CHARLESTON, S.C. In a new twist in American race relations, a federal court has ruled that a white teacher in a predominantly African-American school was subjected to a racially hostile workplace.
The case concerned Elizabeth Kandrac, who was routinely verbally abused by black students at Brentwood Middle School in North Charleston. Their slurs make shock jock Don Imus look like a church deacon.
Nevertheless, despite frequent complaints, school officials did nothing to intervene on Kandrac's behalf, arguing that the racially charged profanity was simply part of the students' culture. If Kandrac couldn't handle cursing, school officials told her, she was in the wrong school.
Kandrac finally filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and subsequently brought a lawsuit against the Charleston County School District, the school's principal and an associate superintendent. Last fall, jurors found that the school was a racially hostile environment to teach in and that the school district retaliated against Kandrac for complaining about it.
The defendants sought a new trial, but U.S. District Judge David C. Norton recently affirmed the verdict. However, he did not support the jury's findings of $307,500 in damages for lost income and emotional distress.
Although Kandrac clearly suffered she was suspended from her job shortly after a story about her EEOC complaint appeared in the local newspaper, and her contract was not renewed her case didn't meet evidentiary requirements for damages. The judge said a new trial would have to determine damages, but the school district and Kandrac settled for $200,000.
While the dollars-and-cents issue may have been of paramount importance to school and district officials and would have lent heft to the verdict the more compelling issue for students, parents and society is the idea that a particular group of people can be allowed to behave in a grossly uncivil and threatening way by virtue of their racial "culture.''
The key legal question was whether a school could be held responsible for students' behavior. In this case, the black children of Brentwood had been given a pass for their behavior because vulgar language was considered normal for their culture.
Defense attorney Alice Paylor told jurors that the kids heard this same language at home and there was "no magic pill'' to make them behave. Paylor is probably right about that, though a magic paddle might have worked wonders.
Back in the day, if a student talked the way these did, he or she would have received a well-deserved thwack, been suspended and sent home to face the wrath of his or her father. That process likely would have put a swift end to the tribal tyranny now often tolerated in the service of self-esteem.
Let's be clear: What these children called this teacher is beyond reprehensible and could be only be construed as hostile and threatening. Here's a sample: white b, white m- f-, white c-, white a, white ho.
Other white teachers and students corroborated Kandrac's account, including a male war veteran who testified he would rather return to Vietnam than to Brentwood.
Kandrac's attorney, Larry Kobrovsky, argued that the repeated use of "white'' made these slurs racists in nature. But school officials insisted that because black students were equally abusive to other blacks, the language wasn't inherently racist.
Here's what we know without question: If majority white students had used similar language toward black students and teachers, the case would have been plastered on the front page of The New York Times until heads rolled.
A black Kandrac would have a million-dollar book deal, a movie contract and hundreds of interviews to juggle. Her oppressors and those who passively facilitated her abuse would have been pilloried by the media their faces all over the evening news while the reverends Al and Jesse organized protests.
But a white Kandrac who faced a daily barrage of insults, who had books and desks thrown at her and her bicycle tires punctured was treated like an incompetent wimp. She was just a lousy teacher out for money, the defense attorney said.
Though Kandrac lost her job, the real losers are the children deprived of an education by the actions of a tyrannical few. And the worst racists are those teachers and administrators who denied these empowered brats the expectation of civilized behavior.
May the rest of America now be emboldened to act decisively in the interest of students who want to learn.