DENISON: About 200 Denison Community High School students walked out of class Tuesday to protest a teacher’s use of a racial slur and demand remedies to what many pupils of different races say is systemic prejudice in one of Iowa’s growing and most ethnically diverse rural cities.
Students peacefully gathered outside the western entrance to the high school, where they carried signs and chanted for social change as about a dozen members of the media covered the event. Some of them returned to the Denison School Board meeting that night to speak further.
Superintendent Mike Pardun confirmed to the Times Herald that the teacher, Crystal Holt, who teaches social sciences, has been placed on indefinite leave from the school.
With the iconic Denison water tower in the background touting the city’s link to native daughter Donna Reed’s movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” one student held a sign reading, “It’s a hate life.” Other students chanted “We want results” and “We want justice.”
No counter-protestors were in sight, and the students streamed back into classes after about a half hour. Pardun said the district has not determined whether students who left the building during class time would be reprimanded for truancy.
The protest stemmed from Holt’s use of the N-word in a class in which students were examining a death-penalty case involving convicted killer Kenneth Junior French, who in 1993 reportedly used racist and anti-gay language before gunning down four people in North Carolina.
Holt, wife of State Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, said in a Denison radio interview that the introduction of the actual N-word was necessary for historical and legal context.
Holt, during the classroom exercise, said she had to explain to students that the term “pejorative” means “derogatory,” and that led to her to use the full N-word for educational purposes.
“In the course of teaching and trying to deal with issues of racism, that is a word that comes up in literature,” Holt said in the KDSN-FM Radio interview. “It’s a word that comes up in this court case. It’s a word that has a lot of meaning with the issue of racism, so it’s something we have to address and discuss.”
She added: “Racism is a social disease, and to fully understand all the aspects of racism and the impact it’s had on people and our history and our development as a nation, you have to be able to understand how it’s used.”
Steven Holt reached out to schedule an interview on behalf of Crystal Holt, but they did not call as planned.
Students contend Crystal Holt used the word needlessly — and multiple times — and has a history of insensitive behavior at the school. Students released a recording of Holt using the N-word — as well as two derisive terms about people who are gay — as she argued with students about whether it was appropriate for her to say the word in class. Holt authenticated the tape in the KDSN interview.
“You can use (the N-word) in context of the situation,” Holt said in the recording amid audible pushback from students. “Yes, you can. Yes, you can. … It was testimony from the case. So you can’t repeat testimony from the case?”
Later, Holt told a diverse group of students that, “You guys, this is called political correctness bullcrap.”
One student leader, who spoke on behalf of students gathered for the protest this morning, said Holt should be given a chance for professional improvement and character growth.
“The controversy swirling around Mrs. Holt is not an isolated episode, not a concern confined to one faculty member,” senior Christopher Espino, 18, said a speech outside of the school. “Many of us have experienced discrimination that, either accidental or intentional, causes great pain. Often, because of faculty friendships and career-and-salary concerns, internal investigations sweep many of the problems under the rug, allow people off the hook. We are therefore asking for a full evaluation from an outside organization of all issues related to diversity in our school system, from personnel and hiring matters, to the difference in punishment between the races of students, to a host of other matters.”
Pardun told the Times Herald that “at this stage” the inquiry will be conducted internally and that the district has no plans to bring in an outside investigator as the students requested. The district announced its investigation last week in a statement it posted online.
“We learned of a situation at Denison High School today that involved a teacher using a racial slur in a classroom recently,” the district posted on its website on Nov. 15. “We take the issue of racism extremely seriously and regret and apologize for any impact this has had on anyone. We are conducting an internal investigation into the matter, and we will work in concert with our students, families and faculty to resolve the situation. Denison Community Schools remains committed to ensuring an environment where students feel safe. We understand the gravity of the situation and will continue to work diligently in the coming days until the situation is rectified.”
The students, while showing solidarity with Espino’s remarks, were split on how the district should handle Holt. Many students said she should be terminated. Others agree with Espino, who said he believes “in self improvement and an opportunity for professional redemption and character growth. We support the administration’s decision to place Mrs. Holt on leave.”
Todd Meehan, 18, a senior who plans to attend Iowa Western Community College for radio broadcasting, said he was in Holt’s class when the teacher used the N-word.
“She shouldn’t have said it in the classroom,” Meehan said. “We were talking about a case where this guy should get the death penalty or life in prison and we were having an issue coming to a conclusion in the case, and she comes and says, ‘It might help you if you knew he went to a party and said he was going to kill some black people and then she used air quotes and then she said the N-word with a hard R (the full slur rather than a shortened version) and at first we were just kind of shocked. We weren’t really ready for it.”
