This letter reflects the opinions of the 1970 Cal Poly graduate Michael Burrell. Letters to the editor do not reflect the opinions or editorial coverage of Mustang News.
I am a retired social science teacher who worked in Atascadero Unified School District for 33 years: 18 in junior high, and 15 in high school. I had issues in the junior high occasionally where epithets were flung towards students of color from time to time. This was rare, because we have a predominantly white population in a good part of our county. When this happened, I would use the incident as a learning experience rather than just punishment. I would say, “Well, Mr. (or Ms.) so and so, I am giving you an assignment, and am sending you to the office so you can get started on it. You are to write me an essay and address the following: 1.) What made you use the term you did, and why did you pick that word? 2.) Look this word up and after you discover its meaning, explain why or why not you were wrong in using it. 3.) Take this to Mrs. Adams’ room, and explain the whole incident and this assignment to her, and then 4.) Get the Vice Principal, your parents and Mrs. Adams to sign this, and when all of this is done, I will let you back into my class, provided you used correct grammar in your writing.”
Trust that when word got out about this, there were never any overt utterances in my classes after that.
Dorothy Adams, (now retired) is a woman who was raised in Louisiana, during the ’50s, and when a lynching occurred, was warned by her parents to stay clear of the park that day, to and from school, because a “person is hanging there.”
Dorothy had the mission in much the same way as a Holocaust survivor has of trying to love bigots and educate them. She was hugely respected by staff and students alike and had a wonderful effect on all. I used to trade classes with her so she could tell students what life was like for a Black person living in Louisiana.
How does this relate to the Cal Poly happenings? It all comes down to values, and changing a person’s behavior.
In this case, in my opinion, President Jeffrey Armstrong should have taken charge like a dictator. He should have stepped in immediately, or someone should have, and called all of those insensitive, ignorant, front-lobe lacking, people in and said, “OK gentlemen, these are not the values that I want displayed on this campus, therefore you are suspended from this university for a quarter. You will need to be put in a situation where you will work or learn from those very people that you have stereotyped and hurt.” I do not know what programs are out there, but I am sure there is something, or a reciprocal deal could be worked with another state university or public agency which could fit this criterion.
At the same time, if the president had done something, the involved students would have been removed from the volatile situation that now exists, and with this removal, the president also could have announced to the community at large, “Now everyone else stop! This incident is done, we are handling this. There will be no retaliation, or you will face the same consequences.”
The president would have to be a hard-nosed dictator to set a proper standard which he says he aspires to, and after appropriate monitoring, the insensitive students could be let back. There is not much doubt that the perpetrating students are realizing the results of their ignorant, if not stupid actions, which have caused a world of hurt on everyone.
When I taught at Oak Hills Continuation High School, in 1990, I designed a class called “Tolerance” which was a six-week class that dealt with these very issues, hoping it would avert incidents like this.
We used materials provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. I would be glad to talk to anyone about how we ran the class. Dorothy Adams also said she is available for anyone who would want to talk.
*This letter has been edited for clarity.