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Weeks after a Kansas City teacher said the N-word on video, parents and students call for his job

Parents, students, alumni, and various civil rights groups met Wednesday night at the Greg / Klice Community Center to discuss racism at University Academy, an area public charter school.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Parents, students, alumni, and various civil rights groups met Wednesday night at the Gregg/Klice Community Center to discuss racism at University Academy High School, an area public charter school.

University Academy students and parents and various community activist groups gathered Wednesday to discuss an incident where a teacher allegedly used the racial slur in class. Some attendees presented a list of demands to the school.

Accountability and more opportunities for parent engagement are at the top of a list of demands parents are asking of University Academy, a public charter school in Kansas City, Missouri.

A coalition of activist groups including the Urban League of Greater Kansas City and Black United Front Kansas City gathered with parents and students of the school Wednesday evening for a town hall to discuss racism in the school.

The meeting was spurred by an incident last month where high school history teacher Johnny Wolfe, who is white, allegedly said the N-word multiple times during one of his classes.

A social media post and accompanying video of the incident received more than 3,000 likes on Instagram and 2,600 views on YouTube.

“So there will be people that don’t like that, but it was said in an educational context and it was said for the purpose of talking — talking about empowerment,” Wolfe can allegedly be heard saying in the video. “So you can like it, not like it, be upset about it all you like. But ultimately this is a ridiculous conversation.”

The voices of University Academy seniors Aidan Smith and Joshua Harris can be heard on voice memos shared with The Kansas City Defender, a nonprofit digital startup that produces news, digital tools and public services for Black people. In the recordings, Smith and Harris call Wolfe out for repeatedly using the word.

At Wednesday’s town hall, Smith said he asked Wolfe at the time; “You don't think that it was wrong?”

“He kind of just deflected, so it was really just like disrespectful, and it was — it felt like a slap in the face,” Smith said.

Jacquada Gray, an alumni of University Academy, alleged school administration waited to act on the incident until The Kansas City Defender broke the story, ultimately subjecting students to more harm. As evidence, she says Wolfe wasn’t put on paid administrative leave until nearly three weeks after the incident occurred.

Despite the various accusations from parents and community members, University Academy administrators were not at the town hall.

Shafeeqa Small told KCUR that she and her family recently moved to Kansas City from Texas and her son, a ninth grader, is in his first year at University Academy. Small said the school belittled students by not listening to their complaints about Wolfe. She said it was the opposite of what the school teaches about students standing up for themselves.

“The fact that they did not address the students and their needs in something that was as serious as — it's a racially-driven crime against a child, you know, or children. And so I just feel like the level of importance keeps getting doused,” Small said. “More importantly, the message has already been sent to the children that following a chain of command, speaking up for yourself, asking for accountability, that none of those things were handled in a way that supports the messaging that they give them in terms of the school standards.”

Small said when her son started at University Academy, there was no formal welcome for parents. She assumed before the town hall that the lack of welcome was because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but, after hearing from alumni, students, and other parents, she feels differently.

“It's clear that the structure (of the school) was not set up to have a lot of engagement from the parents, and that the thought is … how the school operates is probably what's best for the students,” said Small.

Other parents called the school out for leaving them in the dark.

Third District Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, who has two children at University Academy, called attention to the fact that school board meetings happen every other Tuesday at 4 p.m., with the exception of holiday weeks.

“We also need to demand that their school board meetings happen at a time where parents can show up,” Robinson told town hall attendees. “They keep us completely separate as parents from the educational environment on purpose.”

A group of University Academy alumni have become involved in seeking justice for the students. Gray, a 2011 graduate and the sister of senior Aidan Smith, served on Wednesday as spokesperson for many alumni.

“Because UA has brought back fired teachers before, and we are not having that,” said Gray, who acknowledged some in her group wanted Wolfe to be fired immediately.

The list of demands includes:

  • During the school’s investigation, Wolfe should be on leave without pay 
  • The creation of a diversity, equity, and inclusion task force composed of current and former students and parents not selected by school officials
  • Mandatory, biannual diversity and inclusion staff training from a program not affiliated with UA
  • Increased staff diversity, including all future African American history courses to be taught by an African American teacher
  • Biannual town halls to better allow the school to address the concerns of parents, students and alumni

Several people in the group added to the list of demands, with some calling for the termination of the high school principal, Clem Ukaoma, and Superintendent Rebecca Gudde for their complacency in the incident, and for dismissing students.

The school has launched an investigation into the incident, according to Gray.

Urban League President Gwendolyn Grant said her group held a meeting with school administration on Monday, and, although it is unclear how long the investigation will take, the Urban League will continue to call for Wolfe’s immediate termination.

“We're going to address the board at the policy level. We're going to look at the code, student codes of conduct, all of the policies that are in place around these situations,” said Grant. “And we will challenge those policies and we will follow through with that board and bring the pressure to address the policies.”

Jenny Wesley-Harris and her son, Joshua Harris, a University Academy senior pictured at the town hall Wednesday. Harris confronted a University Academy teacher who allegedly said the N-word in class.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Jenny Wesley-Harris and Joshua Harris, a University Academy senior, at the town hall on Wednesday. Harris confronted a high school teacher who allegedly said the N-word in class.

High school senior Joshua Harris, who called Wolfe out in the video and told school administration about the incident, said he never wanted the issue to get this big, but he worries his voice wouldn’t have been heard if the situation did not go public.

“I just wanted an apology and an understanding, like a greater understanding that he overstepped, crossed the boundary with me and other students,” said Harris. “When I got the response from him, he wasn't looking to give an apology. He wanted to stand his ground and made us feel like we were in the wrong and he was right, no matter what we did and how we were offended — that we have no right to talk about the words he said.”

“But I'm glad that I was able to speak up and grow the situation,” Harris said. “Before tonight, I kind of felt really worried and defeated that I wasn't going to have the support system I needed in order to do what I wanted to be done. But now … I was really shocked about the amount of support.”

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga reports on health disparities in access and health outcomes in both rural and urban areas.
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