Feb. 17, 2012 -- A white Chicago school teacher who was suspended for leading a class discussion about the "N-word," race relations and racism has sued the school district for what he sees as unjust punishment.
Lincoln Brown, 48, a sixth-grade writing and social studies teacher at Murray Language Academy, said he turned a bad classroom situation - in which one student wrote a rap calling another student a n***** - into "a teachable moment."
"I looked at it and it had some words in it that were very offensive to me and that's when we came into this discussion of the N-word," Brown said of the October incident. "And I used the curriculum from the Southern Poverty Law Center, and followed their advice on how to tackle these kinds of problems, not to avoid them. The whole lesson basically was about racial profiling, racism and also being very careful about how you use words in public."
His principal, Greg Mason, who is black, heard the discussion and came into the room to listen further, Brown said. Mason stayed for 10 minutes, and then left and came back 10 minutes later, as the discussion had turned to racial stereotypes in movies.
"I brought up Spike Lee's comments about rap music and racial profiling in movies and, ironically, I thought I was being fully supported [by Mason]," Brown said.
The students were engaged in the discussion, and later told Brown how much they enjoyed it, he said. And he never heard a word about it from the principal.
Two weeks later, however, Mason called Brown into his office and accused him of misconduct, specifically abuse of language in front of students and other charges, Brown said. Later, he was told he was receiving a five-day suspension.
Brown, shocked by the allegations and punishment, appealed to the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education, which denied his appeal.
"It's something I can't accept and can't have on my record and more importantly it's not who I am," said Brown, who grew up in the neighborhood, attended schools where he was in the white minority and grew up to teach in predominantly African- American schools for more than 25 years.
Brown said he has taught many lessons, albeit more structured ones, on the use of the "N-Word" and other contentious race issues over the years, including teaching the book "Huckleberry Finn."
He said he always used the advice given by the Southern Poverty Law Center to help guide the discussions about the word, and drew on those guidelines when the discussion arose in October.
"I have no regret over the way I handled it, but not everybody agrees. It's a hot-button issue," he said, noting that he wished Mason had told him during or immediately after the lesson that he was unhappy with the discussion.
Brown's attorney, William Spielberger, said his client's First and Fifth Amendment rights were breached, as his rights to free speech and due process were not respected by the school district.
He noted that Brown's family was deeply involved in civil rights causes, and his parents named him Lincoln in honor of the president, Abraham Lincoln.
"These type of accusations can ruin a person's career," Spielberger said.
Mason did not return calls for comment.
The school district released a written statement on the case, which they said they could not discuss in detail because of the ongoing litigation.
"The principal determined that the way the teacher used the word was improper and imposed a short suspension," Robyn Ziegler, spokeswoman for the school district, said in the statement.
"The teacher appealed the suspension to the Office of Employee Relations. Following a hearing, at which the teacher was represented by an attorney, the hearing officer upheld the suspension. The teacher has received sufficient due process. In our opinion, his federal lawsuit is without merit," Ziegler wrote.
The suit was filed Thursday and Brown began serving the first day of his post-appeal suspension today, he said.