Lee Rood, The Des Moines Register 2:26 p.m. EDT June 9, 2014
DES MOINES, Iowa — The mother of a black student who says a teacher told him to refer to him as “master” is seeking details on how the district disciplined the instructor.
Roosevelt High School senior Jabre White said teacher Shawn McCurtain told a group of students to head downstairs to take their final in economics.
“Yes, sir,” Jabre recalls telling him.
“You meant to say, ‘Yes, sir, master,’ ” McCurtain allegedly shot back.
That comment stunned, hurt and angered White, a popular student at the high school that had 1,708 students last school year. It troubled his mother even more.
Nicholle White of West Des Moines contacted The Des Moines Register, wanting to know why school officials would not disclose how they responded after the educator was said to have used a slur reminiscent of the slave era.
“I have tried to be humble,” she said of her dealings with school officials. “But I also feel I need to express as a mother, and as a black woman, how I feel.”
After she found out about the exchange in mid-May, White said, she asked school officials to look into it. According to emails she forwarded to the newspaper, Vice Principal Joseph Blazevich investigated and confirmed the comment was made.
Blazevich wrote to White that he thought the incident was “terrible” and “shameful,” and added that “the instructor was very remorseful.” However, he noted that he could not say what disciplinary action was pursued because district personnel matters are confidential under state law.
District officials don’t deny the comment happened, either. Spokesman Phil Roeder said district policy clearly bars any form of discrimination, including comments, by an employee toward a student. “To put it mildly, it was wrong in every way you look at it,” he said.
Roeder also confirmed McCurtain is still employed by the district. McCurtain couldn’t be reached at his district email, and his phone number was unlisted.
I have tried to be humble. But I also feel I need to express as a mother, and as a black woman, how I feel.
Nicholle White, Jabre White’s mother
White said she reached out to the school board this month because she fears the matter was handled lightly and believes the remark warranted more than a reprimand in McCurtain’s file. She said she thinks the teacher needs to undergo diversity training — or if he’s already had some, more.
Blazevich said all school employees are required to take cultural-competency training that helps them relate with students from a variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.
White said she plans to contact the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and the NAACP.
McCurtain called her this month to apologize, White said, saying he meant the comment to be humorous. Still, she said, she didn’t find him sincere.
A busy teen, making strides — but not perfect
Nicholle White and her 17-year-old son concede he’s not a perfect teen.
In fact, after hearing McCurtain’s comment, Jabre admits he said: “Who the f— are you talking to? You’re nobody’s master, and this is not the slave days.”
But in his last two years at Roosevelt, Jabre White made so many strides as a student that first-year Principal Kevin Biggs singled him out for praise at graduation.
Biggs awarded Jabre the school’s Wanda Everage Award, given to a senior who best “embodies qualities of respect and responsibility to Roosevelt.”
Jabre said McCurtain was only assisting another economics teacher on the day of the comment.
But McCurtain “always had something smart to say” to him in the two prior school years, Jabre said. He said he asked his regular economics teacher to talk directly to him, and not go to McCurtain, if there were any problems with his behavior in economics class.
Bound for Iowa State University next fall, White regularly attends church, sings in choirs, holds a job and serves as vice president of the World Youth Leadership Academy at Creative Visions, a nonprofit where his mom also volunteers.
Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, who runs the program, said he also was offended to hear that a Des Moines teacher would make such a comment, and he believes parents should have a right to know how such a complaint was handled.
“The incident also raises questions about what kind of training educators are getting, especially since we just got another report about black students doing poorly in Iowa,” he said.
About 22 percent of Roosevelt’s students are African-American, 54 percent are white and 11 percent are Hispanic. The 2012 national report that Samad referenced tracked public education and black males, finding that Iowa’s graduation rate for black males was 41 percent, compared with 90 percent for whites.
Complaint to state could take time
White’s query reveals a contradiction of sorts in Iowa law regarding teacher discipline.
While Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code prohibits the disclosure of personnel matters, Chapter 272 makes public the final written decisions of the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners.
If White wants to pursue the matter further, Roeder said she could file a complaint with that state board — but should be prepared to wait months for a resolution.
A review of the board’s decisions in recent years suggests a suspension or license revocation would be unlikely.
In the past three years, just three Des Moines teachers out of about 3,000 cases have had their licenses suspended or revoked by the board, records show.