OPINION: Was freedom of speech curtailed? High school teacher gets no say in controversy

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pix caption:  California Assemblyman James Ramos, (D-Highland) speaking at a special Riverside Unified School District meeting with Tribal leaders. (Darlene Dukelow-Burton | Viewpoints)
By Darlene Dukelow-Burton

Many times, the public will hear unpleasant stories in the news about a person’s actions or a contentious speech they made. 

Even if we think we hear all the details of the incident by seeing the story’s bare bones, we may still only have part of the story. How many people will read the whole news article or read the detailed follow-up stories? Some people get fired because of public opinion’s first reaction.

One such case was a story that broke in October 2021. Candice Reed, a John W. North High School math teacher, performed a version of Native American-style dance and chant for her students in class. Rene Hill, a Riverside Unified School District board member, called Reed’s behavior “insulting and marginalizing to Native Americans.”

The math STEM teacher donned a construction paper headdress and started war whoops and chanting. She enacted some kind of dance up and down the classroom while doing a tomahawk chop to emphasize each sound of a mathematical formula. 

A startled Native American student in that class session recorded a video of Reed’s dance. He showed his father, a local Tribal council member, who uploaded it to the internet, and the act went viral. The public reaction was not good.

Reed was not crazy and did have a reason to perform this way. She told her principal and the Riverside Unified School District she was acting out the “SOH-CAH-TOA,” an acronym for the three basic trigonometric functions. She allegedly performed this dance and chant to imprint the formula into the students’ heads. 

She was put on leave for several months and was officially fired in a 4-1 vote by the district board.

What is a STEM teacher, and how readily does everyone know what a STEM subject taught in school is? STEM refers to the critical subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These are the fundamental subjects taught in schools and are challenging to teach, and it is a lot harder to find good teachers trained in these subjects.

The video was cringeworthy, but I didn’t get the impression that she did it for any other reason. I do not believe Reed intended any prejudice despite her odd performance. I think she genuinely did this to help her students and had success with it, which is why she repeated it over the years. The students remembered the formula on their tests because of her technique. 

So, why did she choose a Native American approach? Perhaps she did it out of social ignorance and thought that the formula sounded like some Native dialect. 

After the video hit social media, no one publicly heard from Reed. She had no chance to vocally defend herself from the school district after the first massive surge of public outcry. She was also criticized by many who assumed she had not apologized. She did apologize, but the school district legally bound her to stay out of sight and remain silent in public. Her silencing also made her look bad.

Looking at this story from another perspective, you could come to believe that Reed’s rights to freedom of speech have been drastically curtailed.

Perhaps, years down the road, she might be able to appeal this decision by the school district through the teacher’s union — that is if she still wants to be a teacher, an often stressful and thankless job, as she well knows.

We should ask ourselves, would the story have blown up so big, or would she have been fired if she could have made herself heard? Would the insult have been so harsh if she had been able to speak out? 

Most of the local Native American tribes and communities in the three surrounding counties, did not call for her dismissal. Instead, they suggested that all school districts add ethnic sensitivity training for their faculty to take. 

California Assemblymember James Ramos, D-Highland, former San Manuel Indian Reservation chairman, also promoted an ethnic studies program as a graduation requirement in all school curriculums. “We can’t reverse 171 years of falsehood and mythology overnight, but we can start,” Ramos affirmed.

Perhaps these classes are the single silver lining to come out of the cloud hanging over the incident. There will be some needed sensitivity training for teachers and school districts and an ethnic studies course teaching the truth for the betterment of the students.

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