Chicago teacher suspended as district investigates whether Latina student told to ‘go back to your country’

CHICAGO —A Senn High School teacher accused of telling a Latina student to “go back to your country” during an assembly last month has been removed from the classroom as Chicago Public Schools investigates whether the teacher violated the district’s anti-discrimination policy, according to officials.

In a letter sent to parents Thursday, Senn Principal Mary Beck said that “new information came to light” as the district’s Office of Student Protections and Title IX opened an investigation, prompting it “to remove this individual from working in our school.”

“At the conclusion of OSP’s investigation, a final determination will be made regarding whether it is appropriate for this individual to return to Senn,” Beck wrote. “I will update the school community when a final determination is made.”

The employee has been assigned to stay at home with pay pending the outcome of the investigation, according to district spokesman James Gherardi.

The incident under review was reported by a student after the teacher allegedly confronted her for remaining seated as the national anthem played during an assembly on Jan. 30.

The “alleged actions of the teacher in question run counter to our beliefs and priorities as a school district,” Gherardi said in an emailed statement. The district recently learned about the alleged comments, which included “unacceptable language that violated the district’s anti-discrimination policy.”

The 17-year-old student, whom the Tribune is not naming because she is a minor, told the Tribune that the teacher approached her during an assembly at the end of January, first asking her if her legs were broken. When the student, a senior, told him that she chose to remain seated because of her beliefs, the teacher “got offended,” interrupted her and made the remark.

The student, who said she is Mexican American and was born in the United States, said she was distressed by the encounter and felt that the teacher, whom she hasn’t had as an instructor, racially profiled her. She said she was ultimately asked to leave the assembly for causing a disruption.

“I, personally, was very offended,” the student said, “a little bit upset, angry and disgusted. … Educators aren’t supposed to let their political beliefs get in the way of their jobs.”

The student and another senior, 18-year-old Tionda Cobb, who was approached by the same teacher for sitting during the anthem, said they sent an email to school Principal Mary Beck detailing what happened.

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“We were silently exercising our rights, our beliefs, and our opinion,” Cobb wrote in the email, which she provided to the Tribune. She also wrote that the teacher asked her if she gets free lunch and told her that she had no respect for people who have died for this country.

The two students said they organized a protest at the Edgewater high school Wednesday because they felt the principal failed to adequately respond to the situation.

During the protest, which was captured in photos and video posted on social media, students are seen sitting in a main hallway, chanting, banging on a drum and calling for the removal of the teacher.

Police were called and arrested a 15-year-old student who allegedly pushed a school administrator during the demonstration when a fight broke out, officials said.

Beck sent an email to parents Wednesday, acknowledging the protest and saying that concerns regarding the staff member were brought to her attention several weeks ago. Beck wrote that she could not elaborate on the issue, but insisted that she “immediately handled it in accordance with CPS policy,” according to the email.

“Today, members of our student body chose to stage a ‘sit in’ in order to exercise their student voice,” she wrote. “This protest was organized by a group of students who wanted to raise concerns regarding a previous experience they had with a staff member.”

Beck said she met with the students directly involved in the encounter and brainstormed solutions to improve feelings of student safety and expression for the future.

Beck wrote that the students also raised concerns about “past incidents,” which will now be investigated immediately. The 17-year-old student said other students had complained about the same teacher before.

Counselors and social workers are available at the school to help students process emotions related to the recent events, Beck said.

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