Fairbanks teacher suspended after making ‘racially insensitive’ comments during class

A video clip of the classroom discussion that brought up race, policing and personal safety was uploaded to YouTube.
(Photo courtesy Fairbanks North Star Borough School District)
(Photo courtesy Fairbanks North Star Borough School District)(KTVF)
Published: May. 10, 2021 at 5:37 PM AKDT|Updated: May. 10, 2021 at 9:08 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A Fairbanks teacher’s attempt to address race, policing, justice and safety with her students resulted in her paid suspension.

In an email sent to staff and families, Lathrop High School Principal Carly Sween said she “was notified by a parent that a Lathrop teacher made racially insensitive comments during a lesson that day. After meeting with the parent, I immediately contacted the District’s Human Resources Department, EEO and the Superintendent’s Office. Subsequently, the teacher was placed on paid administrative leave, while the District initiated an investigation.”

On Monday, the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District told Alaska’s News Source the discussion occurred during a ninth grade special education class. Sween was notified about the conversation by a parent on April 28, and the letter was sent to staff and families on April 30.

While the district has not named the teacher, it appears she is Connie Gardner, identified on the school’s website as a special education teacher. The teacher in the video is identified as “Ms. Gardner” by a parent speaking during the class.

“Some of you may have seen the video a parent made of a discussion we had on April 28th, in my classroom,” states a Facebook post from a user with the name Connie Wilhelm-Gardner. “The video was uploaded to YouTube. I was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into the parent’s complaint.”

In the post, the user asks for help getting the word out and states she is hiring a lawyer to help her resolve the situation and get back into the classroom.

“It’s not just crazy white men who are out, or crazy white boys who are out shooting things. It is crazy people. ... They do have a screw loose if they’re gonna go into a school or a store or a movie theater and shoot people. Yeah, they’re crazy. And I’m not defending them. But it’s not just white guys,” the teacher can be heard saying in a video uploaded to YouTube under the user name Joshua Rose.

In the description of a GoFundMe account posted on social media, Gardner appears to be raising money for her legal fees, saying the conversation came up during a class discussion of the novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“My students made the connection to current events, and they asked me questions. I gave them honest answers,” Gardner states in the fundraising post.

Gardner did not respond to inquiries for comment.

Sween referred Alaska’s News Source to the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District for comment. The school district said it would be unable to comment until Tuesday.

In her classroom discussion, the teacher brought up examples of police fatally killing black individuals, including the shooting death of Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio.

“All the girls were black,” the teacher says in the video. “The only white person there was the cop. And he rolled up on the scene and the girl was actively trying to stab one of the other girls and then moved to the other girl.”

“If I’m the girl pinned up against the car, I’m really happy the cop was there. Because if it’s in a situation where it’s my life or your life, you better believe ... and you’re the one trying to kill me, I’m voting for me,” the teacher is heard saying in the video.

“If any of you find yourself in a situation where you are justly or unjustly being addressed by the police and ordered to do something, please comply. Do not fight with the cops. Don’t try to run away,” the teacher continued in the video.

“That’s what you do to stay alive,” she continued in the video. “Everybody, white, Black, brown, I don’t care what color you are. None of that makes a difference. You comply, you do what they say.”

“I’m an old white lady and if the cops came up to me and said ‘Ma’am put your hands behind your back you’re going to jail,’ I put my hands behind my back. And I’m going to jail and I’m calling my husband when I get there,” the teacher says.

In the video, the teacher states had George Floyd “just sidled into the car ... he would be alive today.”

Parents who heard the discussion raised concerns about the appropriateness of the conversation. When the video began to circulate. community members also spoke out.

Members of the public who testified at a May 4 school board meeting spoke against the class discussion and urged the school board to support more diversity, equity and inclusion training.

Montean Jackson, president of the NAACP’s Fairbanks chapter, spoke to Alaska’s News Source on Monday.

“Teachers can play an important role in establishing and providing students a positive, safe learning environment that offers students an opportunity to engage in critical thought to achieve optimum learning objectives,” Jackson said in an interview. “However, this video reflects a clear example of a teacher and teaching that significantly falls short and is out of line with those education expectations. The only thing that was occurring in this classroom on April 28, in my opinion, was the lesson on divisiveness, division and racism.”

“Even if the conversation was brought up initially by students, she should have stayed on track with her with her curriculum for the book ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” Jackson continued. “She should have stuck to what was the expected discussion for the day and not allowed herself to get off into personalizing. What her opinions are, what she would have done if it was her, if it was this situation and this is what happened, and this is the reason why an individual shot and killed in our nation — that was very inappropriate.”

Copyright 2021 KTUU. All rights reserved.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional quotes.