June 24, 2021

Mallory Herrmann
Staff Reporter

The Lee’s Summit R-7 School Board has been tasked with deciding whether to terminate a tenured teacher’s employment for using a racial slur in front of students. The decision will come after a hearing that lasted nearly 10 hours.

Joe Oswald, physical education teacher and coach at Pleasant Lea Middle School, was placed on administrative leave following his repetition of the n-word when writing up an incident report for a student who had used the word during lunch.

Oswald, who has been with the district for 27 years, received a notice of charges on May 29 that would result in his termination as a result of “immoral conduct” and violation of board policy. He requested a hearing before the board of education to appeal the decision.

Tribune Photo/Joey Hedges

The June 23 hearing was held at the Stansberry Leadership Center, structured as though in a courtroom with Oswald represented by attorney Michael McDorman and the district represented by attorney Michelle Basi. The meeting had limited seating for members of the public and was streamed live on YouTube by the district, though it was not recorded as is typical for public meetings.

The hearing included opening statements, testimony from district personnel and former students, questions from members of the board of education, and brief closing statements.

The board expects to receive a full transcript of the meeting by July 6. They will then have a week to review the transcript and decide whether to override the superintendent’s recommendation to terminate his contract. That decision will be made in a closed meeting and announced to the public within 72 hours.

On Thursday, May 6, as agreed by both parties in a joint stipulation of facts, Oswald and another teacher were on lunch duty when a seventh-grade student stood up and shouted the n-word at another table of students. The other teacher stayed to continue monitoring lunch while Oswald escorted “Student A,” as she was referred to throughout the hearing, to the student administration office.

In the office, Oswald filled out a so-called green slip – a record of an incident that serves as a referral to administrators for disciplinary action. He wrote down exactly what the student had said without any abbreviation or censorship, and then repeated that language out loud without abbreviation or censorship. Another student was present there and heard the word repeated. Oswald characterized it as a necessary step to confirm with the student what she was being written up for.

“I was just making sure that I had it correct,” Oswald said, noting that it had been chaotic during the lunch period with students wearing masks, other conversations taking place or students getting up to clear their trays.

The student, who is black, would later say that she was “shocked” at hearing a white teacher use the word and had asked him to repeat it. He said it again. The student, who had previously been assigned Oswald as her end-of-day escort to the bus lane, contacted a building administrator that same day to request a new escort.

Dr. David Sharp, the principal at Pleasant Lea Middle School, testified that the usage was inappropriate and that Oswald could have confirmed the accuracy of the report without repeating the word. He also said that there is no expectation in the district for staff to confirm what has been reported in a discipline referral, as that is ultimately the administrator’s responsibility.

“You shouldn’t use the n-word in front of students,” Sharp said.

Dr. David Carlson, the district’s executive director of human resources, conducted an investigation in the days that followed, including interviews with the students and with building staff. He determined that Oswald had violated board policy by repeating objectionable language in front of a student.

“Saying the n-word in front of our students is never acceptable,” Carlson said, adding that there were no circumstances in which it should be said out loud by district staff.

Carlson’s report included a recommendation for disciplinary action and additional diversity and sensitivity training.

Dr. David Buck, superintendent of schools, determined that termination was the appropriate response. During his testimony, he repeated, unequivocally, that the use of racial slurs in front of students was never acceptable.

“Use of a racial slur in the presence of middle school students who are minorities is not courteous communication,” Buck said, citing the BIST (Behavior Intervention Support Team) standards of communication with students used by the district.

McDorman questioned Buck on whether the student handbook, which calls for one day of in-school suspension for using such language, should be changed to have a stricter punishment.

“There is a big difference between a 12-year-old kid making a mistake and an adult who is trusted to look out for the safety of students saying a racial slur twice in front of them,” Buck said.

Casey Guilfoyle, the history teacher who had been with Oswald during the lunch period, testified that he wouldn’t have done anything differently if he had been the one to fill out the green slip.

“I would’ve done it exactly the way Joe did it,” Guilfoyle said.

Several other teachers from the middle school testified that they, too, have repeated racial slurs and profanity verbatim to students when filling out a green slip – or that they would do so if they were in a similar situation.

Jason Wright, a teacher and coach and Pleasant Lea Middle School, was among a dozen educators and former students who testified on behalf of Oswald’s high moral character.

“I don’t have enough good adjectives to say about the guy,” Wright said.

Logan Cheadle, a Lee’s Summit West graduate, said that he had seen racism in the district – but not from Oswald. “I would say he’s a lot more than just a coach,” he said, adding that he was “furious” about the district’s decision to terminate his contract.

Board Vice President Megan Marshall asked Oswald whether he had disciplined other students for the same transgression in his coaching role and, if so, whether he followed the same process. He said that he had.

But when Marshall later asked follow-up questions, Oswald said he had not written up a discipline referral in those instances. He said he had addressed such language with athletes directly and had not gone through the administrative process.

“If I understand you correctly, the way that this incident is handled amongst athletes is different than how it’s handled inside of our buildings,” Marshall said.

Board Member Rodrick Sparks also sought clarification regarding discipline for students who used racial slurs on the field or in the context of repeating song lyrics – and whether that was different from the green slip he wrote for Student A.

Oswald confirmed that he had heard students on his team use the n-word but said he couldn’t recall a time that he had known who had said it and had taken disciplinary action accordingly.

“Moving forward, I’m not going to say that word in this instance,” Oswald said.

The hearing was adjourned at 2:37 a.m. The board of education is expected to have a decision on Oswald’s termination by July 13.