‘There’s No Excuse’: Illinois Teacher Terminated Days After Calling 10th Grader the N-Word; School Board Forced to Take Action Thanks to Video Captured by Students

An Illinois teacher has been terminated after students recorded him using racial epithets when talking to a Black student. School board administrators moved swiftly to send a message that bigoted and racist language is not acceptable from teachers or school staffers.

On Thursday, Oct. 20, several students at the Kankakee High School secretly recorded first-year math teacher John Donovan as he called a Black student named Michael Nelson Jr., a 10th grader at the high school, the N-word.

The following Monday, the Kankakee School Board held a meeting after students and family members contacted them with the disturbing footage and voted unanimously to fire him.

The videos, circulated widely on social media, showed Donovan arguing with the 15-year-old student. One of the videos happened in front of the class, and another shows the young person questioning him about an incident from earlier in the semester where Donovan allegedly threw a book at the teen.

Kankakee School District Superintendent Dr. Genevra Walters said the September incident between the teacher and student was never reported to the principal, human resources department, or her office, according to CNN.

Walters also said the district does “not have any information that the book made contact with the student.” 

Contrary to this account, Matthew’s mother, Geraldine Nelson, said she was contacted by the school’s assistant principal who left a voicemail regarding the September incident.

The administrator told the parent that the teacher would apologize to the student for attempting to assault him with the book. The superintendent said the apology did happen, the Daily Journal reported, and that the school’s principal, Vernita Sims, was leading the investigation into the book throwing.

Based on her findings, Sims had planned to give her recommendation for discipline to human resources, but the case was elevated when the teacher used the racial slur.

The mother has now secured an attorney and is exploring possible litigation.

Walter responded to the mother’s assertion and said she did not know about the voicemail.

The superintendent suggested to the board the teacher be terminated “due to the use of a racial slur towards an African-American male student,” and said the district will now investigate the book-throwing incident and why administrators were left in the dark until the videos of the racial slur became public.

The footage shows the teen leaving the classroom but is interrupted as the teacher calls him a “f##king n##ger” after he leaves out the door. After students laugh in response to the remark, Donovan shrugs his shoulders and says, “I’m losing my job anyway.”

“They were in shock, and it was nervous laughter,” Walters said. “It was not like they thought it was funny.”

Once the school officials learned of the curse word, they escorted Donovan off school’s campus, placing him on paid leave until his termination on Monday.

“We have to give the student and the teacher due process, and we have to follow the Illinois school code when we’re terminating a licensed teacher,” Walter said.

The September incident, where Donovan threw a book at the student and allegedly hit him on his leg, was prompted because the boy was using his cellphone in class, according to the family’s lawyer Kevin O’Connor.

The lawyer also said Donovan is a liability and a live wire, adding, “If a teacher is willing to … throw something at a student, who knows what they’re willing to do.”

The boy’s mom shared how disappointed she was to hear about the incident from her child and not the school staff, noting, “There’s no excuse for saying that word, especially to a 15-year-old.”

In addition, Michael felt he was not protected, saying he reported the teacher’s conduct several times to school administrators but to no avail, also stated, he never had any problems with the teacher prior to the book incident.

When talking about the incident, the young man said he “felt afraid, nervous,” because that was the first time he had ever been called the N-word.

“It’s really hard to describe. I just can’t, you know … I’m just mentally shocked,” he said to ABC 7 Chicago.

O’Connor punctuated his client’s expression of his feelIngs, saying, “I mean, this is battery. He attacked him, and the school did nothing. The school did nothing to protect him.”

Kankakee School Board President Barbara Wells released a written statement, saying, “The entire board was horrified, especially our members of African American descent … He disgraced himself and he disgraced everything that teaching represents.” 

Walker also said this is bigger than the use of the N-word, but a systemic issue of racism in society and a mental health issue.

“Let’s talk about the fact that public schools are struggling coming out of a pandemic, and it has nothing to do with an individual person,” she explained. “It has more to do with society and mental health, and people are on edge. The kids are a little different. There [are] all kinds of factors that led to what happened that we have to address.”

She further stated the district “continues the work that we started during the 2021-22 school year [after the pandemic] around diversity, inclusion, and equity as well as student/adult wellness.”

Donovan has not responded to his termination publicly.

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