School suspends African-American student for use of ‘n-word’

Wednesday, October 18, 2000

To Nathan Martin, it was a friendly greeting, but according to a
California school district, the “n-word” is unacceptable, even when
it’s not meant as a racial slur.

The school recently suspended Martin, an African-American senior at
Buchanan High School near Fresno for two days after he greeted another
African-American student with, “Whazzup, nigga?”

Since both students are black, Martin considered his use of the word
slang, not hate speech, according to a report in The Fresno
. However, Buchanan High School guidelines specify that
racial slurs such as the “n-word” are unacceptable, under any

“We have two ethnic students who are calling each other words
that would not be acceptable if a white student was calling them that
word,” Rene Errotabere told the newspaper.

“So to be consistent, we are saying that is a racial slur no
matter who speaks it, and we are taking consistent action,” said
Errotabere, an area superintendent with the Clovis Unified School District.

The incident began when an unidentified white student overheard Martin
greeting 16-year-old Maurice Ward. The student who overheard the conversation
was offended by Martin’s language and reported the exchange to school

“This was not a racial incident,” Jim Fugman, deputy
superintendent of the district, told
The Freedom Forum Online. “This is
an incident of a student using inappropriate language. It’s like using a
curse word.” Fugman added, “The school district and the school have been
assertive in getting students to stop using that type of language in

In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in Bethel
School District v. Fraser
that school officials could punish a
student who gave a speech laced with sexual innuendo to a school assembly.

“The First Amendment does not prevent the school officials from
determining that to permit a vulgar and lewd speech such as respondent’s
would undermine the school’s basic educational mission,” the high
court majority wrote. “Surely it is a highly appropriate function of
public school education to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in
public discourse.”

The lower courts are divided on whether Fraser applies to student speech that is
school-sponsored or to all vulgar and offensive student speech, even if it is
wholly student-initiated.

Meanwhile, African-American leaders in the Fresno suburb are backing
school officials’ attempts to keep the n-word out of the schools.

In an Oct.11 report in The Fresno
, Kehinde Solwazi, a professor of African-American studies at
Fresno City College, agreed with the system’s assertion that students
should be discouraged from using racial slurs, even in non-derogatory ways,
although he questioned the severity of the punishment.

“I don’t think African-American children should use the
word,” Solwazi told the newspaper, “When we use the word, we give
license to everyone else. That word should be banned from our language.

“The word is negative and a symbol of oppression. The punishment
is just a little too harsh. That is the only criticism.”

Johnny Nelum, president of the Fresno chapter of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told the newspaper that he
was “as guilty as anyone [of using the n-word], but it still
doesn’t make it right. In fact it’s wrong. If we expect other
nationalities to respect us, we have to respect ourselves.”

Rosemari Martin, Nathan’s mother, says she is concerned about
the effect the suspension will have on her son’s permanent record.

“Nathan is totally upset,” she told the
Bee, “I’m worried about
it being on his record, and I’m worried about how he will act when he
goes back to school. Will he have to watch everything he says and who he says
it around?”

As for Martin, he remains puzzled by school officials’ reaction
and his suspension.

“I don’t think I should get in trouble,” he told the
newspaper. “If I’m talking and someone hears it and gets offended,
it’s their problem. They shouldn’t have been listening to our

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