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A Lee's Summit Teacher Uttered The N-Word. Now The School Board Will Decide Whether To Fire Him

lee's summit students.jfif
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR
The Lee's Summit Board of Education will decide whether to fire Joe Oswald, a teacher at Pleasant Lea Middle School and a 27-year veteran of the Lee's Summit School District.

Joe Oswald’s attorney, Michael McDorman, told the board that Oswald didn’t willfully use the N-word in an insulting way. Rather, he said, Oswald was simply reading aloud what the student had said.

Joe Oswald, a physical education teacher at Pleasant Lea Middle School in Lee’s Summit, used the N-word while filing a disciplinary report for a seventh-grader who was yelling in the cafeteria. Before filing the report, he read what she’d said aloud to the student, including the slur. The student said she was shocked a white man had used the word. When she asked him to repeat it, he said it again.

Now, following a termination hearing Wednesday night, the Lee’s Summit Board of Education is deciding whether to fire him.

Lee’s Summit Superintendent David Buck believes the 27-year school district veteran should be fired. But Oswald is tenured, so the decision rests with the board.

Oswald knew the student. The 13-year-old had been assigned to walk to the bus with staff escorts. Oswald had walked her to the bus a couple times previously, but after he said the N-word, she asked the school for a different escort.

The school first learned about the incident through the correspondence of concerned parents, including the father of a student Oswald said he didn’t notice at first. According to the father, Oswald turned to his son and “aggressively stated” the N-word.

A subsequent human resources investigation opted to believe Oswald’s version of events and not the father.

Nonetheless, investigators concluded that Oswald had committed “immoral conduct” and a “willful violation” of a school board policy requiring courteousness with students.

Oswald’s attorney, Michael McDorman, told the board that Oswald didn’t willfully use the N-word in an insulting way. Rather, he said, Oswald was simply reading aloud what the student had said.

“I thought that in the course of correcting this young lady, who had displayed the behavior on the mezzanine, that I felt like I was doing my job,” Oswald told the board.

Oswald also spoke at length about the frequent use of the N-word on the athletic fields and in students’ music lyrics. Oswald’s lawyer argued that his use of the N-word was no different from the inclusion of the slur in literature and film in the school’s curriculum.

But school administrators say Oswald shouldn’t have uttered the N-word regardless of context. David Sharp, the vice president of Pleasant Lee, said Oswald was wrong to use the N-word, even in this context.

Superintendent Buck told the board no context can justify the use of the N-word.

“It’s wrong to say such things in front of students. It’s always been wrong,” Buck said. “It was wrong when I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s.”

The district’s history with racial bullying came up briefly during the hearing. In 2019, its first Black superintendent, Dennis Carpenter, resigned amid racial tensions.

Oswald said his character was unfairly impugned during the investigation and hearing. His supporters agree.

At the hearing, Logan Cheadle, a former student of Oswald’s, said he had experienced racism in the district. But Oswald, Cheadle said, is not a racist.

“He’s one of the good ones,” Cheadle said.

Several other teachers in the district said that had they been in Oswald’s position, they also would have read the N-word aloud. Some staff said that in similar circumstances they had done exactly the same thing.

More than 1,000 people have signed a petition in support of Oswald, who’s known as “Coach O.” The petition asks signers to testify to Oswald’s “outstanding character.” Outside of the building where the hearing took place, a group of protesters held a sign that said, “In Coach Joe We Trust”.

The district is slated to decide whether to fire Oswald at a closed session on July 13. Its decision will be made public 72 hours later.

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