Denison sophomore Ernesto Carbajal, 16, said he hopes change happens in the school.
“I’m happy with the turnout and I’m happy with the fact that we were able to get our point out,” he said.
The issue was discussed publicly again that night at a regularly scheduled school board meeting, in which most of the 25 students and adults who spoke during an open forum portion of the meeting supported Holt.
Many told stories of the way Holt has encouraged students, including those of color.
Retired Denison teacher Collette Huntley detailed Holt’s long involvement in Science Bound, a program set up between Denison Schools, Iowa State University and Smithfield Foods to help high-achieving students attend Iowa State tuition-free.
“We have a number of Denison graduates who are now Iowa State graduates, largely in part due to the Science Bound program and Crystal Holt’s efforts,” Huntley said. “This is not what racism looks like.”
Some students have said the program has been called “Science brown” by some in the school, often enough to become hurtful, although they haven’t confirmed whether Holt used the term.
Mike Fink, who said he’s known Holt since she was a child, admonished students for protesting.
“If you look through our community … we have embraced the other races, the others from other countries, and we brought everyone together,” he said. “It’s very sensational for a young child, a student, to look at an opportunity to make a big splash.”
Brian Rihner, who said he is Holt’s pastor, was one of three pastors who spoke in support of Holt and quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., saying that like King, Holt exemplifies true Christianity, which leaves no room for racism.
“Those people who are against her, she’s for you,” Rihner said.
Former student Beth Vogt, who said she butted heads with Holt over politics but was a stronger student because of Holt’s penchant for strictness, praised Holt’s advocacy of students. She said Holt was “being criticized by students who don’t want to be held accountable for their mediocrity.”
“It is time for our school to take a look at racial issues,” Vogt said. “It’s been time for a long time. But not at the cost of a wonderful teacher who should be helping to spearhead those very conversations.”
Young Denison student John Parr cried as he described how Holt helped him when he had to go into foster care. He recalled how she helped buy him a drum set and brought him sno-cones.
“She’d never do anything mean to anybody,” said Parr, who is black.
Former students of Holt, including Jose Quintero, said they wouldn’t have graduated or succeeded without Holt’s encouragement.
Iowa State students and Denison graduates Marilyn Rodriguez and Monica Lara, both of whom are Latina, went through the Science Bound program and praised Holt. Rodriguez described how Holt took her into her home when she needed a place to stay, and Lara said that when she was sexually abused by a teacher, Holt was the person who reported the teacher.
“I considered suicide many times; I felt attacked and alone in the community I grew up in,” Lara said. “Because of (Holt’s) help, there is a man who will no longer be able to abuse another child in a school setting, and a girl who got to reclaim her life back. I literally owe her my life today.”
But student Noah Fredericksen — who was in the classroom when Holt used the N-word — said he doesn’t think the word should be used at all, whether or not her intentions were good.
“The word should not be used in any context,” he said, “because the weight of that word carries a lot more than just a word.”
Another student, Joel Bonilla, who is Latino, addressed the white residents defending Holt. He recalled hanging out on the porch with his friend and having a neighbor draw a gun on them and yell at them to “speak American.”
“What I’m trying to say is, these little small things add up,” Bonilla said. “I’m a brown man in America, and I’m not going to play the race card and say I have it worse than my caucasian peers. What I can say is, she’s saying the N-word, she can say the term, where it originated, what it means, but she can never say what it feels like to have it said to you. She can never say she’s experienced racism herself.”
School board members did not address the issue during their meeting, and a timeline for the school’s investigation is unclear.
A Simpson College professor’s recent use of the word in a philosophy class — in which he used the word to make a point about the offensiveness of the professional football team name Washington Redskins — ended his decades-long teaching career at the college.
Also this month, a University of North Texas attorney resigned after she used the N-word during a public discussion about free speech.
Casey Berlau, superintendent of Carroll Community Schools, said the use of the N-word would be subject to the district’s policy on teaching controversial issues, which requires teachers to “protect the right of the student to study pertinent controversial issues within the limits of good taste.”
“It would be something that we would prefer not to use,” Berlau said of speaking the N-word in class. “I was also a history teacher, and we have to teach history. If I am a history teacher, I am not using it.”
— Reporters Annie Mehl and Jared Strong contributed to this article