A Missouri high school teacher who was videotaped repeatedly using a racial slur in class has resigned from the district, while the student who took the video finishes serving a school suspension.
Mary Walton, a 15-year-old sophomore at Glendale High School in Springfield, will be allowed to return to school Wednesday after a three-day suspension for what the school district said was improper use of an electronic device.
Walton’s suspension caused controversy, with supporters including the Radio Television Digital News Association saying she was exercising her free speech rights and documenting a disturbing incident that might have otherwise been ignored.
Kate Wellborn, Walton’s mother, said in an interview Tuesday that she was "genuinely shocked" her daughter received the harshest possible punishment for recording the teacher during class last week. She said her daughter’s video clearly showed the situation and context for what happened.
"To punish someone in this situation who does the right thing, it’s absurd," Wellborn said.
Walton told her mother and others that she started videotaping the teacher after he said the slur several times, and her video captures him saying it twice. The teacher stopped when he saw she was recording.
Walton sent the video to her mother, a friend and a student in the video to ask for advice on what to do. She did not post it to social media, and it’s unclear how it quickly spread, said Natalie Hull, the family’s attorney.
The teacher, who had worked for the district since 2008, was initially placed on administrative leave and told to leave the building. His name has not been released.
Glendale principal Josh Groves said in a message to school employees and families last week that the comments expressed in the video were inappropriate and did not meet the Springfield district’s professional standards.
Walton was preparing to head to school Friday when she and her mother were notified she had been suspended, although Wellborn had to go to the school to find out the reason for the suspension.
Hull asked the district during the weekend to allow Walton to return to school on Monday, but officials declined. Walton did not record the teacher to get attention and doesn’t understand what she did wrong or why she was punished so harshly, Hull said.
Stephen Hall, a spokesperson for the school district, said in a statement that the district could not discuss specifics about its actions for the "unacceptable classroom incident."
He said the student handbook is clear about consequences for inappropriate use of electronic devices, which would consider if other minors were identifiable and suffered because of a "violation of privacy."
"SPS is confident that the district appropriately and promptly handled all matters related to what occurred at Glendale," Hall said. "We want our schools to be safe and welcoming learning environments. When students have concerns, they should follow the appropriate steps for reporting."
The policy on use of electronic devices includes a line that says, "The prohibited conduct includes such things as audio or visual recording of faculty or staff in the classroom; acts of violence; disruptions to the school environment; or other acts prohibited by the District’s Disciplinary Guidelines."
Hull said the district needs to reexamine the policy because it does not allow students to capture evidence of any wrongdoing, including possible crimes or misconduct. She also said it was unreasonable to expect young students to know the "proper channels" for reporting such events.
"Frankly, many of them don’t know if they’ll be believed," Hull said. "It makes sense that they would feel the need to capture hard evidence and indisputable evidence."
In a letter to Springfield Superintendent Grenita Lathan, Dan Shelley, president and CEO of the Radio Television Digital News Association, urged her to reconsider Walton’s punishment.
He said several court decisions have upheld citizens’ rights to record activity in public places and that the district’s policy on use of electronic devices "flies in the face" of those rights.
"The student says she was recording the teacher’s alleged racist remarks for the express purpose of making a record of the incident should the events in the classroom at that moment come into dispute," Shelley wrote. "In our opinion, that makes her a lawful whistleblower, not a delinquent. She should be congratulated, not punished."
Hull said Walton’s supporters are hoping the district will apologize to Walton, expunge the suspension from her record and take the opportunity to show students it is all right to acknowledge making a mistake.
Wellborn said the district has not apologized and has said it will not remove the suspension from her daughter’s record.