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Racial slur incident could be opportunity for learning

Sometimes racism is obvious. Sometimes, it’s not.

Last week, teens and adults alike recoiled in disgust after an African-American teacher at Forest Grove High School in western Washington County reported that she was called “the nigger” by a student in the hallway outside her classroom. It was an overt act of racist behavior that our community was quick to denounce. Students launched a social media campaign and created a Change.org petition signed by more than 1,000 likeminded teens and adults calling for FGHS to take action and expel the young man accused.

It’s been an admirable show of support for a beloved English teacher in a community that likes to see itself as forward-thinking and progressive. In this day and age, the idea that anyone would use such language seems unthinkable, although it’s not the first racist comment heard here.

Eight years ago, a young man yelled, “If it ain’t white, it ain’t right,” at a Barack Obama supporter carrying lawn signs in Forest Grove. A story in the Hillsboro Tribune’s sister paper, the News-Times, last winter on local race relations — and the Facebook comments on it — revealed a variety of other real or suspected race-related incidents.

In this recent incident at FGHS, the student, a sophomore, was suspended in accordance with district disciplinary policy, but there have been calls for harsher punishments, including expulsion and even criminal charges. We agree that suspension is not punishment enough. But expulsion is not the kind of justice that will help a young man understand why his words caused so much pain.

The student in question certainly exercised poor judgment, like a lot of teens do when they try adulthood on for size. But this is not a criminal incident.

As the stories in the March 16 News-Times show, tensions between white and Latino students have been simmering for quite a while. Much of the racism is insidious, often directed at Latino students like the young man accused in last week’s incident: subtle slights that, intended or not, make students feel marginalized, different or singled out. It can be easy for students, teachers and parents to ignore this kind of “microaggression” until it surfaces in an ugly, public racist slur.

We hope that this incident — and the accounts from other Latino students about how even subtle racism affects their lives — will be the impetus for a conversation about diversity and racism.

We’d like to see the school create some sort of comprehensive restorative justice program, a kind of “people’s court” where the victims and the accused work through their differences in a safe, learning environment, where victims can feel heard and perpetrators can learn to empathize and understand how their actions hurt others and ripple out into the community.

While harsh punishments like suspension and expulsion are sometimes necessary, they do nothing to resolve the underlying problems, misunderstandings and tensions that often cause students to lash out at each other. But solution-based programs like peer courts and mediation aim to do exactly that.

Whatever solution administrators enact, we hope there will be an opportunity for a frank and earnest discussion of race and diversity at Forest Grove High so that both victims and offenders are given a chance to heal.

We’d like to see them do what educators do best: Turn this moment into a teaching moment, not only for the young man who uttered the n-word, but for the entire community.