes to white supremacy are still among us. Racist teachers and schools with discriminatory policies hurt black children every day. Along with the statues, we must topple the structures that create unconscious and conscious biases against black students.

YouTube/Abdul Aziz

In a still from an alt-right video, Nicholas Dean brandishes rings with what some called Nazi emblems.

On May 25, the Nevada-based management group of the New Orleans charter school, Crescent Leadership Academy, announced it was firing its principal, Nicholas Dean. He had been spotted in a photograph standing next to a man holding a Confederate flag in Lee Circle, where the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee was scheduled to be taken down later that day.

Dean originally claimed he was just there to witness an historical event. But it didn’t take long for his leanings to become apparent. Three days later, a video surfaced of him being interviewed on an alt-right podcast. Dean, who is white, wore two rings often associated with white nationalism; one was emblazoned with what was described as the Nazi SS skull and the other with the German iron cross. Rite of Passage, the chain that manages Crescent Leadership Academy, then determined he wasn’t a good fit for the job.

For three years Dean led Crescent Leadership Academy, a last-chance school for students who have been expelled. Eighty-four percent of Crescent’s student body is black. The termination of someone who, ridiculously, describes himself as a “might supremacist” (as opposed to a white one) shouldn’t distract us from bigger questions. We should demand to know how Dean was hired in the first place, and, moreover, why he lasted so long in the position. But there are bigger issues at hand: namely, the dubious merits of second-chance schools.

Since his firing, Dean has taken to social media with contentions about the so-called hypocrisy of race and liberalism that burdens white people. Liberals, according to him, think all white people are racist.

In a video he posted to YouTube in June, Dean disavowed white supremacy. In another video, published two weeks ago, which Dean called a personal address to his former students, staff and community partners, he attempted to explain his jewelry and proximity to the Confederate sympathizers at Lee Circle. (He said the skull ring is a Mexican “Day of the Dead” ring and the iron cross ring he wore didn’t have a swastika, therefore wasn’t a Nazi emblem. Dean also said he went to rallies to defend the right of supporters to protest the monuments’ removal.)

The Dean scandal, terrible though it is, should not obscure the bigger picture: We need to examine the porous systems that would allow a Nicholas Dean to work in our public schools.

Almost one hundred years of Jim Crow segregation, on top of approximately four centuries of slavery, have left their mark on New Orleans. Racist systems, attitudes and practices have outlasted the Confederate monuments here. Black children aren’t born inferior; the educational disparities between the races reflect our societal structures and investments.

Bigotry among those educating our kids may not be such a rarity. According to a 2014 report by the Perceptions Institute, a think tank that explores unconscious bias, “Few teachers are likely to admit to others (or even to know themselves) that they hold students to different standards or have varying expectations based on race or ethnicity.”

Also in May, one of the teachers at Ben Franklin High School was fired for using the N-word in class. Unlike such obviously inflammatory language, cultural ignorance and unconscious bias can be inconspicuous, but they are no less injurious than outright discrimination.

Firing a racist teacher isn’t enough — schools must also address the trauma that person caused. A 2016 Northwestern University study found negative psychological and physiological responses to perceived discrimination in school, and it led to impaired cognitive functioning and academic performance. For students who have already felt the brunt of biased expulsion policies, administrators of Crescent Leadership Academy must make amends immediately.

But it’s important to see the bigger picture, the forest for the trees. For instance: What due diligence did Rite of Passage conduct before hiring Dean, and who else of his caliber did they hire? What checks are in place to ensure those mistakes aren’t repeated? How are Crescent students dealing with these revelations, and are their social and emotional needs being met?

All along we should have been asking why we need a Crescent Leadership Academy, because as long as last-chance academies exist, students won’t get a fair shake in regular schools. Camelot, Rite of Passage’s predecessor, also failed miserably, racking up numerous citations of abuse and neglect of students in their 10 years running schools in three states. Principals at last-chance schools whose funding depends on the number of children enrolled are bound to behave a bit like wardens.

In addition, schools should re-evaluate principals annually around issues of equity. When will we base school quality assessments on indicators of reduced discrimination? We should expect regular schools to do better and bring students up to their standards rather than washing their hands of their charges and sending them to last-chance academies such as Crescent. We should focus on inclusive hiring practices and insist on community and parental engagement. Those indicators of success should be as important as conventional academic measures.

Though his firing was necessary, ex-principal Dean can’t simply be the patsy; we must reassess the system that birthed Crescent.

The rest of us must remove the vestiges of discrimination that drag down the chances of success for students of color. Taking down symbols such as Confederate monuments, racist school mascots and ending racially segregated school events are vital but limited steps. We must go further: by banning no-tolerance discipline policies, corporal punishment, expulsion and suspension, and removing the need for last-chance academies to exist at all.

Racist policies are the concealed monuments to inequality we skirt, just as if they were Robert E. Lee statues in the middle of town.

Educator Andre Perry hosts the WBOK1230 radio show “Free College” on Tuesdays at 3 p.m. CDT. He can be reached at drandreperry@gmail.com or (504) 260-9265.

This story was produced in association with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.

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Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

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