Racial slur controversy in Ogden

Dec 23 2009 - 6:55pm


(MATT MCKNIGHT/Standard-Examiner) Thomas Terry, 14, stands in his home for a portrait.
(MATT MCKNIGHT/Standard-Examiner) Thomas Terry, 14, stands in his home for a portrait.

OGDEN -- The mother of a Mount Ogden Junior High student is not satisfied with the school's apology after a teacher directed a racial slur at her son in front of a class and is removing the boy from public school.

Kiah Smith, the mother of Thomas Terry, 14, said the incident happened last Monday as students were leaving the class of Judy Sepulveda, a social studies teacher. As students began moving toward the door, Sepulveda reminded Terry to leave behind a marker he had been using in class. He tossed the marker about 10 feet to another student, Smith said.

Upon seeing this, Sepulveda called Terry "a lazy monkey," in front of more than 75 percent of the class. The students reacted with "oohs" and "ahhs" and one remarked that it was a racist comment, Smith said.

With tears flowing, Smith said the teacher's comment disgraced her son in front of his classmates and she was appalled when no apology was immediately offered. She said she spoke to members of the Ogden School Board and even the state school board, but came away feeling like no one cared.

"Teachers take millions of English classes to be a teacher, they should know proper wording, so a teacher should never have a slip up like that. They might call a kid a wrong name, or mispronounce a name, but to call a black kid a monkey, which everyone knows is a racial slur?" said Smith, a native of Fresno, Calif. "I know in my heart she knew what she was saying. She didn't say it to a Hispanic kid or a Caucasian kid, she said it to a black kid."

'Will not recur'

Donna Corby, Ogden School District spokeswoman, called Smith on Tuesday to apologize on behalf of the school district. She said Mount Ogden principal Trevor Wilson also apologized. When asked if the teacher had been disciplined, Corby declined to comment.

"We take all comments seriously. The comment was inappropriate. The comment has been investigated and will not recur," Corby said. "Everyone makes mistakes. Let's learn from this and get back to education."

Wilson defended Sepulveda, saying she is an exceptional teacher. Wilson said Sepulveda would not comment on the matter.

Union reaction

Cal Udy, a labor relations representative with American Federation of Teachers in Utah, released a statement on behalf of Sepulveda.

"Privacy laws and FERPA laws do not allow AFT Utah to divulge information in this instance. We would love to comment and open our files to the Standard so you could have a full picture on this situation. However, we respect and completely follow the privacy laws in regard to our members and students. The teacher in question is a superior individual, an example of caring and the desire to help students," Udy said.

"The one side you are hearing from would be thrown out of court if all the facts could be given in detail. We at AFT Utah will support this teacher totally, both emotionally and legally, because we do have the facts and will not hesitate to divulge them if compelled to under certain legal circumstances."

Still deeply offended, Smith was not satisfied with the apology. She would like Sepulveda to apologize to her son in front of the class who heard the orcomment. That will not likely happen, however, because Smith won't allow Terry to return to Mount Ogden Junior High. She plans to enroll him in a charter school in January.

"I don't want my son returning back to that school. There is not fair treatment there, they don't care," Smith said. "I would rather pay for a school with real teachers than a free school where they treat your son badly. The administration and the school board just thinks it's a joke."

Angry before

This isn't the first time Smith has been upset with school administrators. Three weeks into the school year, Smith's daughter braided Terry's hair into a Mohawk style.

When he arrived at school, he was informed the hair style was a violation of the dress code. Smith didn't have a problem with her son coming home to adjust his hair, but was upset that he was escorted home and returned to school in a police car. Because of back problems, she was physically unable to pick him up at school but said arriving in a police car damaged her son's neighborhood reputation. Smith and her son live less than a mile from the school. "Why couldn't he have just walked home?" she said.

Corby said the school resource officer is often pressed into taxi service and the procedure is standard practice in the school district. The arrangement also catered to safety concerns, she said.

Terry also attempted to play for the school's football team, but Smith pulled him when she disagreed with how the coach treated the players.

CORRECTION: In the Dec. 20 story 'Racial slur contraversy in Ogden,' the Standard-Examiner reported that Kiah Smith spoke to members of the Ogden School Board and the state school board. Smith spoke to Donna Corby, the district's spokeswoman, who identified herself as a school board official. Smith also spoke to an unidentified woman at the state school board office.

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