Those steps have included emphasizing to North High teachers “the need to immediately address insensitivity and bias,” and providing content for events such as Halloween and Thanksgiving to make sure they are observed in an accurate historical context that respects various cultures, according to a statement from the Riverside Unified School District board and Superintendent Renee Hill.
The district also is “convening an action team” to develop a plan for expanding diversity, equity and inclusion training, the statement said.
As for the teacher involved, she is on paid administrative leave, district spokesperson Diana Meza said Tuesday, Nov. 9. The district has not confirmed the employee’s identity.
“Fact-finding will occur and after the fact-finding stage, decisions will be made regarding the correct process and steps to be taken,” the statement read. “Although the time that the process takes may be frustrating to some, there is no way to shortcut the process.”
The Oct. 19 incident in a North math class came to light when a video shot by a student was posted on social media and rapidly went viral. The video showed the teacher putting on a faux Native American headdress and dancing around a classroom, moving her arms in a chopping motion. In the video, which hit social media Wednesday, Oct. 20, and blew up on the internet, the teacher appears to be sharing with students the word “SohCahToa,” a mnemonic device used to help students remember an advanced mathematics concept.
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The incident apparently wasn’t the first. A 2012 North High yearbook contains a picture of and quote from the same teacher, deploying the same teaching tactic, according to a North alumnus who graduated that year, Riverside resident Kim Kirkpatrick. There was a caption saying the teacher was “dancing from one end of the room to the other” and wearing “an Indian headdress to emphasize” a math concept, Kirkpatrick said.
School board President Tom Hunt said Monday, Nov. 8, that the district needs to determine how North’s leadership apparently missed something that was prominently displayed in a yearbook.
“We need to look at how this could happen on a campus for as many years as it probably did,” Hunt said.
At the same time, Hunt said he’s confident district schools will treat students of diverse cultures better going forward.
“I’m a firm believer that in every crisis there is an opportunity,” he said, citing the 1965 fire bombing of Lowell School that prompted educators to integrate Riverside schools. “And this is an opportunity.”
James Fenelon, director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at Cal State San Bernardino and a member of the Dakota/Lakota tribe, said the district’s primary focus shouldn’t be on whether the teacher with her “unacceptably racist behaviors” should be fired.
Fenelon said it is easy to blame a specific person rather than deal with a type of behavior or attitude that he suggests may be common than district officials want to admit.
“What they need to do is recognize that they have a problem. This is connected to systemic racism,” he said. “How are they going to deal with behaviors that may not be as outrageous, that may not be as in your face?”
Fenelon said he is hopeful for change, citing California’s recent passage of a bill by Assembly Member Jose Medina, D-Riverside, to require by 2030 that California high school students pass an ethnic studies class to graduate.
“They (school officials) have an opportunity to use this and the new ethnic studies requirement to address their systemic and school problems in a meaningful way, and in concert with local Native American consultants,” he said.
Riverside Unified has a “long-standing history” of offering ethnic studies classes, Meza said. And the school board voted in September 2020 to make the course a graduation requirement at Riverside high schools, beginning with the 2024-25 school year. She said officials are working to implement that plan.
The district is Riverside County’s second-largest public school system, with about 40,000 students.
Hill had previously denounced the videotaped action of the North teacher, calling it “highly insulting and marginalizing to Native Americans.”
The district stated that it will promptly address other actions taken by teachers in the future that “do not promote the District’s values of inclusivity and respect for all.”
The statement said district leaders met with North High School teachers and student government leaders, as well as the students who were in the class where the mock chant took place. Educators also met with people from local tribes, the district stated, and will collaborate with them to “design and offer professional learning” on Native American and Indigenous history and culture.
Meza wrote in an email that the district has been providing diversity, equity and inclusion training for managers and other employees who choose to attend sessions and, “now, it will be extended to all employees.”
The statement also said the district planned to apply for an Indian Education Formula Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The district intends to pursue the grant to provide support for Native American students in reading, math, graduation and cultural identity, Meza wrote.
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“As communicated previously, RUSD is deeply committed to implementing inclusive practices and policies that honor the rich diversity of our district and the greater region,” the statement said.
While the North High teacher was apparently attempting to instill a math concept in students through the act involving the faux headdress, the California Mathematics Council disagreed with the tactic. In an Oct. 22 statement, the council said it was “horrified by the video of the math teacher appropriating Native American culture in a disgusting attempt to teach mathematics.”
“We understand that teachers may use the mnemonic device, Soh-Cah-Toa, to support students to remember trigonometric ratios,” the statement read. “However, it is NEVER appropriate to make up or perpetuate stories that disrespect and appropriate a culture or community. This type of behavior inflicts violence on our students, especially those who identify as Native American, and continues to reinforce negative stereotypes that are simply untrue.”
The council leadership called on educators to constantly review teaching practices to make sure they are including “each student, culture, and community … in their classrooms.”
Staff writer Allyson Escobar contributed to this report.