- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2000

Prince George's County (Md.) school officials are greeting with skepticism a $5.6 million lawsuit filed against the school board by a former teacher who claims he lost his job because a student thought the Spanish word "negro" was a racial slur.

An attorney for Charles Erskine filed the lawsuit Aug. 22 in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. It states that Mr. Erskine was teaching the Spanish word for "black" at James Madison Middle School in Upper Marlboro on April 17, 1997, when a student complained.

The next day, Mr. Erskine "was moved out of his classroom," never to return, according to the lawsuit.

"I would suspect there is more to it than putting the word 'negro' on the board," said school board Chairman James Henderson, adding that he has "no idea" who Mr. Erskine is.

"We have not been served with the lawsuit … [but] I'm sure we're going to get it," said schools spokeswoman Athena Ware, adding that she could not comment.

Mr. Erskine's attorney, Mary Ann Ryan, said she cannot comment on the suit. "What I can say is to refer to the pleadings, which speak for themselves," she said.

Mr. Erskine, who lives in the 9800 block of Marlboro Pike, could not be reached for comment.

His lawsuit claims that adverse actions against him violated his rights of free speech, caused severe psychological distress, humiliation, embarrassment and loss of wages.

According to the suit, Mr. Erskine received his first ever unsatisfactory job evaluation in 26 years of teaching after the "negro" incident. The evaluator noted that Mr. Erskine used "comments to students that were humiliating to them and degrading to them."

But a subsequent school investigation found Mr. Erskine "committed no wrongdoing," the lawsuit states, adding that the school system refused to allow him to attend a teachers meeting in the fall of 1997 and insisted he could work only as a substitute.

The lawsuit, which claims Mr. Erskine was discriminated against because of his race, was filed about three weeks after a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation had found no violations by the school system.

Mr. Erskine is white.

The suit harkens back to January 1999, when former D.C. Chief of Constituent Services David W. Howard, who is white, was forced to resign after using the word "niggardly" in a discussion with two black co-workers, who thought it a racial slur.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams later conceded he acted "too hastily" in accepting Mr. Howard's resignation, and a confidential report recommended that no one else should lose his or her job for using the word "niggardly," which means stingy or miserly.

County school system attorney Sheldon Gnatt noted that mediation efforts with Mr. Erskine had failed. Mr. Gnatt said he could not say why Mr. Erskine was denied reinstatement to his teaching jobs at James Madison and Frederick Douglass High School, also in Upper Marlboro.

The lawsuit names the county school board; Paul Lewis, who retired three years ago as Madison's principal; Susan DePlatchett, who retired this year as Douglass' principal; and Sterling I. Marshall, chief divisional administrator of personnel.

Mr. Lewis, Miss DePlatchett and Mr. Marshall were not available for comment.

School officials said foreign language teachers often are assigned classes in two or even more schools, and they continue to teach that "negro" is Spanish for "black."

Mr. Henderson said middle school students typically react more strongly than students in other grades, a fact acknowledged by veteran teachers. An experienced teacher should be able to correct misinterpretations by a student, he added.

Teachers of Spanish say they sometimes substitute words that can be misinterpreted in English with other, similar words. A teacher who has taught Spanish for 50 years said there is no substitute for "negro."

An official at the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages in New York said he had taught Spanish for several years and never encountered a problem with using the word, even in the presence of black students.

"This is a function of language, not a function of race or color," said the official, who asked not to be identified.

"A word is what it is. It is the presentation of the word that matters," said Celeste Williams, president of the Prince George's County Educators Association.

She said it is likely that Mr. Erskine used the word "negro" in a certain context that made the student find it racist.

She said she is puzzled why Mr. Erskine waited three years before filing the lawsuit. She said she did not know if he had been fired, but said he might have been given an option to transfer out of the school.

"I have never seen a situation of this nature," Ms. Williams said.

"I had some concerns about [Mr. Erskine] and parents complained," said Donna Hathaway Beck, who was the Parent-Teacher Association president at Madison Middle School when Mr. Erskine was there. "I had my daughter removed from his Spanish class."

According to Mrs. Beck, Mr. Erskine handed out movie posters showing two young women in bras and garters as prizes for doing homework assignments.

"After a parent pitched a fit when her child came home with a poster, we formally complained," Mrs. Beck said.

• Vaishali Honawar and Jabeen Bhatti contributed to this report.

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